Canvassing: The Political Walk by Sean Briscoe

By at March 5, 2012 | 4:01 pm | Print

Canvassing:  The Political Walk by Sean Briscoe

Canvassing voters in-person is strategically essential and financially beneficial to every political campaign.


Canvassing is the equivalent of the prospecting and lead qualification stages of the business sales pipeline. You visit likely voters and find out who is with you and who’s not. This filters your list so you can intelligently deploy resources to mobilize supporters later.


Listening to voters is the other point of walking programs. It is the gold standard of voter contact. Your volunteers and campaign staff bring in a rich treasure of voter feedback that can take the place of a pollster and refine your message.


That was the largest field program in Dallas history running from June 2007 thru Election Day. They knocked on over a quarter million doors and involved more than 6,000 volunteers. During that cycle, this effort helped to win or protect four state house seats.
The most important benefit of a field program is to be the eyes and ears of the campaign. It is an invaluable source of information directly from voters, and a source of data about voter preferences, where they live, and how to reach them. Walking is the best way to identify supportive voters and to weed out bad data—such as discovering those who have moved or who do not support you. This is a by-product of any canvassing program.


Depending on the stage of the campaign cycle, door-to-door canvassing will also perform the persuasion and Get out the Vote functions.


Always follow up, analyze, and report after a canvassing event. You want the volunteers to continue to engage with your campaign. Show them that the work they’re doing matters. You respect them enough to talk to them about the time they spend working for you.


Campaigns must communicate and follow-up with any coordinated campaign and with any other overlapping campaigns. Finally, follow up at the precinct level and with your block captains.




Where are you going to walk? It’s all about targeting.


You have to realize you can call some people and not walk them and vice versa. You may have address data and not phone data or phone data and not address data. Some people will not answer their phones. Older, more stable neighborhoods are different from new neighborhoods; houses are different from apartments. These are all factors in choosing whether to walk or use phones to reach them. Don’t ever isolate your programs. They all need to be working together for the common goal.


Consider the two maps which are both based on the 2004 election cycle in Dallas County. Below is a map of voter density per precinct, which is very important. You can see the population densities.

The map listed below shows votes per square mile. It’s very important to use this map to plan the most effective walking program

The efficiency of a field program is a function of the distance between two adjacent doors that you’re knocking on. How big are the front yards? In a neighborhood with shallow yards, you’ll need a lot less time than if they have deep front yards. That will add up to thousands of hours over a nine-month period.


Make it a point to drive around your district. Pay attention to how big and how far apart the houses are. How big are the yards?


There are issues with canvassing in rural areas. You can do limited amounts of walking in town. Recall those two maps of voter density. Typical rural areas will have concentrations in town that are walkable where you could have an impact on the larger community. It requires more analysis on your part up front. Understand density per square mile and find the walkable places. Fill in the rest with telephone calls, the second best way to reach people and get that feedback loop that is so important to get voter data.


What can I expect from a field program?


Data for GOTV. The most important thing you will derive from your field program. Email, cell, disposition of the voter. Does the voter exist at that house? Does the house exist? I’ve had databases so bad that volunteers walked up to a house that had burned down four years ago. That disrespects volunteers’ time. It’s discouraging. Knocking on doors is hard work, and these people really care if they’re out doing this for you. To give them the best possible experience is important. You don’t want them coming back frustrated because the house wasn’t there, or nobody lives there.


Another benefit:  Refinement of your voter universe. With the housing crisis and with this huge boom in people going bankrupt, we saw a lot of movement of the population over the past couple years. That’s going to be reflected in our canvassing program.


Once you’ve walked the precinct, you know where the voters are and where they aren’t. Even if they’re not home, you can see vacant houses, houses for sale, etc. Take them off the database. This allows you to refine your estimates of how many votes you need to find.


My favorite benefit of canvassing is candidate development when they are knocking on doors themselves. They say they loved every minute of it. On the stump, they risk sounding repetitive. If they’re over-rehearsed, it’s boring. Walking allows candidates to collect fresh and interesting stories. My favorite is a candidate who was walking in a not so nice part of the district. She noticed more dogs, more burglar bars, and more cameras. She was writing all this down. One older gentleman showed her how he solved his crime problem. He had literally chained his TV to the floor studs in his home. She told that story later and you could see the entire audience respond. They opened their checkbooks. I have many other stories about voters and candidates connecting where the candidate can use the stories in their speech.


Then there’s volunteer development. Let’s say a precinct chair has never been given a program to understand their precinct. Start developing a list so they can have a meeting in their precinct. This is where volunteer development happens. They do their research. This is what all the voters in my precinct are talking about. They look it up online and they get more invested in the issue. You’ll have a much better educated volunteer force. As I tell every candidate:  after the 50th door, you will know what’s going on. As a volunteer working with a candidate, you will not have a better opportunity.


