It was just another Tuesday. I got done with the opening session of the Legislature and raced home. I traded the suit for jeans and a sweatshirt, laced up an old pair of running shoes, kissed my baby daughter and told my wife I’d be back in a couple hours.
At the first address, I met my campaign assistant, Kristian. He handed me a stack of our literature and took the even side, leaving me with the odd (read into that what you want). We knocked our way through the neighborhood telling people about the work we’ve done and plan to do.
It’s something I’ve done countless times during the past 12 years (actually, I did count — it’s more than 30,000 doors now). During those door-knocking sessions, I’ve been chased by dogs, threatened and yelled at many times. But the overwhelming majority of people are welcoming, polite and insightful.
Those 30,000 doors have taught me that door-knocking is the heart and soul of a successful political campaign and a healthy democracy, despite what Thomas Hemphill argued in a Feb. 13 commentary (“The high cost, low efficacy of door-to-door”).
If you are planning to run against me, please don’t read the rest of this article, because it reveals my top-secret strategy for winning elections.
Drum roll, please …
My top-secret campaign strategy is: I talk to people. Lots of people. Republicans, Democrats and many people who don’t care about parties or labels. Dollar for dollar, minute for minute, it’s the most efficient use of campaign time.
Many candidates (and staff) would rather seek safe solace in a keyboard. They’d rather write a tweet, create a Facebook ad or send another mass e-mail. It’s easy. And it doesn’t involve face-to-face rejection. But we will never heal our democracy hiding behind a keyboard or polished ad. We must shake someone’s hand. Look them in the eye. Tell them what we believe and work through that conversation.
I do, however, agree with Mr. Hemphill that many campaigns have ineffective canvassing strategies. They send eager volunteers with little or no training out to talk to strangers; they provide them with scripts that make them robotic, and they treat voters like data, not people. Worst of all, they place high value on the quantity of doors you knock, not the quality of the conversations you have.
Now, many discerning readers are probably thinking, “These are nice platitudes, but where’s your proof door-knocking works?” In 2016, when I was running for the Minnesota Senate, there was a township where no one knew who I was or what I’d done. We knocked every door in that township twice, then followed up on many doors a third time. As a DFLer, I received 43.50% of the vote in a township where, for comparison, Hillary Clinton received 31.87%. (I have a plethora of additional evidence, but I don’t want my political opponents to know our entire strategy.)
Most important, door-knocking should not be seen solely through the lens of winning campaigns. It’s worth doing because it tells people you care enough to listen, to learn, and to understand what they’re dealing with — it’s a wonderful way to get to know your fellow Minnesotans.
If we are serious about healing our democracy, there is no substitute for talking with our neighbors and not just our friends. It can’t be done with TV ads, mass mailings and slick social media that push us apart and keep us anonymous. Those uncomfortable conversations, standing with the screen door propped open, are more than just effective campaign strategy, they are the heart and soul of a healthy democracy.
P.S. Mr. Hemphill, we’d love to have you on our team down here! I’m serious. Join us for a couple hours of conversation and see if it doesn’t change your mind.
Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, is a member of the Minnesota Senate and a former mayor and City Council member in Lakeville. On Twitter: @littlesenator.