Why you should care
Because sometimes the personal transcends the political.
As Germany heads toward its national election on Sept. 24, the political parties are seeking to gain any advantage they can. One form of campaigning that’s all the rage this year is good old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing.
One enthusiast of the technique is Social Democrat (SPD) Maja Lasić, a member of Berlin’s regional parliament. In her last election, she outperformed her party by 7 percent in her district, a difference she puts down to her willingness to ring doorbells. “I achieved this … largely through intense personal contact with voters,” says Lasić. “Door to door is ideal for this. You can get to know people a lot better than at public information stands, where people often don’t have any time.”
The technique isn’t universally applicable. Lasić admits that personal contact alone can’t win over dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, and a recent poll by YouGov found that the majority of people asked said they wouldn’t talk to door-to-door canvassers.
For us, door to door is … more of a call to action than an attempt at persuasion.
David Emres, deputy press secretary, Christian Democratic Union
But for certain groups, a brief doorstep chat can yield impressive results. Political scientist Simon Kruschinski of Mainz University says that this classic form of campaigning is particularly effective with people who lean toward a certain party but don’t always turn out, as well as with undecided voters. “Many people wait to make up their minds until the very last minute,” says Kruschinski. “With them, a home visit can indeed be decisive.”
“We often encounter people who aren’t sure whether the SPD still represents their interests,” agrees Lasić. “A candidate who goes out of her way to make personal contact can reassure them.”
Traditionally, door-to-door campaigning has not been as popular in Germany as in other countries like the United States. But as Kruschinski points out, studies have shown that turnout rises in places where politicians campaign door to door. So across the entire political spectrum, from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany to the Left Party, volunteers are being instructed to hit the pavement.
The conservative Christian Democratic Union has touted the willingness of politicians to seek out people in their homes as a major factor in its three regional election victories this year. The party’s Facebook page has even featured images of a CDU team, including party general secretary Peter Tauber, on the road to canvass voters in the western Germany town of Würselen, home of SPD candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz.
The CDU offers special training sessions to teach usually youthful volunteers how to talk to potential voters, and other parties’ websites contain instructions on how to correctly canvass door to door. According to the SPD, a good home visit features a team of two wearing party pins or T-shirts, who resist the lure of being invited inside and take no more than an average of three minutes with prospective supporters.
The Left Party provides sample answers for use if a potential voter indicates an interest in a given topic, ranging from rent prices to German weapons exports. Comically, all of the suggested responses begin with the phrase: “It’s good you say that — we agree.”
That may seem hopelessly old-fashioned and quaint, but the parties are using this tried-and-tested means of campaigning together with modern technology. Green Party Federal Chairman Michael Kellner says that Green volunteers can avail themselves of an online platform to plan their routes for visiting voters.
The CDU has taken the idea a lot further, establishing an initiative called Connect 17. German privacy protection laws forbid the sort of big data campaigning familiar in the U.S., but the CDU hopes that its app, which creates a feedback loop between party headquarters and door-to-door volunteers, will give it a decisive advantage in targeting potential supporters and getting them out to vote.
“For us, door to door is especially important because we see there are a lot of voters who lean toward the CDU whom we can mobilize,” says CDU Deputy Press Secretary David Emres. “It’s more of a call to action than an attempt at persuasion. You don’t go out and tell the former local SPD chairman, ‘You should vote for Angela Merkel this time.’ You go where people are from the mainstream middle, where you think that everyone is a potential CDU voter.”
In other words, just pounding the pavement isn’t enough. Volunteers need to know where to direct their efforts. “I like to talk about door-to-door campaigning 2.0,” says Kruschinski. “It entails the traditional mechanisms of interpersonal communication and direct contact combined with technological support, with the apps and data analysis.”
The centrist Free Democrats (FDP) prefer to focus on social media. FDP Press Secretary Nils Droste refers to the CDU’s campaign as “a bit of voodoo.” But whether or not it is the ultimate key to success, the new door-to-door trend could help combat people’s sense of disconnectedness from politicians. “In a media age, in which parties have emphasized media channels and party members have taken a backseat, we’re now at a crossroads, in which politicians say: ‘OK, we have to go back to the roots. We have to try to go to people on their doorsteps, and we have to use our party members for mobilization, while simultaneously trying to give voters a good feeling,’” says Kruschinski.
Left Party spokesman Hendrik Thalheim agrees with that assessment. “It maybe fits in with the voters’ mentality,” says Thalheim. “There’s a lot of dissatisfaction, with people feeling that they’re not being heard and they have no contact with ‘the higher-ups.’ This allows us to break through that a bit and signal that we’re here and looking for a conversation and dialogue. You can do that eye to eye on a doorstep.”
And Lasić says that sometimes the interactions go beyond a three-minute doorstep political chat. “I’ve been invited for a meal, and people have flirted with me and told me their life stories,” the SPD politician remembers. “People who like people will always have fun going door to door.”
This article is brought to you through OZY’s partnership with Deutsche Welle.