Another big election cycle is now behind us, and journalists, analysts, and consultants are mining the results to see what can be learned. But before we get bogged down over questions of which advertisements worked, which candidates connected with voters, and which segments of the population actually turned out to vote, it is fitting to pause and reflect upon the one activity that can reliably be shown to actually influence an election: canvassing.
Canvassing is also a very costly form of campaigning, requiring a great deal of volunteer time and energy and quite a bit of staff effort coordinating it.
The volunteers who walk precincts, knock on doors, and talk to prospective voters on cold October days are a vital but under-appreciated part of our democracy. They are the ones who remind people, in person, to go to the polls or mail in their ballot. They report back to campaign offices and arrange rides for voters. They provide useful information to voters that helps avoid problems at the polls.
As the many studies of Alan Gerber and Don Green have shown, door-to-door canvassing is by far the most reliable campaign method of actually getting someone to turn out to vote. Television ads, leaflets, and sound trucks just don't even come close to the effect of knocking on someone's door and discussing the election with them. In an environment where billions of dollars are spent on ads urging people to vote with little if anything to show for it, it's worth remembering the importance of the personal touch. Having a good ground game doesn't, of course, mean that your campaign will win, but it does convey a modest and measurable advantage.
But canvassing is also a very costly form of campaigning, requiring a great deal of volunteer time and energy and quite a bit of staff effort coordinating it. Even with reliable lists of where the potential voters live, a canvasser might knock on a dozen doors or more before she finds someone at home. And that voter is probably not very happy to see her. The very function of a canvasser is to go to those houses of people who are not reliable voters but would vote for the canvasser's campaign if they actually voted. This means most of the people being contacted at their home are, by definition, not particularly thrilled about politics. For the most part, they view canvassers not as eager volunteers performing an important function of democracy, but as bill collectors for some company that has never provided a good or service.
It's also worth remembering that canvassers are volunteers who are often being sent some place well outside what they know. They're probably knocking on doors outside their own neighborhood and talking to voters of a different socioeconomic status and background. Much like serving on a jury, canvassing is a great way to meet a wide range of citizens who are almost entirely unlike you. Even for those who love meeting new people, this presents challenges. Yet canvassers do it every election cycle, without pay.
As James Carville memorably said in The War Room, "Outside of a person's love, the most sacred thing that they can give is their labor." For many citizens, the thing that determines whether they will vote or not is whether someone asks them. Before we consign the 2014 elections to history, let's take a moment to thank the ones who do the asking.