Precinct analysis and canvassing strategy


Precinct analysis and canvassing strategy


Local campaigns in particular are largely about meeting more voters then your opponent. You can only meet a small percentage of likely voters by attending community functions and meetings. To reach the rest of them you need to go door to door. In a local campaign where you face any, even minor opposition this shouldn’t be a matter of debate. Going door to door should be a, if not the central aspect of your campaign for public office. To do that you need to have a strong message; a well thought out and well organized plan and a team that can help you meet your goal. How comfortable a potential candidate or campaign manager is about going door to door should be a major consideration prior to the launch of a campaign for public office. Lastly a crew of people going out on behalf of a candidate is no substitution for a candidate spending long hours doorbelling.

Before you get started you need to obtain some important information and resources, which your local elections office and political party should have available.

What you need:

1.)    A district wide map with enough detail to show individual precinct boundaries.

 2.)    Numbered individual maps of every precinct inside your district which show street by street boundaries and, if available, maps that show the property lines falling inside those precincts (Good maps will save you a TON of time out in the field. I’ve included an example of an ideal precinct map below).

3.)    As much recent elections data for your district as you can obtain. 

4.)    Contact your political party to gain access to their database of information about the voters in your area and to obtain “walking lists”

precinct map

How to analyze a precinct in preparation for canvassing

First and foremost you’re going to want to look at the most relevant recent elections data and look at the precinct by precinct results.  For a legislative race you’re going to want to examine last cycle’s legislative races to find the margin of victory in each of those individual precincts. One race may give you a general idea of how red or blue a particular precinct is but for more reliable and useful information you need to examine multiple races. A quick yet effective way to go about that is to simply compare the 2 legislative races where your party had the best and worst showing in the last election. Not only should you average that data out in each precinct to get a better understanding of party support but you should also examine the differentials, the difference between the best and worst showing for your party’s candidates, to find out which precincts have more swing voters. The last important piece of the puzzle is rate of participation, I.E. what percentages of adults are registered and what percentage of voters cast a vote in the last election. Additionally it’s also helpful to compare primary versus general election data and to examine older data for a historical context.

How to prioritize the precincts

Before you get started an important thing to consider is whether you have a serious opponent from your own political party and if you have to face that opponent in a primary or caucus. If you’re facing off against one or more strong opponents from your political party in a primary election you’re going to want to adjust your strategy appropriately. In that case you’re going to want to prioritize those precincts with a high percentage of people who identify with your political party a little higher than you would otherwise.

From there you’re going to want to consider the following criteria listed below:

1.)    How condensed is the housing in a particular precinct. Will you be able to maximize your effectiveness by reaching a lot of voters in little time? This should be your number one qualifier in almost all cases.

2.)    Whether the precinct in question has a lot of swing voters. If you’re running against a single general election opponent these precincts should be a priority.

3.)    The location of the precincts. Housing areas with high levels of traffic should be a priority. If you can nail down some great sign locations while doorbelling that’s a nice little bonus.

4.)    Propensity to vote. Some precincts have much higher participation rates than others. Your time is almost always better spent when you’re going to areas of your district where people are engaged with the process.

5.)    Where do you need the most exposure? Oftentimes a candidate is well known in one area of the district but not another. Do you feel that you need to shore up support locally or reach out more to voters in the furthest corners of your district?

Lastly you should also keep in mind that just because a precinct is a high priority it doesn’t mean you need to canvass the entire precinct before moving on. Hit the condensed housing and those homes that are on major thoroughfares and save the less then great stuff for later.

Walking Lists

Another thing you want to consider before you start pounding the pavement is the use of walking lists. If you’re running for partisan office you’re going to want to get a hold of your state or local political party and find out what resources they have available. In most cases they should have an online database that they can give your campaign access to that includes information about individual households such as party affiliation, propensity to vote, number of registered voters in the household etc that can be broken down in different ways and then processed into walking lists you can carry around with you as you canvass. While many swear by their use there are also some drawbacks which I’ll discuss. I’ve used them on some campaigns and not on others. The use of a walking list should be a decision made by the campaign.

Benefits of using a walking list:

1.)    You can micromanage your efforts inside a precinct, ignoring some households such as ones with no registered voters and people identified as supporters of the opposition party.

2.)    Walking lists will help you greatly with note taking. You can write down detailed information about each household visited such as whether or not you talked with a member of the household, if they’re a supporter, what their political affiliation if not already known and if you placed a yard sign in their yard.

