Five things I learned about canvassing

Opinion: People are odder than you’d expect

‘After a couple of weeks, I was enjoying the process. And the main reason was that people were so friendly and warm. They appreciated having their views canvassed.’  Photograph: Getty Images

‘After a couple of weeks, I was enjoying the process. And the main reason was that people were so friendly and warm. They appreciated having their views canvassed.’ Photograph: Getty Images


Your doorbell rings. On your doorstep, you find a friendly young person with a handful of leaflets and an official-looking clipboard. “We’re just in the area with our candidate,” they will begin. There’s no escape. You are about to be canvassed.

Five years ago, I was one of those candidates. It was me who interrupted your supper or stopped you mid-sentence as you read your child a bedtime story. I stood in the local elections in Dublin City. The party I represented is irrelevant here (the word “wipeout” will give you a clue), because the process and experience of canvassing is pretty universal.

In the eight months of my campaign, I learned much about myself, the citizens of the capital and the subtle art of canvassing. Permit me to share five of them with you.

1 Canvassing works

Research (by Dr Aodh Quinlivan of University College Cork among others) shows that canvassing is the most effective way of campaigning in Ireland. The number one factor in helping people decide to whom they will give their vote is not policy, or party affiliation. It is whether they have met the candidate in person.

Irish voters like to shake your hand, look you in the eye, see the cut of your jib. Not once in all my months of knocking on doors was I asked a question on my party’s policy on any issue. Instead, they asked about the other candidates and told me how they thought the election would pan out. They were far more interested in political gossip than policy.

2 People are nicer than you expect

Before I began my campaign, I dreaded the canvassing. The idea of knocking on someone’s door, intruding on their time, asking them for their support, seemed invasive and somehow presumptuous. But canvassing is a bit like sea bathing: the idea is often not that attractive, but it’s lovely once you’re in.

After a couple of weeks I was enjoying the process. And the main reason was that people were so friendly and warm. They didn’t mind being disturbed, and many said they appreciated having their views canvassed as part of the process of local government.

I was standing for election just as the extent of economic crash was becoming apparent. The government had just tried to revoke medical cards for over-70s and there was a lot of anger out there. Yet most people were prepared to put that to one side and engage with candidates.

3 People are also odder than you expect

Early in the campaign I knocked on the door of a lovely red-brick house in deepest Ranelagh. An affluent-looking couple came to the door and asked where I stood on an issue that was close to their hearts.

“We want Grafton Street reopened to traffic,” they said. Now, I had done a great deal of research on issues that might have come up during our canvassing, but somehow the de-pedestrianisation of Grafton Street was not one of them.

Another woman in the Rathmines area pointed to a plastic bottle wedged in the railings of her front garden. “I’ve been waiting four years for the council to take that away,” she said in an aggrieved tone. I popped it in her green bin on the way out.

4 There are different kinds of canvassing

Generally, candidates aim to cover their electoral area three times. The first time will be a very “soft” canvass, introducing themselves and asking about local issues. Elections and votes will not be mentioned.

The second canvass will also be fairly soft, reverting to issues raised the first time. Again, no mention of the election.

The third one will take place close to polling day. This time the candidate will ask for a vote. A surprisingly frank exchange usually follows, in which the voter will have no difficulty stating what preference vote the candidate can expect. This is called the “hard” canvass.

I was very uncomfortable about canvassing at Luas stations or accosting pedestrians. So my campaign manager invented another form of canvassing, which involved sitting at a pavement cafe with my poster plainly visible. We called it “ambient canvassing”.

5 Willie O’Dea is the king of the canvass

Fianna Fáil’s Willie O’Dea runs an operation in Limerick that is generally acknowledged to be the gold standard for canvassing. Every voter who raises something with one of his operatives gets a sort of docket with a number and a summary of the issue involved. That number is then used to track the issue through the system until it is resolved.

Dave Robbins lectures in the School of Communications at Dublin City University. He was a Green Party candidate in the Pembroke-Rathmines electoral area in Dublin in the 2009 local elections

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