Door-to-Door Canvassing: The Grassroots Organizing Technique that Works

October 30, 2013 in Research by Liz McKenna

    How do you increase voter turnout in the most positive and effective way? The answer is door-to-door canvassing. It has grown as a popular recruitment technique to gain volunteers, voters, and donors in everything from nonprofit fundraising and religious denomination recruitment to political campaigns. Voter turnout has substantially increased due to face-to-face door-to-door canvassing—more than any other recruitment tool (direct mail, phone calling, surveys, etc.). Authors and scholars have reported on its positive and negative effects for years, and are finding that it is not dwindling as a campaign and recruitment tool. 

Adrian Sargeant and Jane Hudson discuss that there are a variety of techniques that nonprofits have developed over the years to engage with members of the public. They also argue that door-to-door canvassing affects fund development in positive ways.  The “growth in ‘face-to-face’ or ‘direct dialogue’ solicitation has been highly significant for charities because it has opened up a new market, which is younger than the traditional donor. Most of them are under 40 years old and are not already supporting another charity. Door-to-door fundraising has also become more effective and popular. Teams of recruiters knock on doors and solicit low value monthly gifts instead of asking for cash immediately. How, then, can door-to-door canvassing go wrong? This occurs if the recruiters do not display a positive attitude. If the recruiter comes off too negative (in the facial expressions, attitude, or what have you), the person on the other side is less likely to agree to take part in the fundraiser or finish talking to him or her. Sargeant and Hudson discovered through an exploratory study that many respondents who have spoken with a recruiter at the door feel pressured into offering their support or attend a fundraiser, but when recruiters went door to door and asked why donors decided to stop donating, many said it was due to financial reasons. They recommend that recruiters should target their door-to-door solicitations more rather than choosing at random.

So, what counts as “get-out-the-vote techniques?” There is a broad range from canvassing (door-to-door), direct mail, telephone calls, and even social media techniques. Gerber and Green are experts in researching these areas. They hypothesized that declining personal mobilization turnout rates in terms of voting is due to the fact that personal canvassing mobilize voters more effectively than other modes of contact that have taken its place. They studied an election in New Haven, Connecticut with the League of Women Voters, and described the canvassing process as putting mostly paid graduate students out into the community, who were predominantly African American or fluent in Spanish (since New Haven has a large minority population). Most canvassing was conducted in pairs for safety reasons, and they contacted registered voters door-to-door. The authors argued that the script the canvassers used appeals to “a sense of obligation.” Ultimately, they argue that face-to-face interaction dramatically increases the chance that people will go to the polls. Personal canvassing overall has a far greater influence on voter participation than “professionally crafted mail delivered within two weeks of election day.” Phone calling was the least effective way to reach out to voters and increase voter turnout, especially because many of the phone calling is cold-calling. Canvassing is important, but mostly when it is done locally. Dana Fisher, author of Activism Inc. (which describes the nuts and bolts of grassroots organizing) argues that hiring political professionals and national canvassing firms fails to become imbedded in the local institutions and grassroots networks. Having local workers put the canvasses together also helps the attitude of the local volunteers, as they enjoy seeing people in their community take charge.

Mobilizing face-to-face can be practiced in a number of ways. Tiffany Davenport discusses two ways: traditional canvassing appeals and face-to-face exchanges in which canvassers distribute a feedback intervention consisting of printed records of individual voter histories. She focuses on social pressure experience as a way to get people to vote or to simply convey their message to potential supporters. In her experimental design and regression analysis, she discovered that personal contact while trying to increase voter turnout appeals delivers more intensely pressure individuals more than anonymous individuals. It does take a certain type of person to pursue in door-to-door canvassing. On one hand, she argues face-to-face canvassing is overall useful to increasing voter turnout. On the other hand, she argues that providing people with voter histories in person while face-to-face canvassing is crucial, rather than providing those voter histories through direct mail. While face-to-face canvassing is a highly effective method of increasing voter turnout, distributing voter histories through face-to-face appeals and voter histories is the most effective in terms of mobilizing voters, rather than the standard canvassing interactions. 

Canvassing does generate votes and can be “particularly effective when aimed at frequent voters who otherwise might skip a low-turnout election.” It is most effective when canvassers provide polling place information or invite people to make a verbal commitment to vote. The more details the better, otherwise, canvassers can seem disorganized, shuffled, and misinformed. Ultimately, door-to-door canvassing encourages people to at least talk about the issues with their peers. 

