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Reinventing political canvassing

A recent NYT article entitled, “Knock, knock. Who’s there? No political canvassers for the first time ever”, got to the nub of the problem for many campaigns over the last few months. As Democratic strategist Becky Bond put it, “Campaigns don’t need a new ‘Plan B’ for field. They need a new ‘Plan A’ because door-to-door canvassing is not going to happen at scale in the 2020 election.” This 5 minute read will help you to reinvent your political canvassing this year and learn from all those political campaigns that we, at Ecanvasser, are working with.

There is no question this has been a challenging year for anyone operating in field campaigning. At Ecanvasser, we are the experts in canvassing  and supporter engagement that takes place face-to-face. For us and our customers the last few months have been about being practical and being safe with our teams and with the public. That has meant developing new functionality to do phone/sms outreach and to do relational organizing directly from our apps. This has allowed campaigners to continue to engage their communities successfully. Now, however, campaigners are beginning to reawaken their real-world campaigning and we need to figure out what our new ‘Plan A’ is.

What is canvassing?

Having worked on thousands of canvassing campaigns in over 70 countries, we have learned pretty much all there is to know about strategy and tactics related to the discipline. However, there are two common goals that emerge from canvassing campaigns that are the same across all countries. These are:

Canvassing for data or canvassing for relationships. Both of these goals are valid depending on the campaign and many campaigners try to achieve both at the same time.

Canvass for data

In the first instance, canvassing for data means that the canvassers and campaign team are looking to gather data points such as voting intention, political outlook and data on issues like housing and healthcare. This type of campaign attaches the data to people or to properties so they can analyze the data and understand the place and people they are trying to represent. Correct data collection and analysis isn’t that simple of course and a lot of campaigns get frustrated when the data doesn’t reveal its insights as easily as the campaigners would like. If this is your end goal then make sure canvassers and campaign staff know understand that they are involved in a data gathering and processing exercise. What we see very often is campaigns not getting the best results from their teams because the teams think they are canvassing for relationships when they are, in fact, canvassing for data.

Canvass for relationships

Which takes us to canvassing for relationships. As the name suggests, this type of canvassing is more about community engagement, talking to people face-to-face and communicating what the campaign is all about. This canvassing has the end goal of building a relationship between the citizen and the campaign so they might become long-term supporters or activists themselves. Relationship canvassing is practiced by advocacy groups, nonprofits and the more forward-thinking political campaigns and has the benefit of building grassroots organization over time.

‘Blend’ your campaign tactics

From now until November campaigns will need to take a blended approach. If you had planned for digital-only campaigning you can now benefit from adding real-world interactions into this strategy. If you had planned to focus on field this year, realise now that you will be running a mixed approach that incorporates phone, relational, social, email and field outreach.

Be lean in the field

Big field infrastructure with field offices may not be what is needed right now. Try to build your real-world campaigns using the digital network that people have become accustomed to. That means using a distributed organizing model like Ecanvasser Leader or NationBuilder Network. It means leveraging things like Zoom and Slack to project manage and train teams. And it also means leaning on the tech vendors to train your team members rather than doing it all yourself. Vendors have great customer success teams who can really help you to plug the gaps in your infrastructure.

Be strategic in the field

In the initial stages use phone outreach to lead the way. We are seeing organizers ringing ahead to their walk-lists telling them that they are coming. They are telling voters that they will drop a petition sheet at the door that is clean and they will call again later to collect it. We have helped campaigns to create training materials to make sure the field teams are safe and they are seen to be taking every precaution when talking to people. This needs to be the case for all teams throughout the rest of the year.

Use other community networks

Community networks like church groups, advocacy and issue groups, unions, and local community groups can all be very useful to your campaign. If you can build a relationship with these groups you will not only have their recommendation to their members but you will also have a potential pool of new supporters who might donate or volunteer for you. Leveraging the influence of groups or individuals is a secret weapon that can really fast-forward your campaign. You can also get the leaders of these groups to speak with you at events thereby bringing in some of their supporters to attend who might otherwise not see you.

