Ready to Canvass?

Here are canvassing tactics and four “lost cause” indicators. That is when you encounter immovable right wing talking points, and whether to deal with them

  • Nate Craig

It is now 2019, and it is a local election year in Pennsylvania. That makes this a fantastic year for us to find a local campaign to sharpen our canvassing skills on over the closing weeks for the local elections. Not only will you know what is on your local candidates’ minds, but it will go far in helping you to get ready for the upcoming Presidential primary contests next spring. The better we prepare this year and next spring, the better prepared we’ll be for the urgent battle for the presidency which ought to consume us -in a healthy and serious way- in 2020.

In 2017, I ran for local office and canvassed a few thousand people. As a Green Party candidate, I got 10%. I became a Democrat after my argument that the only way forward for the green party was to go local fell on deaf ears. Once I was a democrat, I canvassed 5,000 doors for 9 candidates in 2018 (8 of those candidates won).

I’ve made hundreds of doorstep conversions, gotten lots of doors slammed on me, wasted dozens of minutes debating the unmovable talking points and here I am sharing some lessons I’ve learned from all the pavement I’ve pounded so that readers can be a little more efficient at the doors you knock on. I’m sharing this because I want us to engage in local elections and go on to win twice in 2020. We will win in the primary if we can work to get a candidate to emerge who will get us excited for them, someone we can believe in, and then to continue to use our campaigning skills to do our part to reclaim our imperiled democracy over the next decade.

As we get our canvass on, as we retrieve our smelly old walking shoes (because hey, we’ll be outside anyway), and remove the imprint of our asses from our office chairs, or dorm room couches, and our recliners, as we prepare to watch slightly fewer pugs doing handstands on our instagram feeds, it is important for us to mentally prepare ourselves for the best, and worst-case scenarios we’ll run into when we are at the doors of hundreds…nay thousands of complete strangers-over the next dozen Novembers.

Often times we will have good targets and walkable turfs and canvassing will be pretty smooth sailing. We’ll be talking to people who have already indicated they’re mildly interested in our candidate, or who are identified as “somewhat likely voters” for our candidate. The canvass launcher will tell you that day’s objective, but we’re basically trying to get an update from these “maybes” and remind them of the date of the election. The goal here is to say our candidate’s name 3 - 4 times, offer an explanation of our candidate’s position on an issue or two and move on to the next door. These easy conversations go like this:

(You): “Hi, I’m here for my favorite candidate, Deb Ryan for District Attorney, are you Dave (a registered Democrat)?” (Them): “Yes. (half closes his door) What party are they?” (You): “Democrat, c’mon Dave, what do I look like?” (Them): “(opens door) She’s got my vote.” (You): “Awesome. So you’re definitely voting for Deb Ryan?” (Them): “yep.” (You): “Here’s some information about Deb for anyone you know who might also want to know about Deb. Thanks for your time, see you on November 6th!” and on you go to the next door.

Then, there are the moderately tough ones. You should be able to see that they are Republican or Independent from the paper list or app. You won’t be able to see if they’re an angry Democrat. Pay attention to this data. Occasionally you will, but usually you won’t know what issue they care about. It’s best not to make assumptions, and make sure the conversation isn’t about your views, make sure it’s about their views. Search for something they’ll resonate with.

(You): “Hi, I’m here for my favorite candidate, Madeleine Dean for Congress, are you Elizabeth (a registered Independent)?” (Them): “Yes. (half closes door) What party is she?” (You): “The blue team.” (Them): “I’m not a Democrat.” (You): “All good, are you planning to vote in November?” (Them): “Probably.” (You): “Great! Are there any issues at the top of your mind?” (Them): “Yes. Prescription drug prices are out of control.” (You): “Yeah my copays are pretty steep, but mine are nothing compared to my cousin’s.”

Relate to them with a story, while avoiding oversharing, then bring it back to what their pain point is and ask responsive questions. This is important: STICK TO WHAT YOU KNOW! If your candidate supports Medicare for All, don’t be shy, say it with a smile. If they don’t, why are you out canvassing for that candidate? Anyway, share what you know and defer to the candidate’s site for the things you aren’t sure about. There are a lot of issues, don’t feel like you need to know every position before you go out.

Then the inevitable tough ones. I mean nearly impossible. I’m talking about the doors where we encounter a bad target or… untargeted voters who make themselves gatekeepers to the person we want to talk to. I mean the ones who are just like that uncle who you stopped talking to in 2015. This happens when you’re looking for Sally-Jo, who’s probably the sweetest 72 year old hippie Democrat who can’t decide between Bernie or Warren, but instead, Fred “‘Hannity’s-talking-points” McGee answers the door.

First, an emphatic disclaimer: in primaries (i.e. closed primary states like Pennsylvania) do not engage Republicans, independents or people who aren’t registered Democrats when you are canvassing in a closed primary! You are a valuable asset to the campaign you are volunteering for, so do not be shy or feel rude looking for exactly the person on your voter list. They’re the person who is most worth your limited volunteer time in a closed primary state because they may be the only one who can vote for your candidate.

