Jump To Section
What Is Canvassing?
Political canvassing refers to the process of going out “in the field” to engage voters of a particular district. Frequently, this means going door-to-door to speak with voters at their homes. It can also involve interacting with voters in public gathering places, although home visits are the best way to confirm that the potential voter actually lives in the targeted district.
How to Canvass in 6 Steps
In the United States, most political canvassing is taken on by campaign volunteers. Many of these volunteers will be local residents of a campaign district, but sometimes people travel from other districts, or even other states, to canvass in competitive races. Many of the most committed volunteers divide their time between local campaigns and national races to maximize their person canvassing efforts.
A typical canvassing process may look like this:
- Volunteers gather in a communal location. This could be an official campaign office or perhaps just the home of a campaign staff member.
- Volunteers are trained by a field organizer who works for the campaign. The field organizer will talk through the campaign’s plan to identify, persuade, and mobilize targeted voters. Typically this training is very brief—it can take as little as ten minutes.
- Volunteers receive a walk sheet—a list of voters the campaign would like them to contact. The walk sheet, which is gleaned in part from publicly available voter registration records, will include the voters’ names, ages, home addresses, and any other information the campaign has about their voting preferences and habits. (The walk sheet will not contain any personal information about the voter. Other than name, address, and age, the sheet exclusively focuses on voting data.)
- Volunteers receive a list of talking points that the campaign requests that they emphasize. Depending on the nature of the canvassing project, these talking points may be about the candidate’s policies, or they may be about voting dates and locations.
- Volunteers will then span out and begin going door-to-door in an attempt to reach everyone on their walk sheets. If a voter is not home, canvassers frequently leave behind campaign literature to inform them about the candidate and the voting process.
- Volunteers will fill out their walk sheets with information to bring back to the campaign. The field organizers will want the latest information about how likely a voter is to support a certain candidate and how committed they are to voting. They add the newly gleaned information to an ongoing voter database—one that they may end up sharing with like-minded political campaigns.
5 Ways to Use Canvassing
Door canvassing helps put a “human face” on a campaign and allows potential voters to engage in dialogue about the candidate in question. However, canvassing isn’t always done in the name of political candidates. It’s also employed to:
- Build support for a specific issue or ballot initiative, rather than for an individual candidate.
- Raise community awareness (without necessarily requesting that individuals take a specific action).
- Fundraise for a cause.
- Recruit new members to an organization.
Where Did Canvassing Originate?
Canvassing dates back to the age of ancient Rome, one of the first known democracies. Elections were held for positions in the Roman government (and these inspired the Enlightenment thinkers who created the modern version of democracy). During gatherings at the Roman Forum, candidates for office made a point to shake the hand of all eligible voters. These face-to-face interactions helped increase a voter’s emotional investment in a candidate, and thus there was a direct correlation between canvassing and voting behavior.
The word “canvass” originates from an early sixteenth-century word that describes the tossing of a real piece of canvas. By the mid-sixteenth century, the definition had expanded to include the idea of engaging in critical discussion, and from there it evolved into its modern meaning, which is “to solicit votes.”
Is Canvassing a Job?
Campaign volunteers are primarily responsible for canvassing. It is rare for campaigns to pay people to canvass, although it is legal to do so. Within a campaign, canvassing volunteers typically report to a field organizer who in turn reports to a field director. These are more likely to be paid staff positions—particularly the field director. A field director may choose to work full-time for the campaign, and traditionally reports directly to the campaign manager who is (apart from the actual candidate) the boss of the whole enterprise. Learn more about a campaign manager’s responsibilities here.
How Does Canvassing Work?
Political campaigns consider door-to-door canvassing to be one of the most effective tools in their arsenal. Here’s why:
- It provides a human connection. A face-to-face appeal is more emotionally resonant than a phone call or a flyer or an online advertisement. (That said, telephone canvassing is an option for volunteers who can’t personally travel to a district.)
- Canvassers offer valuable information. Canvassing can provide information that a voter might not already have. In particular, many contemporary canvassing campaigns are designed to encourage early voting. Thirty-seven states presently offer some form of early voting, whether that’s by direct mail or appearing in person to cast a ballot. Many voters have limited information about early voting dates and locations, and canvassers are frequently trained to have that information at the ready.
- It mobilizes your own voters. Canvassing campaigns are especially effective at mobilizing voters rather than changing minds. Humans are instinctively tribal, and it can be hard to sway others on a topic as personal as politics. Therefore, the majority of canvassing campaigns are targeted toward voters that the campaign believes will already support the candidate. The goal is to motivate these people to actually vote and increase voter turnout. This is sometimes called “mobilizing the base.”
When Does Canvassing Happen?
Canvassing most frequently happens in the months leading up to Election Day. In the U.S. federal election system, general elections take place on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. (In other words it’s the first Tuesday in November, but it can’t be November 1st.)
With this in mind, most political campaigns go into full-throttle mode starting the day after Labor Day. This creates a two-month campaign “high season,” which is when most canvassing takes place.
Canvassing also occurs at other times of the year, but there can be diminishing returns. Making voter contact too often can irritate the potential voter, and possibly alienate them. This is particularly true of people who consider themselves “not political” and thus only lightly engage in politics. The paradox is that these people are often unreliable voters, and so they’re the exact people the canvassers need to motivate. (Political junkies don’t need canvassers to remind them to vote.)
Canvassing is a balancing act. If done prudently, and targeting the right people, it can be an essential tool for a political campaign.