John Tsarpalas: If you want to win your election, the most important thing you can do is go door to door. It’s Commonwealthy episode #10. Hey, we made it to double digits! Door to Door.
We’ve all heard the saying “all politics is local.” And what’s more local than a candidate or an activist going door to door talking to voters about their campaign, voting for them, or an issue? So today on Commonwealthy, I’d like to talk about the art of going door to door. Because there is an art to it. It takes practice and you’ll get better and better at it. I’ve got some tips and some thoughts on what you need to do to make it more interesting and keep it comfortable for yourself.
Where do you start? Well, first of all, a targeted walk list. A list of voters, registered voters, and the groups you might want to be talking to. You can sort data all different ways. You need to figure out what that is for your campaign. In most cases if you are running for office, it’s a list of those people that are registered to vote in your district.
Along with that list, you want some information: name, address, how many other people are in that household, ages if possible, sex if possible, and if there is any past data on them, an issue or something that is in some kind of database if you are sharing something. You want to know what all of those things are in advance because it will help you with your conversation at the door.
You need detailed maps. You need to know where the house is and who lives in which house. And you can get walk maps printed out that are one side of the street, other side of the street. They can have little pin drops on the map of the houses you want to hit.
You can sort by who you are trying to reach that day. Perhaps you are trying to reach all Republicans or all independents, and not go to Democrats or hard Dems. Maybe you want to include soft Democrats. It depends on what you are running for and what your strategy is for your campaign.
You need a clipboard or two, something to put that map on, something to put that walk list on. You need pens and pencils. In cold weather, pens freeze. I’ve been there. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to thaw out a pen, so have some pencils too if it cold out.
If you’ve got literature, have a nice walk piece, a simple piece in the design and logo of the campaign. Not only are you handing it to the person at the door, but you are leaving it if no one answers. You want to keep that literature in some kind of a waterproof bag, because what if it starts raining or snowing? You want to have a way to keep it protected. You can carry a few with you. Maybe it is a little backpack. You don’t want to look too weird with a backpack, but some kind of a bag or some way to carry to protect it.
Post-it notes. “Sorry I missed you” hand written on it and signed. If you are the candidate, you are signing it. You want to include a phone number if you want people to call you. Or at least say, “Sorry I missed you” and it is signed. And you are going to put these Post-it notes with your literature, one at a time of course, on a door that you missed.
And if you do it right, you can get the Post-it note to hold the literature for you. 3M tends to be stickier than others. So you leave part of the Post-it note exposed and the other part catches the top of the literature, and yet you still have enough sticky part to stick it to the door. I hope I explained that properly. You want to hand write those and you want to sign it if you are a candidate.
If you are going to be walking at night, you are going to need a flashlight or a lantern. Lantern is a little better in that it throws a bigger glow of light. You don’t want to be pointing a flashlight at somebody. You want to look friendly and you want to be well lit. So if you are out at night, a lantern works well.
Wintertime you want hand warmers. One reason is you are going to be shaking hands at the door. You want to keep that hand warmer in your pocket so you’ve got an ungloved hand that can both make notes when you walk away, but also for that handshake. You want your hand to be warm; you don’t want it to be cold when you are shaking hands.
Umbrella in case it is raining out. Good shoes, something that is comfortable, something that is going to work for walking a lot. You are going to be on your feet a lot. Water. The other thing is you can keep extra water in the car. We’ll get into having some volunteers with you in a little bit because they can help. But perhaps you’ve got a volunteer who is a driver and they can keep your yard signs, extra literature, and it is place you can jump in to warm up for a minute if it is cold out.
Pedometer sometimes is a fun thing to have. Having a pedometer and keeping track of how many miles you walk is a wonderful way to inspire donors and volunteers and others involved in your campaign.
Breath mints or gum: you do not want to get to the door and have bad breath. You want to dress to make a good impression. And if you are a candidate, part of your branding is how you dress. So you would also like to wear outfits that are also on your literature. If you’ve got a picture on your palm card, on this walk piece that you are handing out, wear the same outfit. And have multiples of that outfit so you are sort of always looking like what is on your literature. Keep it consistent.
Obviously there are going to be times you are wearing a raincoat or a heavy coat. Use photos of you in those different outfits on your campaign site and again in your literature so that there is consistency in your look. It is all part of your branding.
You are dressing for a good impression and you are dressing to look like a leader. You want to be well groomed, clothes clean and pressed, and you want to impress. So think about that and put together that package at the very beginning of your walking.
When do you walk? Well, just about any time from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. are good walking hours. Seven days a week, although it depends on your region. If you are in an area where Sundays are sort of the Sabbath, you don’t want to walk on a Sunday. If you live in an area that is a conservative Jewish neighborhood, you don’t want to walk on a Saturday. That’s their Sabbath.
So you need to pick and choose the day you are taking off. And if you walking six days a week, take a day off. Spend some time with family and friends. Don’t forget the kids. However, you should be out walking as much as possible, rain or snow, hot or cold. There’s nothing that sells a candidate better than one on one door, meeting people at their front door and talking to them. You are going to get out.
