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“Pressing the Flesh” Vital Part of the Grassroot Campaign

By Allan Bonner


 Local conditions always apply in politics.  You'd think door-to-door campaigning would be much the same everywhere, but I've seen quite a few variations, depending on the geography. 


In the prairies, you drive farm to farm, and one of the big tricks is getting out of the kitchen after only two or three cups of coffee.  And, if you're chatting up a farmer working on his combine in the field, you better be able to help out while you talk.


In Connecticut, the homes are so far apart, candidates worry about losing time driving between them.  Unlike prairie farming communities though, Connecticut residents have to take their garbage to a dump.  Saturday is the preferred day, so candidates gladhand and give out literature at the dump entrance.  And some say politics has lost its glamour.


Urban campaigning is either in high rise buildings or residential streets.  In apartments or condos, the first trick is getting in. Buzzing one resident and citing some obscure law that allows candidates to canvas the building will often do the trick.  In fact, many tenant-landlord acts do have such a provision.  Most often a resident is pretty flattered when you say a version of the following:


Hello, my name is Allan Bonner and I'm here with (name party) candidate John Smith meeting with some neighbors and I just wonder if you have a few minutes to say hi to him?


Sometimes the superintendent or doorman will let you in, too.  In some buildings you should book the party room in advance and plan a little event, complete with coffee and cookies.


The introduction you use partly depends on how the election is going.  With a candidate who has strong name recognition, polling ahead of the party, you may just want to keep saying you're with John Smith.  If it's the reverse, mention the party.  Sometimes it's the fact your local candidate is a big supporter of, or supported by, the Governor or President that is worth a try.  Literature will reflect these realities too.


Once in the building, the next trick is to get people to open the door.  Wearing a campaign button and holding a piece of literature clearly identifies you as a political canvasser.  The best technique is to loudly knock on the door, step back a full pace and when the door opens a crack say the following in a clear, loud voice:


Hello, I'm your neighbor Allan Bonner, and I'm here with John Smith who's running for re-election. He's meeting with some of your neighbors today and I hope you have a minute to say hello to him.


At this point you look down the hall of the building hoping the candidate is disengaging from another door.  You are speaking in a loud voice to signal to the rest of the canvas team that you have a live voter on the hook.  If you're working with a two to four person team and the candidate, you should be able to leapfrog over doors with no one home and keep finding people for the candidate to speak with.  When no one's home, you leave a personally written note: Sorry I missed you, when I called 


Be careful.  I've seen campaigns where a candidate stood up at the debate and showed off half a dozen pieces of his opponent's literature with different signatures and writing styles.  He asked if the electorate should trust a guy who won't sign his own name?


In condos and apartments you still have the problem of people who won't open the door.  I developed a technique that usually breaks the ice.  After knocking, I step back and watch the peep hole.  When the person inside looks through to see who's there, it goes dark as their eye presses up against it.  At this exact moment I begin speaking:  Oh hi!  My name is Allan Bonner, and I'm here with (etc).

For a brief moment, many people mistakenly think I can see them because they can see me and I'm speaking to them.  They answer when I ask how they are and whether they've met the candidate.  They are now pretty well committed to opening the door.

All of candidate canvas is designed to increase contact, the perception of being in the neighborhood, and name recognition.  In the voting booth, all this can be worth up to ten per cent of the vote.

A good canvass team can move a candidate through a high rise very quickly.  You sometimes have to rescue the politician from a talkative voter.  A worker can jump in with a comment, offer to take down the constituent's concerns and speak on the phone later, or simply tell the candidate that a neighbor wants to chat.  The candidate should look reluctant to leave.

On a residential street, you need a larger team of four to six to cover more territory.  Leapfrogging over vacant homes and talkative voters is still the key.  If a team works together a lot, they can develop signals such as the big loud hello to tell the rest of the team they have a live one at the door.  The candidate can also wave over a canvasser and ask that she take down the concerns being expressed by the voter.


It's important not to walk on lawns, even if it takes a few minutes more to get from house to house.  A big step back from the door gives the resident a little more space and comfort with a stranger at the door.

Identifying the vote and getting sign locations is a great by-product of candidate canvass.  Some say the candidate touring the neighborhood is a by-product of putting up signs and identifying the vote!   Regardless, many people prefer to keep their political leanings secret, so it's best to approach this topic judiciously.  After a bit of conversation about issues or with the candidate, you might say: Have you decided how you're going to vote this time?(  Don't press it, but you'll get a large percentage who will tell you.  Your voters are the ones to call to keep committed and drive to the polls on Election Day.  With signs, you can just gently ask if they'd like one, but don't argue the point.


Door to door canvass should normally stop at 9:30 and there should be an issue de-brief at campaign headquarters.  In one campaign we were hearing at the door the perception that the candidate was weak on women's issues.  We just flooded the neighborhood with female canvassers and didn't have to address this head on.


Finally, there are no hard and fast rules, but it seems people in high rises take their clothes off earlier in the evening than homeowners do.  If you're met at the door by a woman clutching a towel, as I have, don't offer more than one handful of literature.



Allan Bonner has counseled 8 heads of government and
several dozen cabinet level officers.  He is the
author of several books on communication issues,
and is reachable at allan@allanbonner.com.

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