Canvassing involves a variety of costs and benefits. Experts Gerber and Green explain that costs of canvassing involve start-up costs, such as plotting out the time to walk the routes, obtaining a voter registration list, hiring people to coordinate canvassers, technology, and campaign gear. However, the benefits include collecting useful feedback from voters about issues and candidates, registering new potential voters, updated information for databases, etc. Therefore, if canvassing efforts are targeted, they can be very successful and win votes. However, and as Fisher describes in Activism Inc, some people leave the field due to financial constraints because they see the low pay as troubling. They found the experience in the project on which they worked, the Peoples’ Project, as rewarding because it helped “yield their political” success but frustrating because of the money aspects. 

Below is a selection of research that focuses on house meetings and each article discusses the importance, organization of, and the right place for, and when the right time is for house meetings. They also discuss some of the history behind house meetings and the types of people that are usually involved in them.

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Gerber, A. & Green, Donald (2000). “The effects of canvassing, telephone calls and direct mail on voter turnout.” American Political Science Review, 94(3). http://www.jstor.org/stable/27644496

Green and Gerber report on the results of a randomized field experiment in Connecticut, where various get-out-the-vote messages were used through canvassing, direct mail, and telephone calls. They discuss the sense of obligation that the canvassers had while talking to potential voters, and discovered that voter turnout substantially increased by use of personal canvassing, and only a little by direct mail, while nothing at all through phone calling. They hypothesized that face-to-face political mobilization is crucial in get-out-the-vote methods and voter turnout declines when those methods are not used, and their conclusion supports their hypothesis.

Gerber, A. & Green, Donald (2008) “Get out the vote: how to increase voter turnout.” Washington, D.C. The Brookings Institute.

Green and Gerber discuss cost-effective ways to increase voter turnout, and spend a large amount of time discussing the costs and benefits of canvassing. The book is a practical guide to managing get-out-the-vote drives, while also looking at the scientific evidence about the cost-effectiveness of face-to-face canvassing, leafleting, direct mail, phone calls, and other tactics of campaigning. They also discuss canvassing labor, when canvassing is beneficial and when it is not, and they present general advice about when and why to canvass and when and why not to canvass.

Sargeant, A., & Hudson, J. (2008). “Donor retention: an exploratory study of door-to-door   recruits.” (cover story). International Journal Of Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Marketing, 13(1), 89-101. doi:10.1002/nvsm.301

Sargeant and Hudson argue that door-to-door fundraising is becoming a more popular recruitment technique, but they also argue that people that pursue this action must go about it the right way or else charities could lose new recruits (on the other hand, if it is successful, they will gain more recruits). They discuss why donors lapse and if door-to-door fundraising contributes to the lapse, and they also suggest that door-to-door fundraising with a positive attitude makes a difference when talking to potential donors. They also suggest that using targeting methods for door-to-door fundraising is a better use of time and leads to success while talking face-to-face with a potential donor, rather than choosing at random.

Davenport, T. (2010). Public Accountability and Political Participation: Effects of a Face-to-         Face Feedback Intervention on Voter Turnout of Public Housing Residents. Political    Behavior, 32(3), 337-368. doi:10.1007/s11109-010-9109-x

Turnout for voting is especially low with the economically disadvantaged, especially in municipal elections, which mostly means that citizens in need of services at the local level may not be represented in policy decisions.  Davenport reports on the results of an experiment that compares the effects of traditional canvassing appeals and face-to-face exchanges, where the canvassers distribute a feedback intervention of actual records of individual voter histories. She compares and contrasts the two, and discusses the effectiveness of using social pressure to mobilize turnout among infrequent voters. She finds that feedback intervention is most effective in terms of mobilizing voters.

Fisher, D. (2006). Activism, Inc: How the outsourcing of grassroots campaigns is strangling progressive politics in America. Stanford University Press.

Canvassing practices can be laborious with long hours, lack of pay, lack of infrastructure building, burning out, and the money-raising machine of the canvas model. Fisher discusses how this happens with both the Republican and Democratic Parties, and it could have a detrimental effect on community participation if canvassers become burnt out. She argues that the burnout rate for canvassers is increasingly high and could lead to a dead end. Overall, Fisher analyzes easy solutions to dilemmas of canvassing and speculates if changes in canvassing practices will even happen. She suggests that campaigns and organizations should stop outsourcing the movement by hiring outsiders to manufacture various campaign operations, and should start reconnecting at the local level.