3.)    That information can then be used to help your state or local party with voter identification, and your get out the vote effort.

4.)    Perhaps most importantly you can revisit households where you missed talking to someone at a later date.

Reasons not to use a walking list:

1.)    Oftentimes the data is out of date or incomplete. People move, households oftentimes have people with significantly different political views and that person who answered a phone poll or selected a party affiliation might be more receptive to you or less partisan than the data suggests.

2.)    Taking detailed info and trying to manage a list, particularly with a crew of several canvassers, might slow you or the candidate down more than it’s worth.  You and your team might be able to doorbell every single home in a neighborhood faster than you can do two thirds of them with a list.

3.)    Using a list requires prep time; more coordination and whenever you go out with a large crew you’re going to need to bring multiple copies and then compile and or upload the data afterwards. That’s a lot of time and effort if you’re not obtaining a ton of useful data.

My advice to the first time candidate or campaign manager is to try doorbelling with and without one, consider the pros and cons and go from there. I know plenty of candidates and campaign managers that swear by them and plenty who think the cost/benefit ratio simply isn’t there in a lot of cases. In your area the available data might be extensive, up to date and spot on or it might be next to worthless.

Before you head out

This is where many campaigns are won or lost and where your good prep work will pay off. Before you get started here’s a list of what you should have in preparation.

1.)    Your prioritized precinct maps.

2.)    A trunk loaded up with yard signs

3.)    A drilling hammer (or mini sledge) for sign placement

4.)    Plenty of campaign literature (some of it pre signed )

5.)    Your Walking List(s), if you’re using one

6.)    Bottled water

7.)    Additional walking lists and maps if you run through an area quicker than anticipated or a last minute change of plans brings you to a different area of the district.

8.)    Additional materials such as bumper stickers, donor envelopes, business cards, voter registration forms, pens and note paper.

9.)    Campaign logo T shirts for the campaign manager and volunteers

Canvassing, the candidate

The candidate is the person who has the most ability to influence. Above all else the goal is to get the candidate in front of as many potential voters as possible and hopefully make a good impression in a short period of time. 

To do that the candidate needs to focus on the following:

1.)    The candidate should be dressed and groomed at one notch above the typical casual standard of dress for the area. The candidate shouldn’t be wearing a ratty t shirt and jeans or a suit and tie. Dress casual should be what they’re shooting for. A clean campaign T shirt is appropriate in most areas if you’re otherwise dressed and groomed well.

2.)    Having a relevant, concise and appropriate introduction.  This should include who you are, what you’re running for, handing the person at the doorstep your doorbelling piece and a brief description of what your background/qualifications are. An important thing to remember is that doorbelling shouldn’t be a series of never ending stump speeches. It’s about introducing yourself. Whatever you do you shouldn’t introduce yourself by running off a shopping list full of your positions on controversial issues. Try to think of your introduction as being a little bit like the intro section of a job interview.

3.)    Show genuine interest in the person you’re meeting. After you introduce yourself you should ask the person you’re talking to if they have any questions and what their concerns are related to the position you’re running for. It’s also oftentimes a good idea to work in an ice breaker such as a comment about some aspect of their home, yard etc. A lot of people aren’t really all that political and a friendly attitude will go a lot further. After doorbelling a few homes it should slowly start to become second nature to you on how you should approach a particular type of person.

4.)    Answer any questions they have honestly and reasonably. If you disagree on a particular issue they raise don’t start an argument with someone at their doorstep. Try to tactfully steer a conversation towards a point of agreement. Learn how to talk about issues, or aspects of those issues, in a way that most people will find unobjectionable. You’re much more likely to walk away with a vote or two if you focus on areas of common ground. It’s human nature to focus more on differences then commonalities. Resist the temptation.

5.)    Don’t get bogged down at a doorstep. Sometimes it’s difficult to end a conversation but you really can’t afford to spend too long talking to one person. If you’re finding it difficult to end conversations you might want to have a backup plan. I’ve had to “rescue” candidates more than a few times from a long conversation. If the candidate has spent 5-10 minutes at a doorstep it should be the job of the campaign manager to approach the home, assess the situation and “remind” the candidate about a pressing appointment if necessary.

6.)    Thank the person for their time, make sure to remind them to give you a call or send you an email if they have any future questions, and make sure to write down any notes, if applicable, immediately. Asking them to send you an email with any additional questions or concerns, which you can respond to during less critical morning or evening hours, is almost always a good plan, especially if you’re stuck at a door.