If you’ve got some volunteers and you can get them to come with you, that will expedite the process. Your volunteers can walk ahead of you, ringing bells, and see if they can get somebody to the door. You need to train your volunteers. They need to hear the same things that I am telling you. They need to dress appropriately, be prepared, and they need to understand how to talk to a voter and how to approach to the voter. They need to get that voter to the door and then stall them long enough so you can get there.
But usually you will find one in ten answers a door. People just aren’t home all the time. So if you’ve got a couple of people ahead of you ringing door bells, this will maximize your time as a candidate at that door.
Now if you are out on an issue, it’s always better to go out in pairs anyways just for safety sake. Walking alone can get a little weird. It depends what your neighborhoods are like and where you are at. It is always best to have safety in numbers.
And if you’ve got a third volunteer, they can be the driver. They can follow along in their car. And in the car can be water, the heat can be on if it is winter, extra clothing, and in the trunk can be more literature and yard signs. Because as you are going door to door and you are finding enthusiastic supporters, you are going to ask if they would like a yard sign.
When you are walking away from the door, you can single the driver to go put that yard sign in their yard right away. And when you are asking for that yard sign, you are going to ask, “Is it okay if we put it up right away? I’ll have my guy stick it right in your yard.” This takes care of that right away and it looks great to suddenly have a neighborhood where a bunch of signs pop up. It helps to build name ID and name recognition. Most people you missed who you left a literature for see the neighbor had a sign. They might then talk to the neighbor about, “Oh, was he here? Did you talk to him? What did you think of him?” That’s all wonderful things to have happen.
So let’s go back to the beginning here of approaching the door. The first thing is as you approach the house, you want to look at your walk list. You want to see who lives there. What are their first names? Do you have any background on them or their ages? So when you get to the door, you can say, “Hi, my list of registered voter says you might be Judy. Is that who you are?” or something along that line. It is a great opening line.
Before you get to that door, though, you are going to look for bumper stickers or frames on the license plates on their cars or flags flying. Is there a college flag or a Marine flag? Was the bumper sticker “I support the NRA”? There’s all kinds of information that people put up around their house and on their vehicles that can help you with your approach to them or something you can use as an opening line to talk to them. And you might want to note those things on your walk list so that you know.
Of course if there is already a yard sign in the yard for your opponent, you can ask if they are supporting them. Often they are. Sometimes they say, “Nah, somebody just asked us if they can put it up.” Perhaps you can talk them into putting yours up instead. You just don’t want to waste a lot of time doing that.
When you are approaching the door and when you are leaving, use the sidewalk. There is nothing worse than guys cutting across the grass. I was always finicky about my grass. So be respectful.
Walk up to the door. Ring the bell. And then take a few steps back. People are nervous when their doorbell rings. “Who is it? Is it a delivery? Is it a stranger? Is it somebody trying to sell me something?” So if you step back a little bit from the door, you give them a little breathing room and a little space to build a little trust.
Be smiling. And if you’ve got some literature, hold the literature up. It gives them an idea as they are looking out the front door window of who you are and why you are there. And then they’ll feel more comfortable to open that door. Don’t approach immediately. Start with asking them if they are the person on the walk list or just say, “Hi, I am John Tsarpalas and I am running of commissioner of Door to Door. I wanted to talk to you for a minute about my campaign and I wanted to know more about what you think of this neighborhood or what issues are concerning you.” Or if you are there about a specific issue, “I am here to talk to you about the fair tax” if that is what you are out talking about.
Try to engage them a little bit, but then listen. Try to get them talking. You don’t have to sell them on one thing. You want to hear what their thoughts are. Have a little conversation with them. You do not want to get tied up for five, ten, or fifteen minutes at a door. That’s why having volunteers ahead of you ringing bells is very helpful. Because if they are knocking on the doors ahead of you, they could be down there waiting with another voter. That’s your excuse to break off.
But you want them to get to know you a little bit, you get to know them a little bit. You want to know what they are concerned about and what are their issues. Be polite. Don’t argue. If they are confrontational, don’t get into it. Smile. Find something you can agree on and move on. Positive image that you build at a door is going to help when people start getting the campaign pieces in the mail. If they’ve met you and they remember you, that’s going to do a lot to inoculate you against the false attacks and garbage that your opponents are going to be sending.
Okay, what if the door is open and there is a dog barking? Well, you could stand there for a little bit and if no one comes, then obviously leave. If a child comes to the door, I usually say, “Could you get your parents? Is your mother or father home?” and let the kid go away from the door. Don’t engage the kid with anything beyond that. If nobody is home, leave your Post-it note, “Sorry I missed you,” with your literature.
And as you walk away, make some notes: who you talked to, what was the issue, what did you note about the house and the yard. And you can make some little personal notes, like you saw a flag that they were flying and they are Notre Dame fans or they had some really beautiful flowers. Make a note, “Lovely garden. Great petunias.” You can use this later on when you are going to drop them a postcard.
