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"Canvasser" redirects here. For the sales occupation, see Peddler.
For the Wikipedia guideline on canvassing, see Wikipedia:Canvassing
Senior British Labour Party politician Jack Straw canvassing with local councillors in Blackburn

Canvassing is the systematic initiation of direct contact with a target group of individuals commonly used during political campaigns. A campaign team (and during elections a candidate) will knock on doors of private residences within a particular geographic area, engaging in face-to-face personal interaction with voters. Canvassing may also be performed by telephone, where it is referred to as telephone canvassing. The main purpose of canvassing is to perform voter identification – to poll how individuals are planning to vote – rather than to argue with or persuade voters.[1] This preparation is an integral part of a "get out the vote" operation, in which known supporters are contacted on polling day and reminded to cast their ballot.

Purposes of canvassing[edit]

Canvassers organize materials for the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign

The above qualification notwithstanding, canvassing may be performed to achieve a combination of the following objectives. For example, a canvass focused on persuading people to vote for a particular candidate or ballot issue may also solicit funds and sign up new members to an organization:

  • Identifying supporters (voter identification or voter ID) in preparation for a Get out the vote (GOTV) operation.
  • Performing Get Out the Vote (GOTV) during an election
  • Distributing information and printed materials
  • Winning individuals by persuasion
  • Fundraising
  • Signing up new members
  • Voter registration
  • Educational Campaigning
  • Campaign/Issue Visibility
  • Prospecting/Personal Selling
  • Stealth Marketing/Guerrilla Marketing
  • Sales Approach
  • Promotional Campaign/Activity

Canvassing and GOTV[edit]

A key concept in canvassing is to target the population that is being contacted. For example, if the goal of a canvass is to turn out voters on election day for a Democratic candidate, then knocking on Republican doors may not be a great use of time and resources. Targeting can be quite sophisticated and may employ voting history data, census data, and consumer habits. Part of an overall field strategy may be to do a canvass focused on identifying likely supporters who will then be canvassed again directly before the election during the "get out the vote" (GOTV) phase of the campaign. Even if sophisticated data is not available, most field operations professionals will spend energy trying to reduce randomness in their contacts in order to optimize their use of time and resources.

Role of canvassing in persuasion[edit]

Converting voters should ideally be a central goal although it is difficult and time consuming because it requires knowledgeable and charismatic canvassers. Persuasion canvassing can also involve dropping off literature and campaign marketing materials like lawn signs, window signs, and bumper stickers (given to supporters). As canvassers work a population they will often make careful notes and use classification codes to record their interaction with the public.

Types of canvassing[edit]

Field canvasses[edit]

Working America Dave Ninehouser at a Working America member's door

Field canvasses are done by going door to door to every home and apartment in a district, a ZIP code or some other unit of geographic measurement. They have the advantage that people are generally more open to talking to someone in person and literature can be delivered and lawn signs put up at the same time as the canvass. A field canvass can also guarantee completeness as each house can be accounted for. A field canvass is usually done by one or two individuals, either both at one door, or one on each side of the street.

For Contractors utilizing "Field Canvassing" it works best when working around a current or previous jobsite. Otherwise called Jobsite Radiation.

On election day itself a Party will often visit the homes of known supports asking them to vote, this process is often referred to as 'Knocking up'.

Candidate canvasses[edit]

A variation of the field canvass is a candidate canvass; these are done with the actual candidate in a district. With only one candidate, however, time is a valuable commodity. The candidate is thus usually accompanied by a half dozen or more volunteers who knock on doors. If they find no one home, the candidate does not go to that home. If they find a person, the volunteer finds out if they would like to meet the candidate. If they would, the volunteer signals the candidate.