7.)    If someone doesn’t answer the door you should leave a signed flyer. It should have “Sorry I missed you” or something similar written on it followed by the candidates signature. A black sharpie stands out more than a pen. The volunteers and campaign manager should also have some literature pre signed by the candidate.

Canvassing, the campaign manager

The primary job of the campaign manager or a volunteer coordinator, if the campaign manager is unavailable to doorbell, is to ensure that the candidate’s time is effectively used. Every decision should be approached with that primary objective in mind.

The other jobs of the campaign manager are as follows:

1.)    The campaign manager should be making the decisions on who to drop off, where to drop them off and what direction the volunteers should be walking. You should have a general idea of a route plan ahead of time. The first priority in any new area should be dropping off the candidate in an area where the homes are more condensed and people are likely home.

2.)    The campaign manager needs to make sure that the candidate and volunteers have everything they need, and are given clear direction.

3.)    Doorbell reasonably sized sections. To small and you’re going to need to have people constantly jumping in and out of the car. To large and complex and your candidate and volunteers might end up heading off in the wrong direction.

4.)    The campaign manager needs to make sure that volunteers new to doorbelling on behalf of your campaign have a clear understanding on what they should say, how they should approach a doorstep and how to handle certain situations. It’s also a good idea to have a new volunteer go to a few doors with the candidate and then the campaign manager to get a better idea on how to approach doorbelling.

5.)    The candidate should for the most part visit individual homes by themselves. The candidate doesn’t really need a separate note taker and the presence of another person will almost always serve as a distraction. One exception to this however is a young child or grandchild of the candidate. In a lot of cases that can help soften up the image of the candidate and lead people into becoming more receptive.

6.)    The campaign manager should in most cases be the driver. While the prospect of having an additional volunteer, who might be uncomfortable doorbelling, serve as the driver might be appealing it’s usually better that the campaign manager maintains total control of the process.

7.)    After everyone has been dropped off the manager should pull the car around so it’s a block or two ahead of the candidate and should then proceed to assist the candidate by either doorbelling the homes on the other side of the road or when a good rhythm has been established with the candidate by zigzagging between houses where it’s likely no one is home or the home is blocked off by a locked fence or gate. If you’re going to leap frog between homes with the candidate make sure you have some recognizable hand signals so you’re not barking out information while you’re standing on a stranger’s doorstep waiting for a response. Don’t get to far away from the car and keep moving it forward so you and the candidate are never more than a few homes away from the vehicle

8.)    Before you leave an area make sure the candidate stops by any home where the resident expressed an interest in talking to them. If there are several homes that fit into that category give the candidate the house numbers and go ahead and drop off the volunteers at the next area instead of just waiting around.

9.)    When an area is finished get everyone in the car quickly. Get to the next location and double check that everyone has enough materials before dropping them off again. You also want to double check the map and shade off the sections of housing you just completed before assisting the candidate with doorbelling.

Canvassing, the non candidate approach

The primary goal of your volunteers is to exponentially expand the reach of a candidate, who will likely find it difficult if not impossible to doorbell every home they want to get to on their own. The general message that a volunteer delivers to a resident when they make a contact is a lot simpler than the one the candidate delivers themselves. While many volunteers can be good advocates for the candidate in question their primary job isn’t to educate the residents by answering questions about the candidates’ positions on particular issues. Their primary job is to expand access to the candidate.

Below is a template I like volunteers to use in a lot of situations:

“Hi my name is _____ and I’m out doorbelling today with “candidate” who is running for “__________” here’s some information (handing them the literature) if you have any questions for “candidate” I can have them stop by in a few minutes or please feel free to give “the candidate” a call or email with any questions (pointing out where the candidate’s personal contact information is on the flyer).

It’s a simple, quick and effective script to use and most importantly it gives the person you and your volunteers are talking to multiple opportunities to talk to the candidate. That’s what it’s all about. You also avoid the situation where a volunteer might end up speculating on a candidate’s views towards a particular issue. Volunteers should be making sure that most if not all questions are directed towards the candidate.

Below are some more guidelines your volunteers should be following:

1.)    Volunteers should ring the doorbell or knock at each home they’re going to, wait 20 seconds or so for a response, and if no one responds they should leave a flyer.

2.)    If an adult responds they should deliver the script, unless interrupted by someone who isn’t interested in which case they should politely make their exit.

