Activism

Enough with Big Data: Knock on Doors and Talk to Voters

A former senior adviser to Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign has set up a new organization that is reaching voters using an old-fashioned, door-to-door model.

Enough with Big Data: Knock on Doors and Talk to Voters

Canvassers from Knock Every Door. "There were a lot of people who were ready to go out and start having these conversations and try to forge the connections and civil dialogue that we need to get out of this hole," said activist Becky Bond. (Photo courtesy of Knock Every Door)

This Q&A is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers.

In this edited exchange, Jaffe speaks with Becky Bond, a Bay Area resident and former senior adviser to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, who is co-founder of Knock Every Door, an organization that trains volunteers to canvass, get out the vote and collect data on voters’ concerns. Bond will speak at The People’s Summit in Chicago this weekend. The full interview is online here.

 


 

Sarah Jaffe: Tell us how Knock Every Door got started. Where did the idea come from, and how did you end up putting it together?

Becky Bond: After the election of Donald Trump, everyone was saying, “What do we do now? What should I do?” It was kind of an amazing moment, in part because everybody wanted to do something. It wasn’t just that they wanted to know where to give a donation or how to make a phone call; but they wanted to do things that were in-person where they lived. They wanted to be with other people and they wanted to be active together. I personally felt that, too. I wanted to be with others and I wanted to be engaged in work that was going to be part of the solution.

I expected that [Democratically aligned election groups] were going to start talking to the voters who had supported President Barack Obama and who flipped to support Trump in 2016, as well as to the Obama voters who didn’t vote in 2016. Understanding what happened with those voters is going to be key to how we’re going to make things different next time. We have to get out there and knock on doors, talk to people, phone bank these people and start the conversation.

Volunteers are running canvasses in 37 states right now and they’ve knocked on tens of thousands of doors.

I thought most election-related organizations were going to start working on the next election cycle, because so many people were ready. They were like, “Let’s go! Let’s go canvass.” And then nobody asked them or me to do that. After the election all these new stories came out about how the presidential campaign failed to talk to voters in-person with volunteers. There had been this idea on the campaign that that wasn’t a valuable or cost-effective thing to do.

One of the things that became clear was that somehow we lost this feedback loop between voters and the campaigns. If you had actually gone out and talked to people, like we did on the Bernie Sanders campaign across the country, then you would know that people were really angry and hurting. The solutions the Democrats were talking and bragging about were: “We fixed the economy. The economy is growing. It is awesome.” They were talking about the amazing advances of Obamacare, which did solve problems for a lot of people, but I would talk to people again and again who said, “I am forced to pay expensive premiums that I can’t afford and my deductible is so high that I can’t go to the doctor when I am sick.”

There was a dissonance between the voters and the messages that were coming out of the Democrats. There was this disconnect. There were a lot of people who were ready to go out and start having these conversations and try to forge the connections and civil dialogue that we need to get out of this hole. When that opportunity wasn’t offered, I got together with other organizers and we all said, “What if we could just help people go out and go canvassing?” That’s when we decided that we would set up Knock Every Door.

There is this myth that people don’t like to be bothered and that we are bothering them by going in and having conversations.

SJ: It has been a few months now since you started. How many doors have been knocked? Where are people doing the door-knocking?

BB: Volunteers are running canvasses in 37 states right now, and they’ve knocked on tens of thousands of doors. They have had thousands of amazing conversations and a lot of it is listening. The volunteers are talking to people who may not agree with us to try and understand — what are the problems they are facing? What are their hopes and fears for the future? How do we engage with them about our hopes and fears, especially if they are different?

SJ: What kinds of things are people learning on the doors?

BB: We are learning that people actually want to talk. We worked with some political scientists to write scripts that would be most effective at the door and that would also tap into a new kind of research about canvassing that suggests that so-called deep canvassing is actually the most impactful in terms of persuading people. We ask people at the end of the survey, “Would you like to have someone come back and talk to you about this again?” Overwhelmingly, people say yes, they would.

There is this myth that people don’t like to be bothered, and that we are bothering them by going in and having conversations. One of the most amazing things that we are learning is that people do want to speak with their fellow citizens about what is at stake; they want to feel like they are heard and not feel like a volunteer is just delivering a script and trying to tell someone what they should think.

SJ: Where does the information go?

BB: When you go to the doors with your fellow volunteers, you pre-print out these forms where you can record the answers and what people say at the door. It is a combination of verbatims and picking on a scale of 1 to 10, “How do you feel about X or Y?” What they do after a canvass is there are these free apps you can put on your phone, and they turn the forms that they fill out into PDFs right there with their phone. Then they email those forms in. Then we have a team of a volunteers who actually enter the data into the database.

