Going Door-to-Door for Politicians: Interview with a Door Knocker

Janice Mekula Golding and Barack Obama

In the midst of the political season I find myself wavering between complete fascination with the political process and utter dread that it will never be over. Facebook usually only encourages the latter, but earlier this year I noticed something interesting. I recently found my long lost high school writing teacher, Janice Mekula Golding, on Facebook. When she wasn’t posting about glorious retirement in Grand Traverse County, Michigan, she was talking about going door-to-door and canvassing for the election.

A political door knocker? Yikes. I hate it when those people come to my door.

But then I started wondering: Why does she do it? Does it actually work? How many people actually listen and how many slam the door? Seemed like an opportunity to learn a bit about the world of volunteer political campaigning. I found it fascinating and encouraging. Maybe next time I’ll actually listen to the political campaigner who knocks on my door.

OK, let’s start with the basics: Who are you going door to door for? How often have you done it?

Janice Mekula Golding: I’m currently going door-to-door for the Democratic candidate for Michigan House in Grand Traverse County, a peripatetic little Energizer Bunny named Betsy Coffia. I got my training in 2007-2008 as a full-time volunteer for Barack Obama in 13 states, where I probably knocked 200 to 400 doors per day, 10-15 times per month. My current campaign has held a canvass at least every other week since June, with a different purpose each time.

Why? Why door knocking as a political strategy?

Janice: Door-knocking is as old as campaigning itself, based on the principle that one smile is worth a thousand brochures or a hundred phone calls. The benefit of the personal testimonial is well known in advertising. If your neighbor raves about her new dentist, you’ll be more likely to go there than if you read about it on the Internet.

What does it look when you’re going door to door? What do you say to people? What are you hoping to get them to do?

Janice: The experience of going door-to-door varies from day to day, depending on the neighborhood and the campaign objective. A new candidate will need to gauge and/or establish name recognition: “Hi, I’m Jan from over in the Old Mission neighborhood. Have you heard of that awesome new woman who’s challenging Wayne Schmidt for State Rep in our district?” We record the answers on a check sheet to be entered into our computer database for analysis and appropriate strategizing. Another canvassing session may concentrate on determining which issues are most important to voters, and clarifying our candidate’s position on those issues, even offering to research the topic and report back or have the candidate give the voter a call (in a small, local race). Later in a campaign, the goal is ensuring that our friendlies are registered and know where and when to vote. In training, we emphasize to our volunteers that door-knocking is merely sharing our enthusiasm and personal stories with neighbors (or fellow concerned citizens, if we’re out of our own locality). Often, the most effective political strategy is simply to listen. Believe it or not, most people are receptive or at least polite. Especially when it’s raining.

Is this actually effective? Are you changing people’s minds?

Janice: This technique can be highly effective, if organized correctly. Preparation and training are key. If the campaign has access to a database of voter information, certain demographics can be targeted in advance (registered Democrats or Independents, age range, those who voted in recent primaries, those who pledged to vote for us, etc.). Volunteers must be familiarized with the candidate’s background and positions, the objective of the particular canvass, and principles of safety. Often, a canvasser’s job is not to change minds, but to disseminate and collect information.

[Check out Janice’s training video for the Coffia campaign.]

What was your worst door knocking experience?

Warning: If you can read this--you are in range.Janice: Door-knocking horror stories abound, from unleashed dobermans to unleashed racists. One of my colleagues was tackled to the turf by a 6-foot tumbleweed in Butte, Mont.! My personal favorite was the home sporting a poster of gun sight cross hairs reading, “If you can read this—you are in range.” Needless to say, I backed off that porch. Slowly. With my hands up.

What was your best door knocking experience?

Janice: Best experiences? I couldn’t pick just one! From the Massachusetts voter who left me with a bag of Granny Smith apples and a home-baked pie, to the disabled man who told me tearfully that no candidate had ever sent a canvasser deep into his wooded cabin to ask his opinion about handicap access problems in Keene, N.H., to the Texas senior citizen with an oxygen tank at her side, a lit cigarette dangling from her lips, and a hyper-kinetic poodle who liked his dog biscuits pre-chewed, door-knocking is one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences of my life. (And yes, I did pre-chew. Hey, she was busy filling out her absentee ballot for Barack Obama.)

What has all that door knocking accomplished?

Janice: What have all of our blisters accomplished? Well, Betsy Coffia went from a social worker with a 4.5 percent name recognition to the landslide winner of the Democratic primary, over a candidate backed by the county Democratic Party. And oh yeah—there’s that guy in the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue…

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