3.)    If a young child answers the door ask the child to get his or her mom or dad. If the kid is home alone make your exit and leave a flyer outside the door if appropriate. If an older child or teenage who isn’t of voting age is home alone give them an abbreviated version of your script and leave them a flyer for their parents.

4.)    If they notice a”no trespassing” sign they shouldn’t approach the house. They should leave immediately and not leave a flyer. If they notice a no soliciting sign when they’re already at the doorstep that’s a judgment call on your part as the campaign manager. You can have the volunteers simply leave a flyer at the door without ringing the doorbell or have them leave immediately.

5.)    Volunteers should be told to skip a house if there’s a dog in the yard or if one starts barking at them when they approach the door. They should also be told to use their own discretion if they feel uncomfortable doorbelling a particular home for whatever reason.

6.)    If a home is for sale, and is likely unoccupied, it should be skipped and no flier should be left.

Canvassing without the candidate

This is a lot less effective for obvious reasons, since candidates and access to candidates are where you typically make the sale. There however will be volunteers who are willing to doorbell on their own time and there will also be occasions when you have a crew ready to go and the candidate gets delayed or becomes unavailable.

The following are some guidelines and things to think about when facing this situation:

1.)    You should select lower priority areas or work on finishing up housing in a precinct that is less condensed. You don’t want to waste a fantastic neighborhood when the candidate could do the same area a day or two later. You’ll regret it in the waning days of the campaign when you should be having trouble finding great neighborhoods you haven’t already gone to.

2.)    A lot of people who you miss talking to will find the flyer on their doorstep and will assume that the actual candidate stopped by.

3.)    Make sure you follow up with those volunteers who are working independently.

4.)    You can consider doing a literature drop instead of physically doorbelling every home in the neighborhood. The only difference between literature dropping and doorbelling is that you only acknowledge those residents who see you approach the door. In all other cases you don’t bother ringing the doorbell and you just leave a flier. This will speed the process up for your team with the drawback of less human interaction and fewer sign locations. This might be the way to go if you’re getting down to crunch time and you have a lot of work left to do.

Additional things to consider about doorbelling

1.)    When a person you’re talking to is supportive ask for permission to place a campaign yard sign on their property. Put it up yourself unless the person you’re talking to explicitly says they want to do it themselves. It’s also a good idea to put it in an area without grass, or on the very edge of their property so the homeowner doesn’t end up pulling it out the next time they mow their lawn. If they take it out there’s a good chance they will forget to put it back up again.

2.)    Do not place literature in mail boxes, mail slots or on car windshields. The first two are restricted by law and the third won’t win you a lot of votes. Literature should be both rolled up and secured between the door and door handle/knob or the literature should be secured by shoving it into the side of the door. Don’t tape the literature to the door or throw it down on the doormat.

3.)    Don’t let one jerk ruin your day. The vast majority of people will be receptive or reasonably polite in their disinterest or refusal. If someone verbally attacks you or the candidate; be polite, apologize for bothering them and tell them to have a nice day. That will defuse almost any situation. A war of words at the doorstep is nothing but a waste of your time.

4.)    Make sure that everyone’s needs are taken care. Stop for bathroom and water breaks regularly. It’s also a good idea to treat your volunteers to dinner after a long session. Make sure to properly thank your volunteers for their efforts and follow up with them afterwards. Doorbelling is hard work and you need your volunteers to keep coming back for more.

5.)    Gated communities and apartment complexes are a judgment call on your part. In many cases they will have clearly marked no soliciting or no trespassing signs. While in most cases political solicitation isn’t restricted it’s sometimes a better idea for a campaign not to bother with gated communities or apartment complexes. If a gated community is too good to resist you may consider having the candidate do it separately. Candidates themselves are a lot less likely to offend the homeowners by their presence then a large group of people.

Note: This is a rough draft excerpt of a book currently being written by the author on the management of local political campaigns. It will eventually be used in conjunction with a course on campaign management taught by the author. If you or a group you represent are interested in being taught a course on local political campaigns please contact the author via the contact methods below. Additionally any constructive feedback would be much appreciated.

About the author

Adam Isackson currently resides in Tacoma, Washington where he has managed, consulted, worked on and volunteered for countless campaigns since the 90’s. If you have any questions, comments, or interest in political services you can contact the author @adam_isackson@yahoo.com or by calling and leaving a message @ 253-678-1707.

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