Municipal election campaigns are underway in Utah, and candidates are determining the best way to win votes. With all the high-tech means of connecting with voters, walking neighborhoods might seem old-fashioned and ineffective.
But I don’t believe that’s the case.
Certainly, social media, with its ability to target neighborhoods and demographic groups, is obviously very important in a relatively low-key race for mayor or city council. Mass media advertising using TV and radio certainly makes sense in the larger cities.
But I’m old-fashioned, so I believe walking neighborhoods – wearing out the shoe leather – remains an effective way to campaign, as long as candidates know how to leverage knocking on doors to get the most bang for the time spent. Otherwise, walking neighborhoods can be a big waste of time.
With many candidates in the Salt Lake City mayoral contest, an effective ground game is imperative to getting through the low-turnout primary election.
Walking neighborhoods is cheap, easy, and helps a candidate really connect with voters. However, unless done right, it is also a time-consuming, low-yield activity, in terms of total voter contacts made -- especially because a lot of people won’t be home. But by using a few tricks it can actually become a high-yield activity. The key is leveraging personal contacts into multiple non-personal contacts. Obviously, walking neighborhoods must be combined with other higher-yield activities (like direct mail) to reach your votes-needed-to-win total.
In walking neighborhoods, it's important to start with a good list, with correct home addresses, of active municipal election voters. Only a small percentage of all citizens will likely vote in the municipal election, especially a municipal primary election. So why visit homes of non-voters? With so little time, maximize your impact by visiting only homes of people who will vote in the elections. Better yet, "household" your list so you know which homes have multiple voters. At the door, be ready to discuss why you're running, issues of importance to the neighborhood, and be sure to ask if they have questions or advice. Leave behind a nice brochure. And ask for their vote. Tell them you need their support and ask for their vote.
Here's how to really leverage walking neighborhoods: A few days before you hit a neighborhood, drop or mail a letter to the active voters in that neighborhood, letting them know you'll be on their street at a specified day and time. Tell them you look forward to meeting them and mention a couple of issues important to you and them.
Then, on the walking day, reach as many voters as possible by walking down the sidewalk or in the road, with staffers running ahead of you on both sides of the street knocking on doors. The staffer invites the resident/voter to come out on the sidewalk and meet you. Using staffers to knock on the door means you double or triple your effectiveness because a lot of people won’t be home. Leave a brochure with those you meet and, for those who aren’t home, leave an introductory letter or brochure saying, “Sorry I missed you . . .”
After you walk the neighborhood, send another letter to the same voters telling them you were in their neighborhood; mention some names of people you met, mention some issues you heard about and will work on, and again ask for their vote.
Even though you probably only actually met a relatively few people in your evening of walking, by sending the letters you will have touched, twice, every active voter in the area and they will feel you know them and their issues and will appreciate your effort to visit their neighborhood. That is personal campaigning at its best, leveraged to impact more voters, and it really works.
On a larger scale, even congressional and gubernatorial candidates can do some walking and leverage it effectively, particularly in rural areas. But it takes planning. Before hitting a town, arrange an interview with the local radio station and weekly newspaper. Try to conduct the radio interview by cell phone while walking down Main Street and chatting with the local barber, grocer, etc. about issues of concern to them. "I'm here on the corner of Main and 1st West. Just met with so-and-so (the local hardware store owner), and he told me you really need some water developed around here (or whatever the local issues are). I'm going to meet with Mayor so-and-so and your county commissioners in a little while and we're going to get some things fixed."
Then discuss the same things with the newspaper editor. The radio station will play the interview several times that day, leveraging a one-hour stop in a rural town into a major event, leaving everyone in the county feeling you know them, their issues, and that you care about them. You can hit four or five rural towns/counties in one day and really have an impact.