SJ: It has been really interesting to see all of these new organizations like Knock Every Door. It seems that you are doing basically what political parties in countries that have functional political parties would be doing. Especially in this vacuum of the Democratic Party not wanting to do some of these things, how do you feel about how all these different groups come together and what they’re building toward?

BB: What we are seeing is that people are way out in front of politicians and party leaders. When we started this, there was no chair of the DNC and now we have people at the DNC talking very passionately about the need to go out — especially in an off year — and knock on every door.

I think that is progress. There are a lot of people that work at state parties who have come to us and said, “This is what I have been wanting to do — knock on every door because our lists aren’t great,” or “I knew we could persuade people.”

There are a lot of people that work at state parties who contacted us, especially in red states where there are counties without staff on the ground because they just don’t have enough Democratic voters. For them, this has been a great tool where they can say, “I am going to run. I want help to run a Knock Every Door canvass in these counties where we don’t have party staff.” We have been working with state parties about getting volunteers to start doing this work in places where they are not funded.

We want to put this together as a platform and not as a campaign behind a specific idea. We already have ActBlue, which revolutionized how people can raise small-dollar donations to candidates. We thought, in the same way: What if people could contribute small amounts of “doors knocked” to a larger strategy and create a platform that would let anybody plug into it and get started? Our hope is that, like ActBlue, we eventually become an important part of the infrastructure of the Democratic Party and progressive movements.

SJ: This obviously comes out of your work on the Sanders campaign and the willingness to trust people to go run their own canvass, to do things largely without asking for permission. The tough question will be: How do you decide who is part of the movement and who isn’t?

BB: The folks behind Knock Every Door are working on a lot of things as part of the resistance. This is a specific platform that we thought could be important to all sorts of things that are going on. For example, a lot of the Swing Left chapters and Indivisible chapters are running Knock Every Door canvasses. They have a program and we have a platform.

Talking to more voters is good for strengthening little-d democracy, this is how we make people more important than money.

In this work, we have really said this platform is going to be used by anyone who supports racial and economic justice. But in our other work we are more specifically ideological. There is a real divide in the party right now and calls for unity within the Democratic Party. I think they kind of get it wrong in terms of their calls for unity and healing. We have groups of people that believe in different things. We have factions or formations and the people we generally refer to as the neoliberals; they want to have a few more winners and a few less losers, but they want to keep the current economic system basically the way it is.

Then there are other people who think financialized capitalism is a huge contributor to gross economic and racial injustice and that we have to take on capitalism and structural racism at the same time. That is incompatible with a party that represents big money and elites in this country. In our other work, we are working on racial justice campaigns. We are working to elect district attorneys who are going to end mass incarceration. We are looking at other municipal and county campaigns where we can stop [oil] pipelines and protect voting rights, supervise elections, etc. I think it is important to be clear about what you believe in and to be working for specific solutions, but we all need to contribute to creating practices and infrastructure for everyone that is going to lift all boats.

Talking to more voters is good for strengthening little-d democracy; this is how we make people more important than money and it is something that we need to work on even as we are pursuing other specific policies.

SJ: I suppose part of the goal is to bring feedback to candidates and campaigners about what people actually care about and what they are feeling, which should shape what those policy decisions end up being, right?

BB: Yes, I think that’s right. There are a lot of takeaways from the 2016 presidential election. One take away is how absolutely dangerous it was to have a strategy that was going for 50 percent of the vote plus 1, because there should have been a wide margin between Clinton and Trump going into Election Day.

The big-data strategy is where essentially you hire a bunch of data consultants to run a bunch of models to find out what is the smallest number of people you can talk to and win? Who are those people and what do they care about? We need to talk to everybody. When you talk to a small group of people, they may not reflect what is really going on with most constituents in that race. I think campaigns need to hear from the majority of the people how policies are affecting their lives. Then that can really change what politicians decide to talk about and fight for.

One of the things that I really learned from talking to people across the country is that the people who are not participating in elections, the so-called “low information voters,” are not ignorant people at all. In fact, time and time again, when I talk to them I come away feeling like they have a very sophisticated political analysis and are choosing not to participate in politics. It’s not because they don’t know, but because their liberation is not on the ballot, or they don’t see how voting is going to materially change anything in their lives.

SJ: How can people keep up with you?

BB: Go to KnockEveryDoor.org. If you sign up at KnockEveryDoor.org, you will get a text message from a volunteer inviting you to be on a conference call where you can talk to people about how you can get started going door to door in your community. You can follow me on Twitter: I am @BBond.

Read the full interview with Becky Bond here.

 
 
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at The Nation Institute and the co-host of Dissent magazine's Belabored podcast. Her book, Necessary Trouble: America's New Radicals, was published by Nation Books in August 2016. Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.

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