Canvassing door-to-door in the 21st century

The most in-depth political discussion I had yesterday when canvassing was with a nine-year-old boy. It reveals a lot about how old fashioned suburban politics has changed.

When I was a kid, and knocked on a neighborhood door, the people inside even if they didn’t know me, would most often be home on a weekend and would happily open the door to find out what I wanted. Doing political canvassing for local candidates in the suburbs today is a far different matter. Many people don’t want a stranger knocking on their door or calling them on the phone. And for those who will accept being disturbed, it is a complete guessing game to figure out when they will be home. I am not criticizing my neighbors. I’m only making some observations about trying to bring about a better chance for my grandsons to have a good life by volunteering in local politics on up to national level. Here’s what happened to me Saturday on my efforts to do my job as a precinct captain for the Democratic Party of Lisle Township.

First, a digression on making phone calls for a candidate. The majority of calls are answered by a recording, not answered because the receiver doesn’t recognize the number or curtly ended before they start. The only efficient way to make effective progress is to pay for a computer service that will screen all the recorders and refuse to answerers and provide only real people at the other end. The kind of people who will accept talking to a political caller through that computer processing end up being a certain portion of the population and not a cross-section. It is why use of the Internet and social networks can be so powerful. But again there are those who don’t participate that way so again you have selective groups not a cross section. It is also why Robo calling has become so popular.

I walked my precinct with two candidates who are vying for a position in our April 7 Consolidated election. Jim is a stay at home dad who lost his job in 2001 and mom a veterinarian easily found a job when the couple returned home to Illinois while Jim’s skills couldn’t find a home. He became energized to run for Naperville City Council after watching how hard it was to fight a developer who wanted a code change to build a shopping strip for an unnecessary Walgreen’s pharmacy when two other pharmacies already existed a half-mile away in long established strips. Yin, running for Township Trustee, is a Chinese American woman who is a senior research Chemist (cosmetics and hair) for Nalco- North America, headquartered in Naperville which is the world’s leading water treatment and process improvement company, delivering significant environmental, social and economic performance benefits to a variety of industrial and institutional customers. Couldn’t resist googling. Yin believes it is important for her fellow Chinese Americans to engage in local politics and make their voices heard.

We started out at 9:30am hoping to catch people before they left for shopping or other activities. We were at a rare calendar lull period where the kids don’t have youth sports. We also knew we would tick off those who needed to catch a rare chance to sleep late and answered the door, when they got up, in bathrobe and Pjs after peering through the side window or keyhole and deciding we looked harmless enough. Or a six-year-old reported on those three characters at the front door and having disturbed the occupants, we then had to decide how long to wait to see if an adult would come to the door or not.

That brings me to the question of what to wear. Of course the candidates dressed nice. I didn’t. I wore backwards a DuPage Dems for Obama T shirt over a long sleeved shirt because we were canvassing with only Dem voters who need to be encouraged to come out for a local election most usually avoided. So my theory was to boldly and instantly tell them what we represented. That way when a Republican spouse answered for a Dem voting spouse (usually the female was the Dem part of the split household) and my list told me the first name of the Dem spouse, I could answer is Mary home or please give this literature to Mary because I know she votes Democratic. It does backfire though. We found a Republican husband in front of his garage running his very loud snow blower on a nice spring, green day, I think to burn out the remaining gas, who kept it at full volume and only let it idle after we started walking away. I doubt the wife got the Lit.

Jim and I told Yin, who was scared of dogs since the time that she was bitten by one, that you could tell by the dogs bark whether the owners were home or not. We soon lost our credibility when we were wrong as often as right. Sometimes you have to wait for the eager dog to be put in the backyard before you can talk to the occupant. We also tried to guess whether someone was home by cars in driveway, newspapers not picked up, and even kids peeking through windows. The only sure sign seemed to be if the garage door was open and even that didn’t always work when occupants decided to ignore us.

I have tried all kinds of times to canvass. I found the best day ever was yesterday when we started at 9:30am. I had my best day of actually talking to people. We were very encouraged that the Dems we talked to really wanted to turn our county blue and were going to go vote on April 7.

That brings me to my passionate discussion with the nine-year-old. His mom is a strong Dem voter and his dad isn’t a US citizen yet so I don’t know if he is a conservative. Judging from his son’s views he probably is. The boy told me that he was already disappointed by Obama. I asked why and he responded, “Because all he wants to do is spend money on the stimulus, money that we don’t have.” We talked about Roosevelt, the depression, whether spending really made the New Deal work, how only eight percent of jobs in America are industry jobs and so many blue collar jobs have left forever which makes creating jobs so much more difficult, and then he made the mistake of citing Obama’s Leno politically incorrect Special Olympics joke. That’s when I probably was too passionate or dramatic. We ended on how the Internet was a far better source of information than falling for the M$M nonsense and my congratulating him on his desire to know and be interested in politics and government. I’m not sure what his parents thought about it. I loved it. It was the end of a very delightful day canvassing in the 21st century.