Understand the relative value of a conversation

Remember, what is rare is valuable and for the first time in generations, political canvassing will be rare in 2020. For that reason the impact of your work, provided it is done correctly, will be huge. The same NYT article quotes Matt Morrison of Working America who says, “If anything, having face-to-face and relationship-based interactions becomes disproportionately valuable.” If you are the only campaign to engage a voter face-to-face this year then you will be remembered and that is a huge advantage when that person comes to the ballot box.

In a study on MoveOn GOTV operations, researchers found that contact with MoveOn volunteers increased turnout by approximately 9 percentage points. Because, unlike a conversation on a social media platform, a face-to-face interaction is deeply personal. Two people having a respectful conversation on a doorstep are more likely to find common ground.

Our practical guide for how to protect your canvassers and community this year is contained here.

Social distance canvassing checklist

1. Are staff fully aware and adhere to respiratory hygiene & cough etiquette?

2. Are staff familiar with handwashing techniques?

3. Training in use & disposal of face masks and gloves is essential.

4. Ensure staff have sanitising gels/wipes & disposal bags to bring on the canvass. Staff should also be shown how to dispose of the same safely.

5. Are staff advised to bring minimal personal belongings on the canvas?

6. Staff should be instructed not to share any equipment they may normally use on a canvass, for example pens, mobile devices, leaflets, etc.

7. Are staff instructed not to canvass if sick?

8.Advise staff not to use public transport if they develop any illness during the canvas.

9. Canvassers should not travel together by car unless from the same household. If this is not possible then only two people per car with both wearing facemasks, not sitting in front and cleaning door handles after contact.

10. Canvassers should not meet up in groups either before, during or after the canvass.

11. Logged record of canvasser route to take place for the purpose of contact tracing if required.

Canvassing infographic

Anatomy of a canvass

Key stats: Vote goal

Having an idea of how many votes you need to secure at the polls is a great advantage when it comes to planning your field and community engagement strategies for an upcoming political campaign. It will help decide how many doors you need to knock and help you when laying out targets for your volunteers.

You need to understand the following stats to help you get the total:

Electorate size : 12000

Turnout percentage: Around the 65% mark

Once you have gathered these figures, you can begin to make a rough estimation. We can deduce that 7800 people voted on average in the last 3 election (65% of the 12000 electorate).

To win an election you need 50% of the votes cast plus 1.

That is 3901 votes according to our example above.

Key stats: Supporter goal

Your supporter goal is the number of volunteers and activists you need to run your campaign effectively. It is not the total of friends and family who are willing to do a bit of canvassing for you. Rather it is the number of people required to cover the ground to let you hit your vote goal. If your vote goal is 10,000 votes and you will need to hit 50,000 houses to be sure of reaching that goal, then how many supporters will you need to do that? This figure will depend on how early your campaign starts but it is wise to have a clear idea of what supporter goal you have in mind, and a strategy on how to onboard new supporters. Are you going to ask people to sign up online or are you going to ask people you meet in the community who support you to go one step further and volunteer? A good rule of thumb is one supporter for every 200 votes needed, meaning you need to have 50 active supporters if your vote goal is 10,000.

Doors knocked

Efficiency in door knocking is critical for your campaign with the difference being measured in votes ultimately. A typical canvass should result in about 20 doors being knocked by an individual canvasser per hour. If you keep canvassing sessions to about 3 hours (so canvassers don’t become exhausted) you can expect 60 doors knocked with about 15-30 conversations had and the rest of the doors having informational literature dropped to.

You can now see that 10 volunteers on that canvassing engagement can hit 600 doors, and 50 volunteers can hit 3000 doors in three hours. Efficiency means being organized and really driving your active volunteer numbers as that is the thing that really impacts doors knocked, not a small but committed group of volunteers.

Hit rate

Door open rates or hit rates are usually about 20-40% depending on the area, time of day, day of week. That means a volunteer will have 5-10 conversations per hour when moving efficiently. Track hit rates with all your team, for example with Ecanvasser Team Leaderboard. Find out from the best-performing canvassers what they are doing and share that information with all your canvassers.

