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“How Effective Is Political Canvassing?” and What Candidates Must Know Before Knocking on Doors

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Published: May 9, 2022

How effective is political canvassing

Ask France’s ex-President Francois Hollande, and he will tell you that door-to-door canvassing increased his vote share by 3% in 2012. 

Hollande won that presidential election with 51.6% of the vote share. It was a close margin, but door-to-door canvassing contributed to the victory.

The campaign required 80,000 volunteers to approach 5 million doors in three months (Feb-May 2012), but the impact of those efforts was evident in the election results. 

Such examples are a reminder that personal conversations between voters and campaign members can improve voter turnout and your chances of winning. 

However, some modern research shows that campaign canvassing in politics does not yield massive results.

So is political canvassing really effective? Does canvassing work?

In this post, let’s understand its impact, challenges, and best practices by taking Hollande’s example and many others.

How effective is political canvassing?

That’s the question on everyone’s mind. And there’s no straight answer to it. 

So, let’s try to understand the effectiveness of canvassing with the help of some past experiments and statistics.

As per Harold Gosnell’s studies on voter registration and turnout, reminders to register and vote increased voter turnout by 

  • 1% in the presidential election of 1924, and 
  • 9% in the municipal election of 1925.

Experiments conducted by Eldersveld and Dodge showed that canvassing and mailings have been proved to be very influential. Another study on voter turnout shows that canvassing door to door increased voter turnout by 6%. That answers our question “does canvassing work?”.

During the general elections, door-to-door canvassing worked phenomenally for Hollande, but it could be a miss in other cases. Luck plays a part in determining success, but a solid political canvass strategy can ensure every other obstacle is cleared out of your path.

Here, we list the impact and challenges of political canvassing to help you understand its effectiveness.

Political canvassing

  • Usually has more impact during primaries than general elections
  • Is most effective with direct outreach
  • Has more effectiveness as a GOTV effort than a persuasion method
  • Is more impactful when you target specific audiences

Let’s discuss each point further. 

More impact during primaries than general elections

A 2017 study conducted by Stanford professor David Broockman and UC Berkeley political scientist Joshua Kalla concluded that political canvassing does not significantly impact general elections.  

The researchers conducted 49 field experiments during US election campaigns to understand the impact of persuasion techniques

However, the study clarifies that this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t canvas for votes altogether. 

They discovered that:

  • Political canvassing is effective during primaries and ballot-initiative campaigns.
  • When a person has decided on a candidate, such efforts encourage them to vote.
  • When prompted by a politician they support, voters may (and do) change their opinion about a candidate.
  • During general election canvassing, candidates can still persuade voters by varying their stand on issues to suit popular demand.

For Hollande, door knocking increased vote share by 3.2% in the first round and 2.8% in the second. 

Door-to-door campaigning is not typical during French elections, and Vincent Pons, the campaign director for Hollande, says that this novelty may have played a part in increasing his vote share. 

But there’s a lesson here, even for locations where political canvassing is common (like in the USA). 

The lesson is to be innovative with your canvassing efforts and offer supporters something unique.

Read Next: Our Complete A-Z Guide To Boost Your Electioneering Efforts

Direct outreach has the most impact

A conversation that lasts at least three minutes (and up to 10 minutes) is seen to positively impact voters to

  1. Register to vote
  2. Cast their vote
  3. Vote for a candidate whose team canvassed them

Traditionally, this was done only by knocking on doors. 

Even today, direct outreach is studied to have the maximum impact on voters. However, as we deal with the new normal due to COVID-19, door-to-door canvassing is not always appreciated. 

So while phone banking or phone canvassing usually took the second position in canvassing efforts, it now comes to the forefront of your canvassing efforts.

Peer-to-peer texting is another way of getting in touch with supporters and canvassing for votes. 

For more on how to increase voter turnout with text messages, download our guide: Get Out The Vote with Text Messages

While such canvassing methods can work separately, combining them throughout your campaign has stronger results. 

Consider the following study:

In 2017, vote.org researched how text messages and emails could affect GOTV efforts and voter turnout. The experiment was undertaken during the Senate special election in Alabama, targeting African American voters with an available cell number.

They concluded that a combination of social pressure emails and informational text messages (logistical voting details) was the most effective in GOTV efforts. 

Similarly, a combination of different GOTV and persuasion efforts could positively affect voter turnout and vote share in your campaign. 

Find out how to use phone calls, text messages, and a combination of both to run effective political outreach campaigns: How Political Campaigns Use Calling and Texting for Supporter Outreach

Political canvassing has more impact as a GOTV effort than persuasion

Political canvassing efforts are undertaken with four main objectives:

  • Identifying supporters: To understand who is likely to vote for you 
  • Voter ID: To get more information on voters in your lists for better targeting and segmentation
  • GOTV: When you are sure of a voter’s support for you
  • Persuasion efforts: When the voter is on the fence, and you want to swing their vote.

Identifying supporters and gathering their information are the initial stages of canvassing. The latter two objectives are trickier and more complex.

So, how effective is political canvassing with GOTV efforts Vs. persuasion efforts?

