New Orleans In a generic way “canvassing” is a big methodological bucket that holds everything from doorknocking to GOTV election efforts to “chugging” or charity mugging, as it’s called in the United Kingdom to door-to-door cause-based fundraising to support various organizations and issues. Canvassing is part of the nuts and bolts of many organizing efforts and when deployed as a fundraising tool has had a pivotal, though largely behind the scenes role in financing numerous organizations over the last forty years of its implementation. As a funding mechanism the technique has evolved from street canvasses emphasizing door-to-door work to phone canvasses based on list building from the streets, and what we used to call “petitioning” at ACORN, which is a form of canvassing popular in many countries in public spaces and high trafficked high streets, malls, and tourist zones.
Canvassing has been so much a part of the back shop infrastructure of many organizations and issue campaigns, that it was surprise to see an article focusing on the tool in — of all places — the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Their interest had been piqued by the role canvassing was playing at the friction points of the current headline divisions around the human and equal rights for LGBT individuals as well as a scholarly dustup around the drama of contending articles about the effectiveness of canvassing and particular canvassers in the well regarded journal, Science.
I had followed the Science controversy closely because it involved Professor Donald Green, a political scientist formerly of Harvard and now at Columbia, who is probably the foremost expert on the effectiveness of various political campaign techniques in the country. ACORN had invited Green to study our work which he did in Arizona some years ago to measure the effectiveness of door-to-door voter contact and persuasion compared to direct mail, advertising and other methods. The results helped rebalance the importance of field work and the ground war compared to the air war. The controversy in Science had involved a piece with a student whose dissertation Green was monitoring and his finding that using LGBT individuals to do direct contact voter work or canvassing was more persuasive than not in moving voters more positively towards equal rights for LGBT individuals and families. The results struck me as common sense then and still do. People respond to people. The controversy had to do with some over enthusiastic handling of the data and inability to retrieve it, leading to the article being withdrawn from Science and unfortunate stories in the Times, enshrouding what should have been simple empirical proof for something self-evident.
The Times Magazine story focused on the canvass program called the Leadership Lab run under the auspices of the Los Angeles LGBT Center by Dave Fleischer. He and his team made the case that something they called “deep” canvassing through door-to-door conversations was persuasive enough to not only move potential supporters to a positive position on the issues, judged numerically as a “10,” but also would be sufficient to inoculate the folks canvassed in this way to withstand the negative, not-in-my-bathroom type of anti-rights campaigns directed at the LGBT community. What’s more a new article in Science by another set of professors that used the Leadership Lab as a field case study confirms the argument and experience on the doors.
And, you know that makes sense too, and confirms what any organizer could tell you from their own experience in listening and talking to people over and over, house by house, street by street, community by community, city by city, state by state, and country by country. We just need a lot more of it, no matter what it’s called, because it makes a huge and permanent difference. It’s part of what change is about.