Voter Outreach Conversations

9 mins read

Engaging Voters 

Regaining control of Republican State Legislatures, the US Senate and the Presidency as well as retaining control of the US Congress requires engaging million of voters across the country in support of Democratic campaigns. Voters can be contacted  remotely via letters, postcards, texts, phone calls, and social media, or directly through conversations at their doors. 

Face to face interactions are considered the most effective method of engaging voters. Conversations with voters aim at (i) identifying voters’ political leanings and/or level of support for a candidate; (ii) engaging undecided voters and persuade them to consider voting in general, or for a specific candidate in particular; and (iii) getting out the vote  (GOTV) on Election Day for a candidate. 

GOTV conversations are brief, easy to prepare for, and involve relatively large numbers of volunteers. Voter identification and persuasion conversations are more complex, with the type and order of questions often determining the effectiveness of engaging voters. These conversations are conducted early in an election cycle and attract fewer volunteers than GOTV. The nature of and preparation for voter identification and persuasion conversations are further discussed below.

Conversations

Research suggests that political campaigns are ineffective in convincing people how they should vote and therefore should focus on providing information and motivation that would increase their likelihood of voting. A model for the structure of such conversations is provided by Swing Left’s Superstate Canvassing Sample Script that starts with questions about voters’ readiness (voter registration status) and motivation (key concerns) to participate in the electoral process. 

Voter Readiness

Conversations about voters’ readiness involve confirming that they are registered to vote, know their state’s voter ID laws, and are aware of upcoming local, state and federal elections.

I learned from canvassing in diverse areas of the country that inquiring about awareness of and preparedness for upcoming elections usually elicits a response that may lead to discussions about the importance of casting votes. While the length and flow of conversations depend on voters’ willingness to share their views, people  who may dislike a political pitch do not seem to mind talking about their rights as voters.

I experienced this distinction first hand walking through the same Virginia Beach neighborhoods in July 2019, first knocking doors to promote Nancy Guy’s candidacy for Virginia’s House of Delegates, then on behalf of NAACP with a voter rights non partisan message.  Doors that closed in my face when I started to talk about the candidate, remained open for a conversation about voter readiness. 

Voter Motivation

Conversations about motivation aim at identifying issues voters may consider when deciding on a candidate, such as healthcare, childcare, and/or education. I had such conversations with voters deeply troubled by Republican policies yet skeptical about their votes making a difference, or hesitant to support pro-choice Democratic candidates while holding pro-life beliefs. 

Such deep canvassing conversations about personal experiences take time and entail explaining how policies needed to address voters’ concerns are ultimately the result of participating in the electoral process even when they feel that it has let them down in the past. 

The Handbook for Progressive Communicators provides valuable guidelines on how to conduct such conversations by : (i) leading with a shared value (“no matter our differences, most of us want similar things… good health and to get effective compassionate care whenever we are sick or injured”), (ii) describing the cause of a problem (“massive giveaways are part of the same budget that includes taking away medical care from struggling families”), (iii) emphasizing the need for a solution (“all of us need quality, affordable healthcare”) that is at stake during the upcoming election. 

Irrespective of the specific problem, issue or concern, these conversations need to employ “lived experiences” terms (getting treatment, affording medicines) rather than abstractions (e.g., medical insurance eligibility, benefits). 

Voting Pledge 

Voting readiness can be confirmed by signing pledge postcards that can be sent to voters as reminders prior to Election Day. Recently vote tripling has been promoted as another component, whereby in addition to their pledge to vote, voters are asked to provide the names of friends they will urge to cast ballots.

While a pledge to vote is considered valuable, asking voters to commit to support whoever emerges eventually as the Democratic candidate for President, Senate, and/or State Legislature in their districts as suggested by Swing Left’s script, is problematic. Most conversations with voters do not last long enough to leave time for such questions. Furthermore, asking for early pledges to vote for nameless candidates is not consistent with evidence from field experiments that suggest that “Voters in general elections appear to bring their vote choices into line with their predispositions close to Election Day“.

Preparation

Face to face interactions are the most effective method of engaging voters but are conducted by substantially less volunteers than other forms of voter outreach because they are arduous and time consuming. Ensuring that such interactions are effective is therefore critical for maximizing their results.

First time canvassers usually get a brief introduction to canvassing, then are encouraged to review scripts, experiment to figure out what works for them, and prepare to adjust to their interlocutors. Canvassing script best practices are conveyed in training sessions that also cover the key features of canvassing tools, such as MiniVAN.

Since candidate-centered messages are less effective in engaging voters than highlighting voting information, conversations have a better chance to succeed by leading with questions about voters’ readiness, followed by  questions about voters’ motivation which can serve as a transition to discussing candidates’ policy positions. 

Conversations about voters’ readiness are less complex and easier to prepare for than conversations about voters’ motivation which tend to be open-ended, therefore lengthier, unpredictable, and requiring improvisation. While more difficult to conduct, such deep canvassing conversations are valuable because of their potential to influence voters’ choices. 

Preparing for deep canvassing conversations can start by reading New York Times Magazine’s How Do You Change Voters’ Minds? Have a Conversation. Proficiency is gained gradually through practice, and involves the ability to listen, hold genuine conversations and sharing of personal stories.

It is important to keep in mind that knocking doors does not require proficiency in deep canvassing conversations. On average 20 doors are knocked per hour, with only about 20% opened. All conversations are likely to include voter readiness which is very valuable for mobilizing voters. Only some voters will be willing to discuss their motivations, and when these conversations fail to yield results they are still part of the practice needed to gain proficiency. 

Part of gaining canvassing experience consists in learning to avoid wasting time debating with opponents and not giving up on challenging conversations with undecided, infrequent or conflicted voters.  

Sharing canvassing stories helps both novice and experienced volunteers learn how liberating talking with voters could be.


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