Offbeat, and (very) unauthorized, tips to canvassing survival

Love, hate or fear it: Door-knocking for your candidate is an essential part of winning elections. It can also be (honest!) fun -- as well as incredibly, unexpectedly uplifting. Here are some completely unofficial, occasionally offbeat, tips on surviving the experience:

Get the candidate’s name right. True story: The first door I knocked on, for Sen. Mark Warner’s re-election campaign, I said my spiel and marched off triumphantly. Only to realize to my horror that I’d asked them to support Republican Sen. John Warner. Before you start, give a quick skim of the materials. It’s amazing what you can forget.

Don’t worry about getting the voter’s name right. If they have an unpronounceable name, they are used to hearing it mangled. Just give it a go and apologize for the mispronunciation. Tip: Or try going for just the first name. It’s usually easier to pronounce.

Get to the point. You’re not Stephen Colbert. Don’t open with a joke. People are busy. Give your spiel in a friendly way—but don’t waste time. That said, if people want to talk, listen. Nod. Take notes. Tell the campaign manager when you get back what you heard. And sometimes…you just need to do it. At one stop for Clinton, I ended up eating cucumber slices and drinking iced tea with a 95-year-old woman in Vienna, who told me about life in the town when it still really was a small town. (I also broke my rule never to enter a home if I were by myself, but whatever.) I learned a lot. Did she actually get out to vote? I have no idea. But it was worth it.

Stick to the script – usually. Candidates will give you a tested script. Use it. Except in extraordinary cases when you can’t. Example: In the final days of canvassing for Hillary Clinton, the script was to ask for voters’ support to elect the “the first woman president of the United States!” But after I started trotting that out, voters’ faces turned to stone. So I ditched it and spoke from my heart. I admitted (here’s where ex-Clinton staffers spit out their coffee) that I thought Clinton was kind of a stiff candidate, but I thought she’d make a great president — and here was why.

But don’t go rogue. Again in those final days of Clinton, I ended up at the door of a guy who clearly hated Clinton. “I won’t vote for her -- ever,” he announced. I snapped. “Well, I am,” I told him. “I don’t want my 23-year-old son to die in some crazy war started by ‘President’ Trump.” Don’t do that. Angry confrontations won’t change anyone’s mind.

Stay off the grass. Seriously. Some suburbanites are weird about their lawns. Stick to their walks.

Be nice to their dogs and kids. Always compliment the dog, even if he’s snarling and lunging at you. People love hearing nice things about their pets. But avoid lavishing too many compliments on their kids. Some people think that’s creepy. Just smile and say hi to the little ones.

Savor the profound moments. Remember this when you get lost, you forget your water in 90-degree heat, your feet hurt and you have no time to do this anyway: At that moment when you appear at their door, you are the face of democracy for lots of people. And for recently naturalized citizens from countries with no tradition of a free vote, you are the reason they sacrificed so much to get to this country.

Canvassing is an amazing, sometimes frustrating, always enlightening experience. And it works. According to Donald Green and Alan Gerber in “Get Out the Vote!: A Guide for Candidates and Campaign,” door-to-door canvassing is the most consistently effective and efficient method of voter mobilization.

It also can be a lot of fun. But stay off the grass.

Do you have your own tips? Disagree with these ones? Comment below.


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