  1. cocktailhag says:

    Great post, Paul. Who knew there’s a fresh crop of little Shooters coming up in Chicagoland suburbia, complete with five word talking points on each issue? Still, I’m impressed, as you were, that a kid that age was as well informed as an unfortunately large number of adults. Glad you got past the bugs; I’ve got terrible writer’s block this weekend, and I was hoping you would.
    PS. (I’d go ahead and give yourself a category, probably News Network. It’s in the right hand column of the edit page.

  2. Is this RMP? Well, anyway great post. I was confused about one thing, however…how were you canvassing for two candidates vying for the same position. At first glance, I think you must either live in a wonderfully, mythical community where people eschew competition. On second, I think I probably misinterpreted…which is it?

    • rmp says:

      Jim is running for Naperville City Council. Yin is running for Lisle Township Trustee. It’s not a mythical community. In fact the Republican Precinct Captain for my precinct is also running for City Council and he and Jim have each other’s signs in their yards. The Municipal elections are supposedly non-partisan, but in actuality, all the current ones are Republicans who all live in a concentrated section of Naperville and are all voted in as at-large candidates. Jim and Charlie want area representation like almost all communities over 100,000 use, so they are united to defeat the incumbants.

  3. Arren says:

    Thanks very much for taking the time to do this and share your experience, RMP.

    A sizable portion of kids around 9-10 years old consistently defy the infantilizing pigeonhole that we as a society seem hellbent on stuffing them into.

    Kudos to you for having an open mind, and encouraging the kid’s independent development.

  4. cocktailhag says:

    You know, rmp, I think that the actual physical design of suburbia is sort of antidemocratic. You mention that when you were growing up, signs of life were more visible, and it’s true. The street-oriented houses set on an understandable grid allowed children a lot more freedom of movement, and made neighborhoods feel more welcoming. Now, the garage, which pushes the occupants to the back, must be filled with cars, in which to shuttle the children the shortest distances, because it’s dangerous or impossible to walk very far. All this chauffering, of course, takes time, and the family becomes unaccustomed to encountering strangers, moving seamlessly from the bubble of the car to the bubble of the mall to bubble of the “family” room. Doors are only open, and children only play, in the private back of the house.
    With such isolation built into the very landscape, how is community, much less citizenship, built?
    It’s a toughie.

    • rmp says:

      The houses in my childhood had front porches and people who sat in rocking chairs and watched the community stroll by. We didn’t have media that scared our parents into not letting us spend all our free time outside either due to weather or child snatchers. We didn’t have TV or computers and only stayed inside to play Monopoly when it was raining or bizzarding. We umpired/refereed all our own sports and made up games and our own rules.

      We walked or rode our bikes to school regardless of the weather or distance. When I lived in North Dakota where winter ran from October to April and sometimes May, I only remember school being closed one time. In Chicago, I remember a day when all CPS schools closed because of a threatening storm that never arrived. We didn’t worry about weather forecasts, we just lived and worked in the weather that existed.

      I so agree about the bubbles that have sheltered children to the degree that many don’t learn the most fundamental thing, understanding that they are responsible for the consequences of the decisions they make. I am extremely independent and that is not just due to stubborn Norwegian heritage. It comes from living in a safe town of 8,000 in Montana and at five-years-old being able to go anywhere on my own without telling my parents where I was going unless I got five cents to go to a movie on my own. My parents required I show up for dinner on time and the rest of my world was up to me.

      My twin sister and I only had a babysitter once and when we told our parents we could take care of ourselves, they agreed. The only time we got in trouble was when my sister put her metal play scissors into an electric female socket and the main fuse got knocked out.

      Being a farm community, those kids living on farms learned even more responsibility and earlier than I did. Adults set examples for how to live, good and bad, but they did not control our world. We did. As I look back, I now appreciate how much of a difference that made for me and having raised three sons and worked in youth development in the inner city, I have seen how much the bubbles and adult control make it so much more difficult for youth today. Despite the more awesome challenges youth face today, they do much better than we should expect.

      • cocktailhag says:

        We lived right in the city, and it was the same way. Easier for the parents, better for the kids. Because the neighborhood was a grid, there were lots of passers by, and no one hid from strangers. My mother did neighborhood canvassing for the serial school levies, and never had trouble finding people at home and willing to talk. It’s no wonder our politics are so shallow and mediated, and the outcomes often so poor. Had it not been for the astonishing disaster of the Bush years, I think it would be even worse.

  5. Random question: I am starting my personal blog to share your experiences. Do you believe it is hard or easy to publish consistently?