A study conducted in the UK in 2014 and 2015 showed that political canvassing is more effective in increasing voter turnout than increasing vote share. It concluded that:

  • People who haven’t decided are more likely to vote when contacted by a party
  • People who have decided about a party and are approached by them reinforce their motive to vote
  • Canvassers are rarely successful in swinging votes if a person has made up their mind

The following are graphic representations of voters canvassed by the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat parties during the 2014 and 2015 elections. They show the role of political canvassing in increasing voter turnout.

how-effective-is-political-persuasion-uk-gotv-efforts
how-effective-is-political-canvassing-uk-gotv
Image Source: Washington Post

Political canvassing is more effective when targeted to specific audience segments

Hollande’s campaign is an excellent example for those understanding the effectiveness of canvassing. Although its results are exceptional in a few ways, the tactics are worthy of replication.

The campaign knocked on 5 million doors, but the houses were not randomly selected.

Vincent Pons tells Public Radio International, “They were chosen to target a specific type of voter that we wanted to reach out to: left-wing, non-voters, or undecided voters that we knew were hesitating between voting for the left or the right.”

From this campaign, we can take lessons on audience segmentation and targeting. Target voters who:

  • Identify your campaign’s ideology (for GOTV efforts)
  • Are fence-sitters and whose support you can swing towards you (for persuasion efforts)
  • Are yet to register as a voter (for voter registration)
Maximize your success rate with this guide: Political Canvassing Tips for your Door-to-Door Campaign

Tips to make political canvassing work

This section details a few tips and tricks to get the most out of your political canvassing efforts through different channels.

1. Determine a timeline, so you are neither too soon nor too late in the canvassing efforts

Broockman and Kalla’s 2017 research found that:

  • Only 1 in 800 voters change their preferences if canvassing (door-knocking or phone call) happens within two months of election day.
  • If the persuasion campaign is carried out well before election day, the efforts are much more impactful. They tend to lose their effectiveness the closer it is to election day.

The researcher duo thus concludes that nonpartisan efforts could do well to boost turnout late into the campaign. 

On the other hand, political campaigns need to start their efforts early and keep the momentum going until election day. Another way to ensure your new supporters vote for you is to encourage early voting. In this case, GOTV efforts need to start even earlier.

See how to mobilize voters and get them to vote with Absentee ballots: Ballot Chasing – Voter Mobilization Tactics For Absentee Ballots

2. Dedicate more efforts to political canvassing during primary elections and ballot initiatives

As we have already seen, it fares well for candidates to start their canvassing campaigns early on. So, it is wise to dedicate resources and volunteers to canvass voters during primaries and ballot initiatives. Broockman and Kalla’s research also suggests the same.

To ensure that your campaign doesn’t fade away from voters’ minds:

  • Engage in a multi-channel approach using text messages, phone calls, and door-to-door canvassing.
  • Spread out these efforts in a way that gets you an early start and refreshes the memory of your campaign periodically.
  • For instance, you can start by sending out text blasts three months before election day. A month after that, you follow up with a phone call. Visit homes of voters who prefer detailed, personal discussions in the weeks leading up to election day.
An important guide for candidates canvassing voters to reduce campaigning complexities: The Only Political Campaign Checklist You Need to Organize Your Efforts

3. Invest in a variety of political canvassing channels

Every communication medium serves a different purpose- from increasing awareness to having lengthy conversations about various issues. To ensure you don’t miss out on any potential voter, your campaign must invest in multiple tools.

After all, every vote counts.

Mass media: Posters, social media posts, and advertisements on television, radio, etc., are means to reach a broad audience and make the first point of contact for GOTV efforts

Although there’s very little research done on the effectiveness of mass media canvassing, available studies show the following methods as highly effective:

Texting campaigns: Reach out to people who have opted in to your SMS list using mass texting and those who have engaged with you before using P2P texts. Both are great channels for GOTV efforts. 

Remember, your texts must have:

  • Informational messages: Conveying logistical details for election day
  • Rationalization messages: Prompting reasons to vote.

Phone banking: Phone calls enable you to have in-depth and personal conversations with voters. A 3-10 minute conversation is likely to persuade people to vote (and vote for you!)

Investing in phone banking software will:

Door-to-door canvassing: This traditional canvassing method still hasn’t lost its charm and is the most effective way of political canvassing. Although it requires more effort, resources, and time, ignoring door-to-door canvassing could be a fatal flaw in your campaign.

Just ask Hollande’s opponent in the 2012 general elections!

Know what you should and should not do while canvassing: The Most Common Dos and Don’ts of Canvassing for Political Campaigns- A Last-minute Checklist

To conclude, how effective political canvassing is, depends on four crucial factors:

  1. The channels you adopt
  2. The timeline you create to utilize them
  3. The message you convey
  4. And the audience you share it with.

Here’s hoping your political canvassing efforts are a success this election season!

The future of political canvassing

There’s widespread agreement and optimism around using friendships and social attachments for canvassing in the political science spectrum. 

In 2010, Facebook conducted a 61-million person experiment on social influence and political mobilization by displaying a banner to US members that asked them to vote. The banner didn’t yield any significant results. 

However, later, Facebook included an ‘I voted’ button on the banner, which would show your friends’ faces with the banner if they hit on the button. This strategy was effective in increasing voter turnout. 

Political scientists and election analysts say that electioneering translates well to the post-pandemic world. This means that political canvassers don’t necessarily need to knock on strangers’ doors as much as they need to text their existing networks to get them to vote.

Learn the Most Effective Canvassing Strategies used among political campaigns.

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