In the event of there being another election soon (rumours are circulating that May 4th is a possible date if no agreement is reached between SF and DUP in the next two weeks), here are a few thoughts on canvassing, gathered from my experience in recent years.
Firstly, canvassing works. It really, really does increase votes for the party doing the canvassing. Voters do not like to be taken for granted and are much more likely to reward the party that goes to the trouble of taking them seriously and knocking their doors. If the canvasser is the candidate in person, it is even more effective. Research shows that a voter is ten times more likely to vote for a candidate that they have met face to face.
Secondly, the basis of all canvassing is Oscar Wilde’s dictum “There is no such thing as an indiscreet question.” The questioner is not entitled to an indiscreet answer. In fact they are not entitled to any answer, and not even entitled to a truthful answer. So the canvasser needs to do whatever will increase the chances of getting an answer, getting a truthful answer and getting an answer that reveals the canvassee’s actual voting intention.
Thirdly, on the basis of the above, the canvasser needs to establish the most positive relationship possible with the canvassee as soon as the front door opens. How you are dressed matters here. For most political parties a smart suit and tie or a little black number with high heels is not the right thing. Neither, though, are torn jeans and a rude slogan on the tee shirt. Smart casual usually works best. You have got it just right if the canvassee cannot remember what you wore after you have gone round the corner.
Fourthly, your route to the front door matters. Some people do not like you taking a short cut across the grass or, worse, stepping over the fence between neighbouring houses. Stick to the paths, even if it means going all the way down the long path or steep steps and all the way back up to a door only fifteen feet from the last one. Also, always leave a gate exactly as it was when you found it. If it was closed as you came up to it, close it after you on the way in as well as on the way out. This applies even if the path to the front door is only six feet long. There might be a small dog hiding in the bushes ready to escape at the first opportunity. There might also be a small dog scrabbling its way to freedom as soon as the front door opens. Helping someone chase a runaway pet is not only a waste of your time and energy, it does not win votes.
Fifthly, if there is a door bell, ring it, but listen. If you can’t hear the bell ring, then knock the door as well. Some doorbells lie broken for years, so assume that if you can’t hear it then it’s broken.
Now for the important part, the interaction. Each person will have their own patter, a form of words that works for them. After a dozen or so interactions and a few variations, most canvassers settle on their own style. The pitch I suggest to start with is along these lines. As the door opens, hold out the leaflet, introduce yourself by name and say that you are canvassing on behalf of such-and-such a party and ask “Are you planning to vote in the election next week/in two weeks/on such-and-such a date?” I have never had anyone just close the door on me without a word. Most people here are civil enough to say something. They may say “Yes”, they may say “No”, they may say “I haven’t decided yet” or they may say “That’s my business.”
The words are important, but the good canvasser is using their full range of listening skills at this point. As well as hearing the actual words spoken and what they add up to mean logically, the listener is trying to get behind the words, to understand what the person is meaning to communicate. The way someone says ‘I haven’t decided yet” can tell you that they are not prepared to waste any time with you on the door and just want to get back to their meal, or can tell you that they are genuinely in a dilemma and would welcome some more information from you to help their decision making. Their body language as they take the leaflet from you (or in rare cases refuse to take it) reveals their attitude towards your party and to canvassing. In some cases the emotion, or lack of it, in their voice can reveal the truth of their opinion more than what they actually say.
If the person says they are not intending to vote, then try to establish if they are on the register (if you don’t have a copy of that available to you already). If they are, it is worth pursuing the conversation. If they are not and it is past the final date for registration, then you are not going to get a vote for your party this time. But it is worth establishing if their voting preference in the future might be for your party, in which case it is worth persuading them to register for the next election.
It is usually possible to persuade someone who is on the register but says they are so fed up with politics that they are not going to vote to change their mind. The argument that not voting guarantees the status quo is usually accepted as reasonable. There are a few people who genuinely believe that not voting is the moral high ground and these people are not worth spending time on.
It is always worth trying to find a common denominator between the candidate and the canvassee. If they share where they are from, or went to school, or a common interest, or age profile, this can help increase the likelihood of a vote. If the canvassee has an issue or problem that a candidate could address, make a note, pass it on to the candidate and ensure that a response is provided before the election. Most voters do not expect a political candidate to get back to them and are very pleasantly surprised if they do.
How the conversation then develops will inform the canvasser as to how much time to spend with this one person. If the person is already firmly in your camp it may be heart-warming to chat for hours about how good your party leader is, but this is a very poor use of precious canvassing time. Similarly, talking for ten minutes with someone who is adamantly against your party policies and is just taking the opportunity to try to change your mind is also a waste of time. Focusing on the teetering voter has the most likely benefit in terms of votes gained.
Finally, it is good to keep things in perspective. Not every interaction on a doorstep results in a conversion to your party and candidate. But some definitely do. With experience and careful listening, the canvasser can help a voter see things differently and persuade them that voting and voting differently is the only way to bring about change. In my experience the vey worst that can happen is someone (in my case an elderly lady of a very different political outlook to me) pointing down the garden path and saying “There’s the gate.”
Dale Carnegie, in his classical self-help book for door-to-door salesmen (there were hardly any saleswomen in the 1930s), a book called “How to win friends and influence people”, makes the point that not every call succeeds. However, if you know that your success rate is, say, one in twenty, don’t look at an unsuccessful call as a failure. Look at it as one twentieth of the way to your next success.