December 13, 2018

The Human Cost of Canvassing

The Human Cost of Canvassing

Canvassing — knocking on the doors of likely supporters — is the way Democrats win campaigns. This is Gospel: every field organizer I’ve ever worked with believes it, and they will all tell you that everything depends on it. Almost the entire curriculum of Swing Left Academy involved some aspect of canvassing. It’s a subtle art: Massachusetts super-volunteer Kate Donahue distilled her tips for canvassing into 51 invaluable tips.

Canvassing is understood to be the flip side of fundraising and advertising. Money and ads are the province of professional consultants: canvassing is assigned to volunteers and entry-level field directors. Ads do what they can do; canvassing can swing a few percentage points of turnout, which makes the difference in many, many races. Importantly for the campaign, canvassing seems to be almost free: a little bit of rent for temporary field headquarters — often using dead retail or unrentable office space, a few pizzas, and some clipboards.

We need think this through.

Canvassing And Canvassers

Consider my 2018 Last Weekend in Minnesota. I pulled 9 3-hour shifts from Friday night through Tuesday evening, divided between one office in MN-01 (where Dan Feehan narrowly lost) and two offices in MN-02 (where Abby Craig won). I also did several shifts of email support, a good deal of social media writing, and an article in my downtime, but none of that counts: everything is about knocking doors.

The problem is: this simply isn’t true. Take my final shift, late Election Day, in Hastings Minnesota. It had been drizzling all weekend; now it began to snow. It was windy. It was cold. And it was dark: fortunately, I remembered to ask the field organizer for a flashlight. (They had an entire bag of flashlights on hand, but how was I to know?)

In three hours of walking up and down streets, searching out our supporters to remind them to vote, I spoke with one person who had not voted and who might like to. We chatted at the door of her home while she balanced an infant on her hip, tried to keep toddler 1 from running out the door, failed to prevent the dog from getting outside, and coped with shy toddler 2 who wanted to know what was going on but also to be invisible. So, sure, she hoped to get to the polls, but she was juggling a lot of stuff and it might be tricky.

Everyone else had already voted. My turf that night was three suburban streets in a high-turnout precinct in one of the highest-turnout Congressional districts in the entire country. Some of my doors were literally across the street from the polling place, which had no lines and tons of parking.

We could have avoided all this with poll watching, but we didn’t do poll watching at all.

Was this the very best use of my time?

Canvassers Have Changed

In the formative age of the modern Democratic Party, our volunteers were farmhands and longshoremen. Doctors, lawyers, professors, writers — they were Republican. We shaped our tasks to our people: what we could do was talk to people like us, and so we did. We couldn’t talk policy or run numbers or write, but we were OK at what Vachel Lindsay called “all the funny circus silks of politics.” So that’s what we did.

But that’s not today’s Democratic volunteer. Joe The Plumber isn’t coming through that door. We don’t have the stevedores and the gandy dancers: those jobs are gone, mostly, and the remaining handful are mostly Trumpists. Our volunteers have changed, but we’re still doing the same thing.

Canvassers Are Old

Our canvassers in Minnesota were a great range of ages. Swing Left’s college fellows were outstanding and capable, so the colleges were a great resource. Our national emergency brought out lots of middle-aged volunteers. Even so, the typical Democratic volunteer is ancient. I had volunteers on my team in their 90s. In Massachusetts, volunteers skew even older.

We’re asking a lot of old people to spend a lot of time walking up and down stairs in the wintry rain and snow.

Canvassers Are Valuable

If we ask people to do many hours of unrewarding work — especially in unhealthy and uncomfortable conditions — they may not come back for more. My own parents worked hard for Adlai (and Abner Mikva), somewhat less hard for JFK, and after that they called it a day. I expect we lose many of our younger volunteers after each election — and by “younger,” I mean merely “not elderly.”

We tell volunteers that canvassing is all-important. Yet, I’ve never worked on a campaign that had anything like sufficient collateral for canvassers. We spend millions on ads, but for the supremely-important canvassing operation we almost never have enough buttons, t shirts, lawn signs, or brochures.

Voters Without Doors

In the past decade, I have never been canvassed. I’m a conspicuous D voter in a precinct with lots of canvass activity, but you can’t knock my door because, when you do, I’m almost certainly at work.

It’s not just me. If you aren’t sitting around your house in the early weekday evening or on weekend afternoons, canvassing is going to miss you. If your job requires long hours, if the 40-hour week isn’t your life, canvassing won’t find you. If you’re a medical resident or an intern, you’re going to be invisible. If you live in an apartment, you’re going to be hard to canvass. A dormitory? Good luck!

Regular Folk

One of the ideas behind canvassing is that people might be inclined to listen to folk like them. In our increasingly-fragmented political world, that might be an illusion. In Minnesota, I was asked to knock on a ton of doors that prominently displayed crucifixes, Evangelical slogans, and the like; for the first time in my experience, I had real doubts that these were people I could possibly approach.

Conversely, the only voter who I know I actually flipped in the entire nine shifts was an elderly black medical retiree, a charming woman, for whom I was also not the ideal canvasser. She’d been fed a lie about Medicare by a Trump supporter and it had shaken her support for Angie Craig; fortunately, it was an easy lie to refute and that was that.

Connections, Not Doors

We need to understand that connecting with voters is more than knocking on the doors of old ladies who don’t go out. Contact matters: the medium matters less. Thoughtful personal letters (and why must our letters be anonymous?) make sense to me. Text messages. Web outreach.

Ads reach millions. Canvassing and phone banks reaches a handful. There’s a huge intermediate range of writing and performance that can reach hundreds or thousands of readers, speaking to them in places where they already are reading and writing.

We need to think that through before 2020.