If you approach a house and the voter is in their car or standing outside, don’t rush them. Approach slowly, again smiling and holding up your literature. Let them process who you are before you start to approach. “Hi, I am John. I am running for commissioner of Door to Door. I’d like to give you a piece of my literature and see what you are interested in and concerned about in our neighborhood.” Say that from a distance and approach slowly. And then take the conversation where it goes.
A couple of things for your volunteers. Let them have some kind of buttons, stickers, or t-shirts that identify your campaign. And they’ve got your literature, too. As I said, they are working ahead of you and they are ringing doorbells. Prep them in some conversation. Rehearse them before they go to some real doors. Let them hang with you for a half-hour or hour and see how you work the door. Explain to them how you need to not get too close to the door. Do everything we just talked about with them so they got the right idea.
If you have kids of your own and they want to come with you, that’s always fun. It looks good. It’s a great image. However, make sure if they are little and they don’t have a high attention span that you have a car nearby that you can get them off with some other people or get them home. You don’t want to be dragged off course after just a half hour or something. Have the spouse there that could take them home or be able to call and get the spouse there quickly.
Always make notes of what happened at the door. They are supporting you or they are not supporting you. They are undecided. They are not home. They said yes to a yard sign. They had your opponent’s yard sign. They are worried about educational issues and the cost of schools in the neighborhood. Write down what other issue is important to them. Take good notes.
What are you going to do with those notes? Well, when you get back to the office or in the next couple of days, you are going to write two postcards at the same time. The first card you are going to mail right away. It is what is known as a bounce back card or follow up card. You are going to say, “It was nice to meet you.” You are going to sign it. And if they had a Bears sign up or whatever happens to be the team of choice, write, “Go Bears” on it. If it is a certain issue, “Good to talk to you about education.” A little note about what was there.
And if they weren’t there, you are going to send them a card anyway. With these cards, you are going to write, “Really enjoyed your garden,” things like that that you notice about the house. “Sorry I missed you. Really enjoyed your garden.” But you are going to mail these cards to every list that you’ve walked. And you are going to do it about a day to a week later.
But you are writing a second card. The second card is going into your Get Out the Vote pile. Those are cards for people who identified they are going to vote for you. And again, you are personalizing them. So when they get it and it is the day before the election or in the early voting period, they are going say, “Huh, he remembered he talked to me about education.” And they don’t know you wrote it the day after. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is they are going to remember you personalized it.
So that’s my tips for door knocking. I like door knocking. I like talking to people. I’ve always had a good time, even in cold weather. I’ve been out hot or cold, rain or shine. It’s always fun to talk to people at the door.
Now you are going to run into some hostiles and some crazies. I’ve got the guy who was naked on the side of his house watering his flowers. I didn’t talk to him long. I kind of backed away. And I’ve had the very hostile people. And it can be interesting. Some neighborhoods are very hostile. It could be just the suburbs of Chicago. Certain hoods are very bad and I was in some. So that’s a problem, but you just smile, say sorry, and move on.
Something else to think about is a lot of doors will have, “Sorry no solicitors” or “No solicitors allowed.” There’s a local ordinance where they put that up. Those laws do not pertain to campaign and political speech. You can ring that doorbell and you can try to engage those people. Often I’ve gotten, “It says no solicitors on the door. What are you doing knocking on my door?” I’ll say, “I’m sorry. It’s okay under the first amendment for me to knock on any door. The solicitation laws are about people selling things and I am not selling anything. This is about political rhetoric. I am sorry.” And just walk away. Don’t leave your literature. Don’t do anything. Just leave.
But people can be noticed at a door. They will warm up. There are people who will love to talk. So excuses to break off, “I’m sorry, I’ve got someone at the next door that’s waiting for me,” “I’m sorry, I’ve got to get moving. I’ve got to be done with this block at such and such time.” There are people who will talk your ear off.
And I used to do this to people. If a Democrat knocked on my door, I’d get them talking and talking and talking to me. And I’d keep them talking because I’d think I would be wasting their time. And I know Democrats in my neighborhood who have done that to Republicans. They’ll just try to waste your time and get you to talk a long, long time.
And then there are people who just like to talk. So you’ve got to figure out how to break away. And having a volunteer who can be a wing man and double back and say, “John, we’ve got to move on. There’s somebody down the street who wants to talk to you.” That works and you just move on.
What’s important out of this is to get good data, to make a good first impression, and then to follow up. Follow up is important. All of your information needs to go into your database. People voting for you need to be turned out in the Get Out the Vote plan. And people who are undecided need to be followed up with more literature. Hopefully with the undecided you can find out an issue that they are worried about and that you can follow up on that issue with them.
So you want to win? You want to win a local election? It really is about one on one and door to door. There’s no better way to win an election than if you’ve gotten out and knocked on every door. It isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. It can be fun. It is good for your health with all that walking. And it is a winning, winning strategy.
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Thanks for listening!
I like door knocking. I like talking to people. I’ve always had a good time, even in cold weather.