What the Listening Canvass of Southeastern Pennsylvania Taught us about Knocking on the Doors of Strangers

Posted on October 15, 2018


I feel tenderness and empathy towards folks who speak candidly about their fear of encountering strangers if they were to knock on doors to ask voters to support a given candidate or party. Allow me, however, to say how positive my experience has been, particularly starting in late winter of 2017 when Melissa Visintin, a newly activated organizer and business consultant and I built a team to approach voters of all stripes in western Montgomery county (Pottstown, Royersford, Limerick) in Pennsylvania. We whose hearts had been badly bruised in November 2016 assessed that the best place in which to expend our efforts at voter contact was in “purple” or flippable areas where Democratic candidates had come close, but had not quite won a seat 2016. (One poster child for potential future success was Joe Ciresi who served on Springford’s School Board (ex-urban Philadelphia) for a dozen years and had run for Pennsylvania State Assembly in 2016, missing the mark by fewer than 600 votes. He had announced at that time that in 2018, he would be running again in Pennsylvania’s 146th district of the State Assembly.)

Adrienne canvassing for petition signatures with door number blurredWe drove north and west to the Pottstown area every second or third Sunday afternoon, starting in late March 2017 and through most of that summer and knocked on doors of voters of all political stripes. During that “listening canvass,” we asked what issues voters cared about, nothing more. And then allowed them to respond without judgment nor attempt to persuade them otherwise. We recorded their (anonymous) responses, coded and digested the themes and used that information to guide the messaging of candidates such as Joe Ciresi and other purple region contenders (like Katie Muth and Melissa Shusterman, pictured along with a number of other Pennsylvania candidates in the iconic Time Magazine cover of women running for office).

I realize that merely listening is different from persuasion or the the efforts at “Getting Out the Vote (GOTV) that will be conducted in critical swing areas between now and November 6th, yet the gentleness and receptivity with which it is possible to do this work is relevant to how I approach strangers, how I think about political work and how I think about the project of the nation-state, an abstract cultural undertaking that goes beyond ideological, sexual or ethnic identity.  

The listening canvass of 2017 was almost universally well-received. On three occasions a voter at the door spontaneously threw her arms around me because she was so grateful that we were doing this work. (One another occasion, when I was working to get a different candidate for State Assembly onto the ballot in Northeast Philadelphia, I persuaded an older white man to re-register as a Democrat (because he had actually changed his registration out of resentment toward Hillary Clinton for losing the presidential race.) He saw me walking around his neighborhood later that day and shouted from his car, “You were right. I feel less angry because I did something.”

Despite this positivity from people who were essentially allies, the reaction of people who didn’t agree with us was even more poignant and receptive. One couple, clearly members of the DJT cult of personality – and also evangelical Christians (based on their self-identification and the semiotics to be read in their house) mildly invited me and another canvasser in and leaned against the kitchen counter, talking about their values and positions for 16 or 18 minutes. What did they crave? Why did they want to talk to us if it was clear that we were not Trump supporters nor Republicans? They wanted our respect and attention, of course. They wanted a chance to justify how they felt without being attacked or reduced to an epithet. Hillary Clinton did terrible damage to this country by referring to such people as “deplorables.” We arrogant liberals continue to open the national wound by wrinkling our noses as if we are smelling offal whenever we interact with people with whom we don’t agree.

I wish that I could bring every person fearful of being disagreed with along with me to demonstrate the benefit of merely composing my facial muscles while talking to people who yearn to be listened to or who are not predisposed to act or vote exactly as I do. Find me. Friend me. (And shoot me a message via Facebook messenger so I know that our connection was this thread.) Come walk with me. Get to know your neighborhood or another pivotal (purple) place where people reside and work. I can do all the knocking and most of the talking if you like. Come and see that people capable of civility and gentleness, even if they’re not a clone of you.