Phone canvasses[edit]

Canvassing can also be done by telephone by activists who will be working from a script. The following is an excerpt from a script used by the UK Labour Party in the buildup to a general election:

Hello, can I speak to (voter's name) please? Hello (voter's name) my name is (name). I'm calling on behalf of (MP/parliamentary spokesperson). I'm calling to find out your views on the Labour government's priorities. Which of the following do you think are the three most important priorities for the government? [Lists five policy areas – 'better schools', 'better hospitals', 'more jobs', 'less crime' and 'strong economy'] Let me tell you what Labour is doing in these areas and what the Tories would do if they were re-elected [refers to 'dividing lines' table where Conservative policies are compared unfavourably with Labour]. Now can I ask you which party you think you will vote for at the next general election?[2]

The script then divides into two sections based on whether the voter intends to support Labour or another party. The section for Labour supporters encourages the use of postal votes, asks whether the individual would consider displaying a poster in their window or deliver leaflets on their street and asks whether the individual would consider joining the party.[2] The section for non-Labour voters asks the following questions:[2] This sample script is also representative of elections in the United States, in which a volunteer might ask, "if the election for (congress, governor, president, etc.) were held today, would you vote for (Candidate A) or (Candidate B)?

  1. Which main political party do you identify with?
  2. There will be elections in (date), which party will you vote for at these elections?
  3. How did you vote in the last general election?
  4. Who would be your second choice?
  5. Do you vote at every election?

The script concludes by thanking the voter before ending the call.


While canvassing is often performed by unpaid volunteers, many organizations and campaigns may also hire paid canvassers. This allows organizations to reach a larger number of people by hiring and training a dependable staff. Wages for canvassing jobs tend to be low. Job security may also be limited by short canvass cycles, often taking place before elections or in months with uncomfortable weather. Some organizations, such as the AFL-CIO, may have year-round, permanent canvassing offices. Depending on the difficulty of the required tasks and the level of pay, these positions often have a high turnover rate. Some employees of advocacy groups and political campaigns may be required to canvass as part of their larger job requirements, in order to supplement canvassing staff. However, some individuals do work full-time as canvassers. Some canvassers, including those employed by the Fund for the Public Interest, have been blocked in their attempts to unionize in order to receive better wages and benefits. Other groups such as Connecticut Citizen Action Group are unionized shops that include their canvass into the bargaining unit.

Disadvantages of canvassing[edit]

While canvassing can be productive, it may frustrate many would-be voters. If constituents are contacted too often, they may feel that their privacy is threatened. Many canvassers are aware that "No Soliciting" signs hold no legal power over political speech, which is protected by the 1st Amendment.

Some areas have a low density of targets. Campaigns will typically try to canvass higher-density areas by foot, but lower-density areas may require canvassers with cars or for the campaign to skip those areas altogether. The standard measure of canvass target density used by campaigns is the Stoddard[disambiguation needed], or targets per acre. Typically, campaigns will try to canvass areas with a Stoddard of 10 or higher.[citation needed]

Constitutionality of canvassing in the United States[edit]

Throughout the 21st century, local governments in the United States have passed local laws to limit Americans’ ability to canvass. Many of these challenges escalated to the Supreme Court, which has ruled overwhelmingly on the side of the public’s right to canvass as protected by the First Amendment. For example, in Martin v. Struthers, Justice Hugo Black stated:

“Freedom to distribute information to every citizen wherever he desires to receive it is so clearly vital to the preservation of a free society that … it must be fully preserved. To require a censorship through license which makes impossible the free and unhampered distribution of pamphlets strikes at the very heart of the constitutional guarantees."[3]

In 2002, the Supreme Court reconfirmed its conviction that canvassing is protected by our First Amendment rights in Watchtower Society v. Village of Stratton. Justice John Paul Stevens stated:

"It is offensive, not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so."[4]

Canvassing organizations[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ How to Win an Election, Paul Richards, Second Edition, p. 87
  2. ^ a b c Telephone canvassing script, Labour Party, as published in How to Win an Election, Paul Richards, p.90-91
  3. ^ "MARTIN v. STRUTHERS, 319 U.S. 141 (1943), 319 U.S. 141, MARTIN v. CITY OF STRUTHERS, OHIO. No. 238. Argued March 11, 1943. Decided May 3, 1943.". FindLaw. Retrieved 2015-01-03. 
  4. ^ "WATCHTOWER BIBLE & TRACT SOCIETY OF NEW YORK, INC., et al. v. VILLAGE OF STRATTON et al. certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit. No. 00-1737. Argued February 26, 2002--Decided June 17, 2002". FindLaw. Retrieved 2015-01-03. 
  5. ^ "MembershipDrive: About Us". MembershipDrive. Retrieved 2015-01-03.