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January 19, 2023

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Canvassing 101: Understanding the basics of voter outreach

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Winning a political race is a hard process that requires a holistic approach to your campaign strategy and tactics. As a campaign officer, you must carefully plan and select the channels that will help you reach your political goals and optimally use available resources. 

One of the most commonly used tactics in political campaigns is canvassing. If you are starting with your political career or are interested in volunteering as a canvasser, this article is a great starting point. So let’s dive in and check out what canvassing is, how it works, and why it is important to every political campaign. 

What is canvassing?

Canvassing is a method of reaching out to individuals in a specific area to gather information or support for a particular cause, campaign, or organization. Canvassers provide information, answer questions, and persuade residents to take action, such as signing a petition, joining a campaign, or voting for a candidate or program.

Political canvassing methods (i.e., voter contact methods) include door-to-door campaigning, phone banking, direct mail and reaching out through digital platforms. And such canvassing campaigns can be applied to many political efforts, from campaign volunteer recruitment and grassroots organizing to persuasion tactics and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. When used properly, canvassing techniques can successfully drive voter mobilization and be the difference between winning and losing on election day.

Why is canvassing important for political campaigns?

To win a political campaign, your candidate needs more votes than your opponent. Canvassing is how political campaigns identify, persuade and mobilize voters to support their candidate. Better canvassing strategies and successful voter contact methods mean more voters supporting your candidate come election day.

What are the most common political canvassing methods?

There are many ways to utilize political canvassing so let’s look at the most common use cases. 

  • Door-to-door canvassing – in this form of canvassing, volunteers and campaign staff personally walk the neighborhoods of registered voters, knock on doors, and have face-to-face conversations. These conversations can be aimed at voter identification, persuasion, and grassroots get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.
  • Phone banking refers to activities during which campaign volunteers and staff call individuals to identify them as a supporter, guaranteed or likely voters, and to mobilize and inform voters with get-out-the-vote campaigns.
  • Direct mail includes mailing campaign flyers and pamphlets into communities to engage and persuade voters. Direct mail is the least personal and most uniform way to get information about your candidate in front of voters.
  • Digital platforms – this can include everything from texts, emails, and messages on social media. Digital platforms are another voter outreach tactic to identify, persuade and mobilize individuals to vote for your candidate. 
An example of Hubdialer’s phone banking script for running presidential campaigns

How do I use canvassing throughout a political campaign?

When considering the voter journey throughout a campaign, it’s easy to see how canvassing can be advantageous in guiding that path. 

The first question canvassing can help answer: how many people in this area may vote for our candidate? This is a matter of voter identification and long-term canvassing data analysis. Even determining an individual’s party affiliation can be the first step in a larger canvassing campaign. 

And how do we determine if an individual will or will not vote for our candidate, is or is not affiliated with our party? We ask them! Canvassing, in all its forms, is great for this. We can speak to voters at their homes with door-to-door canvassing, over the phone with volunteer-run phone banks, and even send out simple surveys via texts and emails. 

After initial voter identification, campaigns need to persuade undecided voters to vote for their candidate and support their campaign. Persuasion tactics typically require longer conversations with a good amount of back and forth. Some persuasion can be achieved by highlighting popular issues in direct mail and emails. But when persuading individual voters, the person-to-person conversations achieved via door-to-door canvassing and phone banking are the most effective. 

After defining the universe of guaranteed and likely voters, the second big milestone is mobilizing voters to take action and vote.

Commonly known as the get-out-the-vote (GOTV) phase of the campaign, this phase is critical because it’s not enough for individuals to voice their support, volunteer, or donate. Ultimately, the voters need to vote above all else!

GOTV efforts are focused on contacting guaranteed and likely voters to remind them of when they can vote, where they can vote, and how they can vote. Getting people to vote often changes from state to state and city to city. So it’s important never to take a voting block’s knowledge for granted and to always over-inform your supporters. It is better for them to have the information and not need it than not have it. 

