Campaigners Sent Knocking in Tight Races
Door-to-door approach gains in popularity for one very good reason: It actually works.
by Gloria Galloway
The Globe and Mail / June 7, 2004
CALEDON, ONT – The slightly built woman folded her arms in front of her chest and stared at Lynn Gibson as he stood on the doorstep of her home in a forested subdivision of Caledon East.
“I am voting Green,” she told him matter-of-factly. Mr. Gibson, campaign manager for David Tilson, the Conservative candidate in the commuter riding of Dufferin-Caledon, northwest of Toronto, took in the news in stride.
“It’s a protest vote,” the woman explained. “I have voted Conservative all my life but I am so terrified of Stephen Harper. I am so ticked off and I am so worried.”
The following night in Bolton, a larger community in the same riding, Gerry Elema strode up the walkway of a modern two-storey home where an elderly man was enjoying the early evening sun. Mr. Elema handed the man a pamphlet outlining the accomplishments of Liberal incumbent Murray Calder.
“No thank you,” said the man, brushing away the election material.
“I am a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative. Off my property, you bad Liberal.”
Mr. Elema walked away, grinning. He’s heard a lot worse during the many elections that he has spent knocking on doors for his Liberal friends.
In the past two decades, many candidates have embraced electronic methods of message delivery such as television ads, recorded telephone solicitations and the Internet. But experts say door-to-door campaigning is experiencing a renaissance for one reason: It works.
Donald Green, director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University, has written a book called Get Out the Vote which compares various methods of campaigning.
“Door-to-door, when feasible, is the most cost-effective approach,” he said.
“It tends to have a fairly big impact on the people who are approached, raising their turnout by roughly eight or nine percentage points as opposed to direct mail, which might raise turnout by a half a percentage point.”
Which is why, in these hectic weeks leading up to a federal election, small armies of volunteers are walking the streets of the nation, bringing word of their candidates to an electorate that is largely cynical about politicians and the political process in general.
“No matter what you hear at the door,” said Mr. Elema, “you campaign as if you are one vote behind.”
The race in Dufferin-Caledon is close. Both candidates are well-known to constituents. Mr. Calder has held the riding since 1993, but this is traditional Conservative turf and Mr. Tilson, a long-time provincial politician, has a good shot at winning.
So every night and all day every weekend, the door-to-door battle is waged.
Alyson Robb is working with Mr. Gibson on the Tilson campaign. Ms. Robb, 25, works for an insurance agent all day before hitting the streets. This is her third political campaign.
“Issues are very important to youth, even though they don’t realize it,” she said, before heading to the next doorstep.
The woman who answers takes a pamphlet but does not say anything to indicate how she will vote. That’s how it is at most houses.
“Even if they don’t feel the same way you do, they are very polite about it,” Ms. Robb said.
Mr. Elema said that isn’t always the case for him. “Sometimes you get your ears chewed out,” he said. “But you go to the next house and there you see a smiling face.”
“I have been bitten by a dog once, but never people.”
He even stops at those homes that have a competitor’s sign on the lawn. Often there are mixed marriages, where a husband’s political views are not shared by his wife, he explained.
“And very often,” said Mr. Elema, “I’ve heard them say, ‘I don’t know who put that sign there. Why don’t you replace it with a Liberal sign?'”
Sometimes it’s a tough slog, but Dr. Green says the door-to-door campaign has clear advantages over mail.
“Mail doesn’t signal anything about the importance of voting,” he said.
“I think that the typical recipient realizes that anyone can send direct mail, whereas, when a candidate or a set of volunteers appear at one’s doorstep, I think that everybody thinks ‘Hmm, this must be important enough for them to be out here.'”
The door-to-door campaign fell out of favour when politicians started turning to campaign consultants, who found little financial incentive in that style of electioneering, Dr. Green said. “The cost of building a infrastructure of door-to-door canvassers in a particular geographic area doesn’t make economic sense for campaign consultants who may not be hired in that area again.”
But in recent years, as the advantages of the personal approach have become recognized, some consulting firms in the United States are actually specializing in the door-to-door approach.
Shelle Rose Charvet is the head of Success Strategies, an Ontario firm that teaches effective communication, and author of Words That Change Minds: Mastering the Language of Influence. She too praises the door-to-door method.
“When things remain merely information, they have no impact. So spam has no impact, basically. Television commercials barely have impact because they remain in the realm of merely information,” said Ms. Rose Charvet. “Where you actually get a result in terms of people doing something is when they have a personal experience. How much more personal can you get when somebody knocks on your door and you open your door to them?”
So today, and every day for the rest of the campaign, people such as Gerry Elema, Lynn Gibson and Alyson Robb will be knocking on doors.
Even though the process is repetitive and the reception not always warm, Ms. Robb said she looks forward to it.
“I love it,” she said, as another large dog bounded toward her. “To me it’s just energizing. I’ve found my passion in politics.”
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