Three times over the past few months I’ve canvassed by knocking on doors for various candidates I support. It’s been interesting as I’ve met a lot of people outside my social bubble and seen parts of my city that I have never visited. If you have never canvassed, I’d recommend you try it at least once.
During my hours of knocking on doors, I’ve also asked myself whether I’m making any difference. Those associated with campaigns claim it is the most effective strategy for gaining votes. What does the research say? It’s nuanced.
A study during the 2012 French presidential election between Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy examined the effect of canvassing. The study used data from 80,000 volunteers who knocked on over 5 million doors. The study concluded that canvassing did little to increase the percentage of people voting, but was able to sway voters towards their candidate (in this case Hollande) by a few percentage points, which is HUGE. Notable differences between canvassing in France vs. the U.S. is that the vast majority of people in the study had never been canvassed before (it wasn’t a typical strategy) and, more importantly, France has a multi-party political system and platforms which, according to the study author, “results in weaker partisan affiliations and more frequent changes in vote choice than in bipartisan contexts, such as in the United States.” Thus, the French likely are more open to have their minds changed about candidates than we are in the U.S.
A recent study by researchers at Cal-Berkeley and Stanford examined 49 field studies of campaigning. They found:
- Voters can be persuaded by campaigning in primary elections – meaning that voters can be swayed between candidates of their own party.
- Similarly, campaigning can persuade voters on single-issue ballot measures such as additional school funding or even transgender rights.
- During general elections, canvassing and other forms of campaigning showed ZERO effect in swaying voter opinion with respect to candidates.
- Canvassing and campaigning did have an effect on turning out voters.
A study from 1999 , found that canvassing can increase voter turnout by about 6%.
Lessons for Campaigns
What do these studies suggest for door-knocking?
- Campaigning for individual candidates should be used during the primary season.
- General election campaigning should be focused on turning out voters of your party affiliation.
- Campaigning for single ballot issue measures is effective. Additionally – not mentioned in the study, but single-issue ballot measures can have an effect on turning out voters.
It makes sense that the primaries are still a canvassing battleground. Even with instant communication through tv and our tech gear we need some additional familiarity with candidates. Unless people proactively attend gatherings or meetings, canvassing can make a difference in getting to know a candidate.
By the time the general election rolls around, I’m sure most of us have had enough of the slogans and attacks by the candidates. I’m old enough now to have seen these cycles and arguments repeated seemingly ad nauseam.
Thanks for the article John.
Thanks for going out and knocking on doors!! It’s hard work!