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Knocking Doors and Nudging Democrats: My Experience Canvassing in Missouri for the 2022 Midterms



I am a textbook introvert who loves knocking on strangers’ doors.


Yep, you read that correctly! I'll knock on hundreds of doors and talk to dozens of complete strangers on some days. Like a classic introvert, I usually spend my weekend mornings sitting alone with a good book. Three hours later, you'll likely find me standing on a stranger's doorstep and talking to them about affordable healthcare.


My name is Jon. I’m a campaign tech fellow for Bluebonnet, and I also like to get involved in politics through door-to-door canvassing. The two goals of canvassing are usually to either: (1) persuade voters to support a candidate or (2) remind already-persuaded voters to turn out to vote in the election.


As a lifelong introvert, I could have never imagined myself in this position. I grew up in an Asian American household that seldom discussed politics, even though I've long been a voracious reader of political news. Still, campaigning never seemed like something I'd get involved in. That all changed in 2020. After a tumultuous year (to say the least) of a raging pandemic, racial turmoil, and economic malaise, I decided enough was enough. Enough of merely consuming the news. I was ready to contribute toward putting competent and compassionate leaders into office.


Fast forward to this past summer, when I canvassed throughout the St. Louis Metro Area, where I was born and raised. Most of my work involved meeting Missouri Democrats before the primary election, before shifting to more moderate voters during my few weeks in August as the campaigns geared up for the November 8th general election.


There are some common frustrations with this line of work. Most people never answer the door. Maybe they're genuinely not home. But I do get suspicious when I see cars parked on the driveway. Or when the sound of footsteps suddenly ceases the moment I ring the doorbell. You never get to talk to as many people as you'd hope.


Some might mistake you for a missionary—others for a solicitor. “No Soliciting” signs became the bane of my existence (along with “Beware of Dog” signs) after getting chewed out by a lady with one of them on her front porch. To be perfectly clear: Canvassing differs from soliciting. Canvassers have rights and protections. But most people aren't going to make that distinction when a stranger approaches their home.


One time while I was out canvassing, a lady stormed out onto her front porch as I started to walk away from her house. "WHO ARE YOU?!" she yelled. I briskly turned around, and she shoved her phone in my face, presumably to record me. Lifting my arms up, I calmly defused the situation (luckily, it turns out she was a supporter!).


But fortunately, instances of open hostility were exceedingly rare. Despite the shouting matches you may see on TV or the vitriol you may encounter on social media, most people in real life are not gunning for a fight. Voters are much less antagonistic in person.


At most, if you stumble across someone voting for your opponent, they'll quietly shake their head or frown. That'll be a quick end to your conversation. Infinitely more irritating were the folks who seemed wholly disinterested. Plenty of people stare at you blankly, waiting for you to finish delivering your spiel. Hell, I talked to voters who had no idea who our candidate was the day before the primary! For an avid consumer of political news like me, it was shocking that most Americans aren't constantly dialed-in to politics.


For those that were willing and able to talk for two minutes, we had some great conversations! Contrary to what you might expect, canvassers don't waste their time attempting to persuade opposition voters. We mainly speak with people who are at least somewhat sympathetic to our cause already, who may need a little nudge to vote for our particular candidate in the fall.


Some people required no prodding at all. One of my favorite discussions remains a 96-year-old man who blamed the Republican Party for starting WWII. I mean, there are plenty (and I mean plenty) of reasons to despise the GOP, but I’d never heard that one before.


Not everyone was so readily convinced. I met one woman feeling conflicted between the Uvalde school shooting and the Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court decision. She described herself as supportive of gun rights, as well as pro-choice. After discussing the need for common-sense gun reform and reproductive rights, she seemed open to voting for a Democrat in November.


Most of my interactions followed this routine. After introducing myself and putting the other person at ease about talking to a stranger, I would introduce the candidate and tie their positions to certain topics that the voter cared about. As expected, abortion was a salient issue for many people I spoke with over the summer.


But there were some unexpected moments as well. At one house, I was speaking with a woman about the election, when a toddler hazily entered my peripheral view as he wandered around the family's living room. The kid walked closer and closer to the front door to be with his mom, and as he came clearer and clearer into focus, I was alarmed when I noticed that the kid standing in front of me was butt-naked. I kept my eyes glued to the woman's face and quickly shifted the conversation to how she'd be voting in the fall. Neither of us acknowledged the naked toddler standing right in the doorway!


That was certainly memorable.


More of my most meaningful connections included the conversations I had with other Asian voters. Growing up in an Asian American household, I can tell you that Asian immigrants do not open the door to strangers. On top of that, Asian American political participation has historically lagged (though hopefully, that’s beginning to change). Given these barriers, it felt especially rewarding whenever an Asian household decided to open its door to me upon seeing my face.


