Tales from the canvass – filtering out the noise

With the election in full swing activity on social media and blog sites from political activists has inevitably stepped up a gear. Trying to glean anything of value from their canvass updates, for those interested but not involved, is almost as difficult as actually reading reactions on a canvass properly.

Most of the political hacks will tell us ‘Excellent night canvassing area a, great response, main thing raised was issue b (something they focus on)’. We certainly won’t be told of bad responses and the main issue being something they have no control over or have dealt with poorly.

In a limited number of cases party activists are already framing the race as between their candidate and one other, trying to present the fight as a straight ‘them or us’. In other cases we have the fight presented as too close to call when the activist is supporting a candidate previously on the edge or out of the battle.

This information, in the vast majority cases, will be of very little value particularly in constituencies where 3+ candidates hold a chance of victory.When canvassing the only true picture that can be gained is how a response is in comparison to previous canvasses of the same people. Many people inevitably lie so retaining an overall picture between elections and comparing is the only way to get some sense of what is happening.

People will tell a canvasser they are voting for them – some are telling the truth, some looking them to go away – it is a skill to ensure in a limited time that you work out the real position. A team of poor or new canvassers can greatly distort the picture a party is building. If last time you canvassed an area you had 500 positive responses and this time you have 550 this can go towards building a picture of possible growth that may be demonstrated on polling day. If you didn’t keep records of previous canvass returns the information collected is next to useless for predicting the battlefield.

Prediction absolutely relies on having a decent record of what people said in previous years – if parties don’t have that information they can’t make a true assessment on how the fight is shaping up.

In areas of one identity if they have information on their own previous canvass they can then realistically make a prediction on how their main intra-communal competitor might do.

In mixed areas things become even more difficult with canvassers dealing with two types of negative, one from within a community that may be inclined to identify with them on some level and one from a community that could identify with several other parties.

In mixed areas a party cannot tell you how the vote is going for the other tribe. As a rule a unionist will not tell a nationalist canvasser which party they are voting for and vice versa.

This means it is fiction when a unionist or nationalist declares the position in the intra-tribe battle of the other side. When done this can only be assumption and most likely spin based on framing the fight in a way that benefits them.

So what am I saying? Political activists informing us how the election is shaping up is next to worthless. It needs to be based on accurate canvass records taken over years from across both communities – most don’t actually gather that information properly and if they do they are still going to present their canvassing returns as supportive of the position they want people to digest.

You can’t filter out the noise from them on social media (unless you turn them off) but if you holdout they may give an interesting story about dog bites or falling over.

  • I might print this out and ask for comments as I go around to see how they do some canvassing this afternoon!

  • FitzjamesHorse

    “So what am I saying? Political activists informing us how the election is shaping up is next to worthless”

    Exactly. So are the partisan postings and comments of partisans on Internet Message Boards. Talking up support for a position is not confined to the four weeks in the run up to an Election.
    My standard response to any canvasser is that I voted for them last night but cannot do it this time……because they sold out SDLP (if a SF canvasser asked me), because they joined up with the Tories (UUP), Irisgate (DUP) elected margaret Ritchie (SDLP) or wont vote for a man with a beard (Alliance).
    The only answer the canvassers actually worry about is the idea that they are losing votes so its the civic duty of every voter to lie thru our teeth and send them back to the “party rooms” for tea and hob nobs with the sense that the election is lost.
    There is a growing tendency for canvassers to descend on markets, High Streets, bus stations rather than actually knock on doors.
    I think thats actually a good sign as at least its some kinda recognition that there are two communities.

  • articles

    Prediction absolutely relies on having a decent record of what people said in previous years.

    Well that’s statistical sampling put in it’s place. And as any pollster will tell you, twenty four hours is a long time in sampling.

    The idea of writing up comprehensive notes after each doorstep has never occurred to me.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’ve heard things about this new iPhone which allows canvassers to record on the door step and then sync immediately with a central server… Be good to find out if any local parties are using it (or something similar) Alan?


  • Michaelhenry

    i have read your comments mark but canvassing is going well, local issues seem to be the main points that people are asking about, i got one smart comment about the police, but there is a lot of anger about the way gerry adams is being portraed, even from people who would either vote sinn fein or the stoops 1 or 2 in local or assembly elections.

  • LabourNIman

    someone needs to tell Nigel Dodds he’s not standing in West Belfast (unless theres a shock announcment coming?!), and get his posters taken down from the shankill road.

  • Mick – nothing more sophisticated than printed Google Maps and scribbles on pages this afternoon! Though the Tory machine does/will have Merlin in the background (shortly).

    Note to parties, bring pens when out canvassing!

    I’ll summarise what I find when I get around a few more parties. (Bet there’ll be a link back to Mark’s post though.)