Second, if it is an open primary or it’s general election time and the campaign is working on persuading all stripes of voters, and grumpy, dumpy Fred is the person you’re looking for, here’s how to get ready for a few typical talking points you will run into. Always read the voter, but be ready to roll on if you get stuck in any of the time-sucks explained below.

The talking points they employed are very simple, they are illogical, but they are effective at wasting your time and can easily frustrate anyone bound by the rules of logic, or anyone who can be persuaded by scientific evidence. Three big categories of talk points: Obama-did-it-ism, anti-Americanism, know-nothingism, enviro-denialism.

Obama-did-it-ism is when they ask you about Trump -don’t make the conversation about your views, or volunteer your personal gripes about Trump on someone’s doorstep. Make the conversation about them and their top issues. If they ask you, however, and you bring up DeVos, or Pruitt, or Wheeler, (swamp mega-monsters), or supportively defend some Trump bullshit that you strongly disagree with and they justify Trump’s action by saying: “Obama did the exact same thing!” Here’s a response that works well for me.

(you): “So was Obama a good, bad, or horrible President?” (them) “… ”Horrible, worst president in history! Rabble-rabble-rabble…” (you) “Hold on, so, if Trump’s doing what Obama did, how is Trump doing such a great job, when Obama was the worst ever?” (them) “rabble rabble rabble.” Let me be clear, this rebuttal is not going to win a voter, but it may be cathartic for you before you leave Fred’s frustrating presence. If they are into the “no spin zone” that deep, they’re too far gone, move on.

Anti-Americanism is exactly what it sounds like. If you dare to disagree with any single one of their conservative talking points, you have given them categorical proof that you hate America. Understand that no argument is needed when connecting any given conservative talking point to being pro-American. You are guilty of this crime by virtue of disagreeing with Sean Hannity et al, and your best bet is to politely disagree and wrap up the conversation: “I don’t see it that way,” or “that doesn’t make sense to me,” or “I’m not sure why that’s seen as anti-American,” and don’t stick around too long, move on. Remember, you’re valuable and don’t want to get dragged into un-winable arguments.

Know-nothingism is the very effective tactic employed by the extreme right where -regardless of the depth of knowledge anyone possesses, or the obviousness of the point being made- the conservative refuses to acknowledge any counterpoint being made against their view. Their view and their view alone is valid and authoritative. Nothing else can be valid or authoritative. They prove this to themselves by merely calling into question the validity or authority of the expert being cited, or the argument being made.

They question literally everything you say using phrases like “but how do you know ___?” or “are you an expert in___?” or “have you been to ____, it’s not half as bad as they say,” until you are at the point you are explaining basic English words to them. They may act as though they are listening by repeating things you say after their question, but this tactic is not meant to uncover knowledge in any sense, the tactic is not intended to have a meaningful, honest conversation, the tactic is aimed at making you explain every minor word and detail until you give up or concede that either nothing means anything or nothing can be known, hence: “know-nothingism.” Some examples might help.

Conversely, they may take the position of the world’s expert: “I studied ___ and I’m going to tell you why everyone you listen to is wrong…” They know everything, everyone who disagrees knows nothing, and if you don’t realize that, then you’re just living in a stupid, liberal bubble.

Why be polite? All day they hear from their pundits -sometimes preachers too- that you are their enemy and that you hate America. The best thing to do is defang their perception that you are their enemy, but don’t try to hard. Their mind is made up about you because you don’t love Trump. Even if you can talk them down during your conversation, their anger will be stoked again once they turn the radio/TV back on (or if you’re Joe Biden, maybe even your record player).

Enviro-denialism — On conservative radio and Fox News, the gospel message that one must of deny the sinful science of climate change is preached religiously and you will run into it this argument with conservative voters. Example message (all words in bold are shouted): “liberal scientists made up this new study -there’s a study for everything- and surprise, surprise, they are complaining AGAIN about the Chinese hoax they love to call ‘climate change.’ Really?! They are still complaining about this unprovable pseudo science? Really?! (dramatic pause) I mean how many times do we have to go over this? This fake science has been debunked! It’s been proven that climates go in cycles. It’s not the end of the world, here folks, no matter what Al Gore, or Barak Hussein Obama say. These liberals just can’t give up on their fairy tales, can they? Well, they make up this study, and we invited another expert to talk about why this “study” is no different than any of the other studies.” Their expert goes on to say how stupid the scientists were for agreeing with 99% of the scientific community about climate change and on and on.

When canvassing, it is not worth it to try to undo hundreds of hours of propaganda. If you’re hearing one of the above talking points, that message took someone making a personal choice to reinforce their preferred viewpoint. When you encounter someone who is convinced of one of the four listed talking points, do yourself and the campaign you’re helping a big favor, don’t spend more than 3 minutes on that door. There are people who may be convinced with much less work and because you are valuable, your efficiency is important.

Let’s get out there and keep winning!




It needs to be said, Black Lives Matter. Nate is a former conservative evangelical, who’s now a freelancing progressive writer.

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I wrote the following short esssay on November 9, 2016, the day after Trump was elected president.

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Nate Craig

Nate Craig

It needs to be said, Black Lives Matter. Nate is a former conservative evangelical, who’s now a freelancing progressive writer.

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