I was visiting with a brilliant and thoughtful friend of mine when she made a comment that startled me. She said that she thought good elected officials should not campaign much.
I had begun, without discussing it with anyone, to think of campaigning as part of governing. Her comment reminded me how out-of-the-norm that approach is.
A political consultant I know recently summarized a good candidate as having 2 jobs: knocking on doors and calling people to ask for money. Other occupations, like planning expensive events that rarely cover their costs, fighting with people in the comments sections of articles, like editing and re-editing their online newsletters after their campaign managers finished them, are not often the best use of that candidate’s time.
I am going to focus on the first of those 2 jobs, because the issue and awkwardness of calling people to ask them for money is an entirely different post. I am also going to focus on knocking doors because I think it is one of the best ways to get to know a district and the one I know best.
First, some data. Knocking on doors is called “field” and is the part of campaigns involving talking directly to potential voters to convince them to support a particular candidate or proposition. It can be the most effective use of time and cash a candidate can make–thus, it being one of their 2 jobs. Several academics have made their careers talking about field and have found it works. Here’s a quote from 2 Berkeley PhD candidates–yes, the same ones who found the UCLA candidate was faking his data–on why they think campaigns should spend more on field:
By far the most effective way to turn out voters is with high-quality, face-to-face conversations that urge them to vote. How do we know? Nearly two decades of rigorous randomized experiments have proven it.
Alan Gerber and Don Green ran the first of these “field experiments” in 1998. The professors randomly assigned voters to receive different inducements to vote: some received postcards, some received phone calls, some received a visit from a canvasser, and some received nothing.
The experiment found that voters called on the phone or sent postcards were not noticeably more likely to vote than those sent nothing. But canvassing was different. Just one in-person conversation had a profound effect on a voter’s likelihood to go to the polls, boosting turnout by a whopping 20 percent (or around 9 percentage points).
Washington state has seen that impact close-up recently. The first city in the United States to pass a $15 minimum wage was SeaTac, not Seattle, and that victory was all about field. That is according to this awesome woman who managed that program and who is now a candidate for Seattle City Council. I have been delighted to spend the last 2 weekends knocking doors for her.
Since I arrived in Washington, I have knocked hundreds of doors in support of progressive candidates. I getting to know the sidewalks, potholes, and excitable Chihuahuas who make-up the daily lives of most constituents. I have written more lyrically about knocking doors, but the basics are this. I get a list of names and addresses of people who might be interested in a candidate. It may be a paper-list in a thrifty, pre-primary campaign, or a list on an app like NGP’s VAN on a party-funded, post-primary campaign.
Door knocking (known as “doorbelling” in Washington state) goes like this. I drive to the outside of my list’s locations–called my “turf”–and I start walking and knocking. If I am lucky, 1 in 3 doors will open. For the others, I will leave a piece of literature on the welcome mat with a hand-written note.
The rhythm goes: find the next door; walk to the door; smile; knock; listen to hear if anyone is coming, other than the dog flipping out on the other side of the door; write “Sorry I missed you!” on the literature; knock again; listen again, making non-threatening eye-contact with the territorial dog; put the literature down on the mat (it’s a crime to put it in the mailbox); listen again; mark the person on the list as “Not home”; walk to sidewalk to find next door. If I am lucky and have extra time, I will go back by those the houses where no one answered and knock on the doors again. Someone who was not at home at 10am might be back by 2pm.
I have heard that to be considered viable by at least one state’s political party, a candidate for the legislature needs to knock at least 5,000 doors long before the primary. A candidate can knock about 20 doors an hour with about 3 minutes a house, so that is 2 and a half months of knocking doors three hours a day, to a total of 60 doors a day. Candidates who can reach 100 doors a day on a weekend can knock fewer during the week, but not by much. When I say 3 minutes a house, that might be 2 minutes for 2 houses that no one answers and then 5 minutes to talk to the person who answers the 3rd door. (Most people don’t want to talk to a stranger at their door for more than 5 minutes.)
Knocking doors can be tedious. It can be the cause of sunburns and twisted ankles and no small number of dog scares. A few weeks ago, I got bit all-over by some kind of mosquito and slightly concerned when I saw this:
But imagine being a successful candidate who does that hard work, who spends 3 hours a day every day for 83 days talking to the people she wants to represent. Don’t think about whether it will help her get elected, though the research above says it will. Think instead about the stories her future constituents tell her, the gripes they share. Think about how she will personally feel about poorly-maintained sidewalks after walking to 5,000 houses. Think about the parks she takes a breather in, the school playgrounds she walks beside, the potholes that make cars squeal and bottom-out beside her as she walks.
Now think about the first image that comes to mind at the word “governing.” Harry Truman sitting behind a dark-wood desk? Newt Gingrich droning on and on and on TV or Mitch McConnell sitting in a committee listening to someone else drone on. That is not how it often works, but it is a passive, elitist image that poisons our representative democracy.
Imagine instead that same candidate who walked to 5,000 doors sitting as a first-term state Senator on the transportation committee, arguing for more revenue-sharing with cities so they can repair those gosh-darned potholes. Imagine her arguing for more funding for schools, because she saw that broken-down slide and knows the capital budget could help fix it.
I believe constituents should know their representatives, not because it’s a civic duty to do so, but because the representatives are as present in their lives as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are in all of ours–regardless of whether we want them to be. I think representatives should be accessible, not just by phone or a meeting, but on Twitter, on Facebook, by text and, yes, no matter how inconvenient, in person in district.
When I was answering phones for Representative Hunter‘s office in Olympia, the people who felt most secure making their feelings heard and their views known were those who had met him in person. I got calls and saw emails mentioning that he’d knocked on their doors last year, 5 years ago, 10 years ago. People remembered and that memory made them feel like their representatives were people who were responsible to them. Not in some kind of abstract, civic-lesson kind of way, but in the immediate way.
Campaigning can be a part of governing. It can make elected officials personally and consistently accessible to the people they represent. It can make their constituents sure in their hearts that they can influence the policies which weave around their lives. That is how democracy is supposed to work.
“And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.
So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country