The next step: Planning questions. How long and how involved must the field program be? This depends on knowledge of the district as described by Peter Bratt in the previous chapter.


How many hours can you walk? To be clear, I’m not talking about leafleting. Knock on the door and wait a couple of minutes. How many doors can you knock on per hour? On a good day, you can hit about 25 doors per hour. That’s taking into consideration the little old lady who wants to talk a while and those who aren’t even home. I’ve had days when I did 10 doors an hour because everybody was home. You should be able to do 25. If you hear people doing 30 or 35, there’s some funny business going on or nobody’s home. Twenty-five is a good planning number.


Here are some of the key things that make a block walk successful. Don’t spend more than three minutes per door. It doesn’t matter if someone loves the candidate or hates the candidate or needs more information. In three minutes, you should be able to accomplish your goal.


You should be able to determine whether that person is a supporter, not a supporter, or needs more information. You should be able to lay that hook to check out the candidate’s website, or to call your office. Always step back when you’re knocking on a door. You don’t want to be intrusive. Never go inside.


There are so many little things. When you’re running a field program for four months, if you do things that shave off seconds, even minutes, think about how many more people you get to talk to.


When you’re thinking about hitting 5,000 or 50,000 doors, if you bump up your efficiency by cutting off one minute from each door, or five minutes off getting to your turf, it all adds up tremendously.


It’s not always fun, but it is the most efficient way to reach people. We generally reach a higher percentage of people at the door than on the phone. It is one of the few highly effective ways to reach people. Ask anyone who has done it before.




Here are some traps to avoid as a candidate and as a campaign walker. The first one is paid walkers. Voters can tell if somebody is not invested in your campaign. If they’re out talking to voters, you’re going to want somebody who lives in that precinct or that neighborhood. It’s ok if they’re not in the exact precinct as long as it’s the same neighborhood.


Paid walkers cost money and are not invested in the cause. You probably don’t want them. This may be the only time the voter hears directly from your campaign; it’s important that first impression be good.


Outside organizations:  Don’t rely on outside organizations.


Material with limited ability for return of information:  I stole an idea from a real estate agent. They put a tear away post card on their door hanger.  And I saw a mayoral campaign in Dallas using the same technique. It adds 5% to 10% to the response rate. Also for mailers, there should be a tear away post card. You want the response. Do not spend money that doesn’t have an ability to come back and give you data for your GOTV.


Now, money saving strategies: It’s all about making your donated dollar go as far as possible.


Mail is the most expensive part of a campaign. Three out of every five dollars spent will be spent on postage. It’s wrong to spend $35,000 in a way that you don’t know the impact. A field program will help you by identifying the house you don’t want to mail to. Dead people don’t vote; or at least we prefer that they don’t. And if they moved out of the district, we don’t want to mail to them.


If your average mail piece costs 50 cents and you send 5 pieces, that’s $2.50 per house.  Some campaigns address 20,000 or 30,000 houses. You’re spending a huge amount of money on this. If your canvassing program discovers 1,000 households that don’t have the voter you’re looking for behind that front door, you take them off your list. That just saved you $2,500 in postage alone. If you double that for 10 mailers, that’s $5,000. This turns into real money.

Quick tip:  How to figure out how much money I need to spend in this campaign.


In 2008, we observed campaign expenditures ranging from under $2 per vote to over $15 per vote. Those that raised $15 or more won. For a campaign budget, figure out your win number and multiply it by $15. That will get you in the ballpark if you do things right and you don’t waste money on unnecessary gimmicks. Of course, not every district is the same. In rural districts, your best field program will use phones and mail which is more expensive. There’s no way around it; you just can’t walk there.


Here are ballpark estimates of what typical campaigns can look to save based on an effective canvassing program.
What does it take to pull off an awesome canvassing program?


  • Money up front. Explain to your donors that you need help at the beginning of your race—an amount equal to the cost of a very nice mailer. The benefits will accrue to your campaign for months leading up to the primary and the general election. It will allow you to develop your campaign. It will be the backbone and the brains of your campaign.


  • You must cultivate a group of dedicated volunteers.


  • Finally, you need a candidate willing to work hard. Voters want to talk to the candidate. People want to see you. They’ll give you a piece of their mind. A candidate should be the hardest canvasser in the campaign. The candidates who have done the work know. It’s boot leather. So, hardworking candidate, I’d like to leave you with that idea. Just get out there, enjoy it, absorb the information, and become a good local leader.


If you have enjoyed this article, it is part of a free e-book entitled “Campaign Lift Off”  that was created by frontrunner 2020.  Sign up for your free copy.


Sean Briscoe is a principal at Ruttle Consulting with a special passion for campaign fieldwork. Sean has 13 years’ experience as a political consultant, which encompasses more than 20 campaigns at every level. Most notably, he spent 18 months working with the Obama 2008 campaign.


Ruttle Consulting  Facebook:  Sean Briscoe      214-926-5585



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