There also exist huge barriers facing Democratic candidates in Missouri. After spending a century as the quintessential swing state, Missouri has lurched to the political right. The unenviable position of being a Democrat in Missouri was a frequent and palpable undertone in many of my conversations. Missouri's ruby-red status was tacitly acknowledged and even joked about. Many of the people I spoke to inquired about a candidate's chances of beating a Republican opponent in November as if bracing themselves for eventual disappointment. Numerous voters turned down my offers of yard signs, wishing to keep a low profile living amongst a neighborhood full of Republicans. Missouri Democrats, we tend to be shy and demoralized. Moreover, Democratic primaries in the Show-Me State tend to favor moderate candidates – doubly frustrating for a staunch progressive such as myself.


Nevertheless, I refuse to tolerate complacency as an answer. Yes, it is frustrating to campaign in unfriendly political territory. But sometimes, things are just that important. The political issues shaping the direction of this country are important to me. And if something is important, then it should be championed with conviction. Especially in unfriendly territory.


The Missouri congressional candidate I supported in 2020 lost the general election by roughly six percentage points, and the newest candidate I canvassed for over the summer may very well go on to lose this November (especially when considering Missouri's latest redistricting cycle). I may not be optimistic about the outcome of every race, but I am not going down without a fight.


Though I just started this past summer, I intend to continue canvassing in some capacity for the foreseeable future. Right now, I'm staying involved in a competitive Rhode Island congressional race. I will strive to find ways to stay involved with canvassing in every election cycle and wherever I may end up in my future endeavors.


If you're interested in canvassing, there are ample opportunities to volunteer with campaigns in your area. Campaigns are always scrambling for volunteers, and I'm sure organizers will appreciate having extra hands on deck. Have a local candidate you like? Find their website, and a section for volunteer opportunities will be right at the top next to the big, colorful "Donate" button. Not sure where to look? Find opportunities through organizations like SwingLeft.


And if you're politically minded but feel that your introversion is holding you back: don’t let it. Canvassing is not the social nightmare that so many people imagine it to be. No matter who you are, some cause must be important to you. Find a reason to get out there!


Now excuse me. It’s time for me to knock on another person’s door.


 

Here are some tips for getting started with canvassing (particularly tailored to introverts, though they apply to all)!


  1. Make the voter feel at ease – People will likely experience some degree of apprehension toward a stranger at their doorstep. Remember to smile, say your name, and stand closely but comfortably away from the door. As an introvert, put yourself in the voter's shoes. As someone who should know what it's like to be on the other end, do whatever you know makes you feel comfortable talking to a stranger! Repeating the voter's first name can quickly build rapport between the two of you.

  2. Prepare your message (but also prepare to adapt) – Some people might prefer to talk off-the-cuff, but for me, composing a set of points in advance guides the conversation and minimizes any awkward silences when I hit the doors. Basic information includes the candidate's name, the position they're running for, and some of their stances. It's helpful to repeat your candidate's name if the voter seems unfamiliar (names can leave a powerful, personal impression). Of course, avoid reciting your points like you're reading a script, and leave room for the conversation to flow in other directions. Whatever you do, don't forget to ask the person how they'll be voting this year and remind them when Election Day is!

  3. Practice your delivery – The way you deliver your message makes a huge difference. Go into each and every encounter feeling optimistic. Assume that you're talking to a supporter! Don't be afraid to be assertive. We're counting on them to vote!

  4. You don't need to know everything – Most voters don't need the intricate details of specific policies on multiple issues. So long as you communicate what is significant and how it could impact the person you're talking to, that'll probably be enough! If a voter asks you a question that you don't know the answer to, then I have an easy response for you to use: "I don't know." You won't be expected to know everything about a candidate. After all, you're not the one running for office! Don't let fear over a lack of knowledge discourage you from participating.

  5. Take time for yourself – Canvassing multiple hours in a day multiple times a week without breaks is a recipe for burnout. Take breaks and have fun!

 

About the Author


Jon Zhang (he/him) is a Bluebonnet Campaign Tech Fellow and student studying Political Science at Brown University. Jon first took an interest in politics by learning all of the US presidents when he was five. Now that he is older and wiser, Jon is eager to work with campaigns through Bluebonnet and canvassing, and he is considering a career in politics/government. Until then, Jon will keep on cooking Italian food, listening to 2010s pop, and watching Oscar-bait drama films in his spare time.

 

If you like what you’ve read and want to learn more, you can reach out at info@bluebonnetdata.org. Or, If you're interested in doing similar work, apply to be a Data Fellow!


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