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How to win an election: go knock on doors

Barack Obama boards his campaign plane in San Antonio, Texas, March 3, 2008.

REUTERS/Jim Young/REUTERS/Jim Young

Everyone has a theory about why elections go the way they do:

"Barack Obama won the election because he understood new media."

"In 2008, Obama only won the election because he won the critical states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by differentiating himself from McCain on trade."

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"The Bush Economy won the election for Obama"

All of these are interesting theories, but they are difficult to prove.

But there is one thing that is proven to increase voter turnout for your candidate: canvassing.

Professors at Yale University studied the impact of three forms of voter communications by campaigns on improved turnout. They used a 30,000 person sample in 1998 for elections in New Haven, Connecticut.

The findings are stark: Telephone canvassing has no significant impact on improving voter turnout. Direct mail has only a small impact on improving turnout.

The method of communication that most improves turnout -- and is the method that can best win your election -- is face-to-face canvassing by volunteers.

The team at Yale hypothesizes that the drop in turnout since the 1960s in American politics is due to the decline in political activism and thus a decline in volunteers to knock on doors.

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Their replacement with paid phone banks, robo-dialers and mail drops has failed to make up the loss in turnout.

So the formula is simple.

If you want to win an election, first you have to find and energize a cadre of people who will carry your message. They have to be motivated to knock on doors, not just once or twice but several times a week.

Their energy and enthusiasm with have a direct impact on your vote mobilization.

For local campaigns, this should be the primary thing candidates worry about: have I motivated a volunteer to canvass for me today?

For central campaigns, this should be one of the top things they teach candidates and campaign managers.

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The Obama campaign did a lot of things right.

The thing they did best – and even their top people say this – is motivate their supporters to go out and talk to their neighbours.

They spent their money on a door-to-door ground game of volunteer mobilization, not on splashy TV ads or robo-calls.

So if you care about politics, get off this website and go knock on some doors.

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