Phone calls and texts are the easiest and fastest way to communicate voting information to many voters. And after someone has voted, you can remove them from the calling and texting campaigns and focus your attention on the outstanding voters. You effectively have a long checklist of people you need to vote for to win the election, and political canvassing tactics like phone banking and texting are how we quickly and efficiently move down that checklist. 

Voter mobilization efforts typically start at the very beginning of the campaign when we canvass to determine likely voters and end when we’ve convinced everyone we can, and they’ve all successfully voted. 

Political canvassing, in all its forms, can guide voters through this process from start to finish. 

What are some canvassing tips and best practices?

The first thing you want to do before starting your canvassing activities is to break down the most important phases in the process. We suggest starting with data, understanding your audience, and having a solid plan.

  1. Start with data – the first step of any campaign is determining how many individuals are likely or unlikely to support your candidate. And the best place to start is with historical voting data. Folks who have voted for one party their entire life will likely stay the course. And folks that are registered independents and have a history of voting for different parties will require more persuasion. 
  1. Know your audience – similar to starting to data, knowing your audience means knowing your constituents and how your campaign is positioned from the start. For example, if you’re a Democrat running in a historically blue district, chances are good that you already have a lot of likely voters in the area. Your voter outreach tactics and messaging campaigns can be tailored to fit this audience and encourage continued support of the Democratic party. However, your strategy and canvassing campaigns may be completely different if you find yourself the opposition candidate. Looking at the data and learning your audience is like reading the menu at a restaurant. It tells you what options are available to you right from the start.
  1. Plan, plan, plan – the nice thing about elections is that we know they’re coming far in advance. Planning early enough gives you ample time to look at the data, learn your audience, recruit volunteers, and fine-tune your voter mobilization and canvassing strategy. No matter what stage of the campaign you’re in, focus on what you need on election day (more votes than the other candidates) and work backward from there. The end game and end date are always the same, which you must keep in mind when planning any campaign phase.

Should I use different canvassing methods for different demographics?

Yes, but not the way you might think. Talking person-to-person is always the most effective way to engage voters and garner support. And door-to-door canvassing and phone banking are the best ways to speak to individual voters one-on-one and can be used effectively for all campaign phases.

Choosing which canvassing method to employ comes down to a logistical question of time and resources.

Do you have enough time to walk through a neighborhood and knock on every voter’s door? If yes, then door-to-door canvassing is the way to go. If not, the faster approach would be to have volunteers contact voters via phone banking. But what if you don’t have enough volunteers on staff to support a phone banking campaign? Then broadcasting messages via texts, emails, and direct mail may be the better approach.

The state of your campaign determines which canvassing methods you utilize more than voter demographics. Effective canvassing campaigns take time, energy, and money. All of which are finite resources that need to be used responsibly. 

Why are volunteers important to canvassing?

Volunteers are the lifeblood of any successful campaign, especially when you plan to include canvassing activities. Again, consider the purpose of canvassing, which is to identify, persuade and mobilize voters. To reach these goals, you must talk to all voters about personal matters that affect them daily. And who better to relate to a voter than a fellow voter? That is what volunteers are, after all, engaged citizens with the time and inclination to support your campaign.

Without volunteers, voter outreach efforts would be sterile, out-of-touch marketing campaigns lacking real human empathy. Volunteers are what make voter persuasion and engagement efforts personal. And nothing drives voter turnout more than individual interests. 

Is canvassing worth the effort?

Canvassing is a great field tactic that works, and we strongly suggest using canvassing for every type of political campaign.

First, understand that canvassing is any coordinated effort to contact and persuade voters. Then, think about different canvassing strategies and the forms that make sense to your campaign. At the end of the day, you need to commit your campaign resources towards the same goal: a vote total of 50% +1.

Of all the canvassing strategies, phone banking is one of the most cost-effective ways to talk to an infinite number of voters. And the advent of predictive dialers, like HubDialer, has automated and streamlined this process to be an extremely efficient tool for voter outreach. Sign up for a free trial today and personalize your campaign conversations. 

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