Costs of running campaign

Thinking about running your canvassing campaign you will need to factor in costs that can’t be avoided such as:

1. Door hangers, lawnsigns and any other promotional materials

2. T-shirts and merchandise for canvassers

3. Software tech for running your canvassing such as Ecanvasser

4. Transportation costs for dropping and collecting volunteers

Relational canvassing

Relational canvassing can really tie campaigners up in knots but, at root, it is very simple. Just put an app into your supporters hands where they can search for their friends or family members. Ecanvasser does this easily. Then get the volunteer to canvass that person when they see them with one or two questions and a request to vote for the candidate or volunteer. If they pledge to vote just mark them as pledged. If they agree to volunteer, just toggle them to volunteer and the campaign team follow up with them. Couldn’t be simpler.

The Conversation - Primary unit of political life

A canvass is a conversation between two people. There are of course some differences, but there are many more similarities!

1. Introduce yourself, and tell them why you’re there (your candidate and party)

2. Start with an open ended question or a short introduction to avoid a quick No

3. Discuss the key policy points as prescribed by your Lead Canvasser

4. Ask the voter if they have any concerns or policies, they would like to discuss

5. Remember: You’ve knocked on their door and asked for some of their valuable time, don’t make voters feel that you’re rushing off. If needs be, bring the conversation to a close at a natural break in the conversation.

6. Never be argumentative or antagonistic. A respectful discussion will win over far more voters; and in jurisdictions with preferential voting, may significantly help boost your transfers.

7. Thank them for their time, and advise them how they can get in touch with the campaign

Canvasser training

Canvasser training in 2020 needs to include a section on social distancing and Covid protocols which you can access here.

However, in terms of a training session that helps canvassers to be effective it is a good idea to kick off with the campaign manager or candidate addressing the group and explaining the campaign and why the candidate is running. The idea here is to get buy-in from the team and for them to feel the passion of the campaign first-hand.

Next, underline the effectiveness of canvassing as opposed to other campaign activities (yes, it can be challenging but it is the most effective tactic the campaign has). Then outline the specific goals of the canvassing campaign such as target number of doors to knock or pledged votes.

After this you will want to run through etiquette while out in the field to make sure they represent the campaign properly.

A session on how to use the mobile canvassing app would be useful at this stage.

Finally, how to organize themselves out in the field including canvass leaders, splitting into team, where to start and how to navigate the route.

After a Q&A session it would be good to do a few test canvasses by breaking the team into pairs and testing messaging and fielding of questions.

If you want you can run this training online using Zoom or Hangouts most people are familiar with that and it does help with social distancing protocols.

It might be a good idea to develop a canvasser training manual or video to support the session or pass to those who missed the training.

Following up

Canvassing is super-effective but it is just one part of your campaign. Following up with other means of communication is key to being successful. Let’s take a look at a few of these means.

Issue tracking

Issue tracking means dealing with issues that citizens have and getting those things actioned. Things like problems in the local area that the council might fix or maybe voter registration issues that you can sort out for them. Tracking these issues with Ecanvasser means you can assign the issue to a team member, have it resolved, and then get back to the voter with that resolution.

Canvassing analytics

Canvassing analysis is crucial in terms of understanding the community and how they feel about the issues of the day. Did the area you canvasses care about immigration, jobs or healthcare? Have they pledged to vote for you in large numbers? Are they left or right leaning? These things will help you to further tailor your campaign messaging and set up broad communications like advertising.

Email marketing

Email marketing to voters can be done to reinforce a canvassing round. Send an email newsletter to an area after a canvass to send on further info or say that you were sorry to have missed the person at the door. Coordinated outreach like this is known to be more effective. Doors missed on the canvass can be caught up with in people’s mailboxes.

Phone and SMS

Phone and SMS outreach is the natural partner of door knocking and is being used by campaigns in tandem to tell people that the campaign team is coming to their area or to follow up and send drip-feed SMS to voters that might have engaged or pledged to vote. This is really important for GOTV.

Social advertising

Social ads are very useful, especially if you have gotten quality analytics from your canvassing. If you can see that 70% of voters in an area responded positively to a policy platform then you can use that policy as the basis for a social ad. Social ads can be targeted to very specific geographic areas on Facebook and Instagram so use that local knowledge to build your name recognition with policy items that you know will land.

Recanvassing and 'asks'

Recanvassing and GOTV can be used in the run up to election day and should be used to target pledged voters and swing voters to get them out to vote.

Finally, donations and volunteer ‘asks’ can be made of voters in follow up emails and SMS based on their face-to-face responses.

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