Door-to-door Canvassing – a good strategy for Greens?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Who hasn’t heard about the successful canvassing of the 2008 Obama-Campaign and wondered whether it could work in their election campaign as well?

So far the traditional focus of German street activity is on public campaign stands. But how to reach those who never stop by? Our answer was “if people don’t come to you, go to the people”.  Compared to USA or UK there is no canvassing tradition in Germany. Due to privacy concerns, some of our activists were uncomfortable convincing people of a political opinion at their home. Are these fear right or would it have the same positive effects that you read about in U.S. Campaigns?

There is neither much literature or scientific research about canvassing in Germany nor many experiences from German green candidates until now. If canvassing is a new campaigning tool for greens, we can only find out by trying. A couple of candidates did this in the Berlin election of 2011, among them me in the historic center of Berlin with many tower blocks each with 250 flats. After three weeks of canvassing, there were 5,000 doors knocked on and lots of interesting conversations. Here is what my team and I learnt from it:

They don’t bite. Overall we had a quite positive feedback. As in the reports about canvassing in the USA the voters appreciated the effort to come the whole way to their home just to talk about a candidate and the Green Party. Sometimes it was the first contact ever that someone had with politicians. The most „extreme” reactions have been slammed doors of people who obviously dislike Alliance 90/The Greens. But then you just go to the next door where maybe someone who is happy to talk about green ideas lives.

Teamwork is important. Work in teams of at least two people. It’s more fun and more motivating. But don’t ring with more than 2 people at a door. It’s even better to divide the house among you and take one door per person. By the way: Best „door-openers“are women!

Strongholds or “lightholds” – where to start? Considering the little time and limited human resources you have to take a well-considered decision with which houses you start. We used for this decision only public data the election supervisor provided such as voter turnout or green results. Our decision fell for “the unconsidered” – those districts where voter turnout was below 50 % and for the “green-growers” – those areas where green results increased significantly over the last elections.

Start early enough. That’s important for two reasons. First, remembering the narrow time frame of Monday till Friday early evenings and imagining quarters without escalators or 200 neighbors in one apartment block, it takes some time to get through the blocks. Second, check the part of the postal voters in your elections. In Berlin 27,6 % of the eligible voters gave their votes by post, around 2/3 already more than 3 weeks before the elections. So start early enough to canvass not to miss these people. You usually get these public datas from your regional election supervisor.

The time frame is crucial. We have found that Monday to Friday between 17.45-20.00 is the best time to come. That’s the time when most people are at home doing basically nothing “really, really important”. It is good to know that in Germany that’s the time between work and the daily TV-news at 20.00. Saturday is a day that worked in some areas even in the late morning. However, in general, according to most candidates’ experience at the weekend itself the citizens preferred to have their privacy without politics at the door.

Many doors stay closed – simply because the people are not at home. We had a 30% rate of door opening, but the others should see as well that someone came all the stairs along to present the green ideas. Our solution was to hang a leaflet at the door knob like the „Do-Not-Disturb-Signs” at the hotels. We received some reactions via Email that some people like these unexpected greetings. Others had the constraint that the door-signs could be a help for burglars. Nevertheless we strongly recommend an „I was there” sign at best with a prepared personal message and your contact data.

Most conversations are short. More than 90 % of the conversations at the doors follow the same scheme.  We started with giving a leaflet to the person at the door with „Good evening, sorry for disturbing you, I would like to introduce to you YOUR candidate XYZ for the upcoming state house elections.“ Then a polite „Do you have any further questions?” followed. As a result, you usually leave the door after less than 60 seconds with a friendly “Goodbye and don’t hesitate to contact us” and go to the next door. This makes canvassing a very effective campaigning instrument. You meet more voters in less time than standing behind a campaign booth.

Have a short and clear message. You have 30-60 seconds to talk to a possible voter. So say in the first sentence why you came all the way along. This should be the guiding principle for all canvassers. Sometimes it makes more sense to only promote the party instead of the candidate. This depends on the electoral system.

5000 pressed bell-buttons: a good time investment?

Against all expectations in the run-up it was easier to get volunteers for canvassing than for „classic” campaign-activities. Of course it is time-limited, diversified election-activity after work. What are the effects on voters?  It is difficult to say. Due to the high rate of postal voters who are not attributable chronologically and a new structure of the regional vote allocation it’s not easy to prove a real effect.  But nevertheless you see something. Having rung 5000 doors in the electoral district where Silke run, the result shows an increase of 944 votes compared to 2006. This means gaining 35 % new votes. But does this justify 5000 pressed doorbells?

My Conclusion: Canvassing is a good measure to talk to many people personally and to introduce to green policy. You reach groups not/barely in touch with (green) politicians. Combined with an additional appearance in the neighborhood you have a high recognition value. We will keep on Canvassing in the upcoming elections.

Please note: when printing pages, each page of an article must be printed separately.


  1. antoine 22/01/2012 at 23:54 | Permalink |

    I’m not really convinced by the statistical consideration. Greens in Berlin went from 13% to 17% if I’m not wrong for the whole city, which makes the progression of 35% new votes in the district where you campaigned not particulary special (unless door-to-door canvassing was applied to whole Berlin but here again… the results in Berlin were clearly below the “Bundestrend”, so how far did door-to-door canvassing really help)?