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Engaging Voters in Face-to-Face Conversations: Ringing Doorbells in Rural Wisconsin

Posted on October 24, 2023

Activist Monte Allen reports back from the Heartland

By Brent Whelan

Can Democrats find common ground with conservative voters, even in the heartland of Trump support?

This question brought volunteer canvasser Monte Allen to Wisconsin, where he spent 10 days this past August knocking on doors throughout Langlade County. His experience provides crucial learnings not just for Wisconsin (with its razor-sharp margins of victory), but for many states where rural voters constitute a reserve of reliably Republican votes. 

Langlade County, situated in northeast Wisconsin, is comprised of farms and small towns. Monte, who spent a career in fundraising for nonprofits, aimed to engage voters through face-to-face conversations. He resolved in advance that he would like each person he talked with, and as a result, all but a few of his canvassing encounters were genuinely enjoyable.

Monte’s strategy was to announce right away that he was working as a volunteer with the Wisconsin Democratic Party, something so surprising in these predominantly conservative communities that it drew smiles and raised eyebrows. By responding with good humor to people’s reactions, Monte was able to put everyone at ease and enable voters to, at least in the moment, set aside whatever antagonisms or caricatures they might be harboring toward Democrats. Then, Monte would set about his main job: asking and listening. 

One thing Monte and the voters he talked with agreed on right off the bat is that rural communities are largely disregarded and looked down upon by both Democrats and Republicans. Monte found it natural to underscore this point because he strongly believes it is true — and that people in rural parts of our country deserve to be better served by their government. Though he lives in urban Massachusetts, he grew up in left-leaning Madison. He has family in Iowa farm country and can comfortably relate to people in rural places. The shared perception that rural communities deserve a bigger voice made it clear that Monte was there to hear and amplify that voice. Establishing that common purpose was the cornerstone of Monte’s canvassing success.

Not that these doorstep conversations were free of disagreement. Folks in rural Wisconsin are skeptical about all sorts of government assistance — to immigrants, Ukrainians, students with heavy debt loads, and many others with all sorts of needs. Monte detected particularly vehement resistance to student debt relief and has urged WisDems not to campaign on student debt relief in this region. Many of the folks he spoke with wanted to withhold government assistance (“their tax dollars”) from people who don’t seem to them to be as self-reliant or hard-working as folks in Langlade County. 

When voters voiced disapproval like this, Monte’s response was to ask people to say how these government assistance programs were at odds with their values. That way, the voters he talked with made clear what their underlying values are. Monte would then name those values:  “So it seems that self-reliance (or hard work, or honesty, or fairness, etc.) is a value that is important to you.”  Then, Monte was able to honestly say that he absolutely shares that value.  Those shared values are the all important common ground. It’s easier to feel at ease with and trust and listen to someone who shares the values you hold dear. And it is that comfort and that trust that allowed people to hear how Monte — starting from a shared value — could thoughtfully reach a different policy conclusion. It was important to leave it there — just hearing that there is another way to look at an issue and still be true to shared values — and not try to push for persuasion.  

Sometimes, by negotiating the granular details, Monte and the rural voters he met were able to imagine an immigration policy they could both endorse. Replicated at one doorstep after another, this is what the hard but fruitful work of canvassing looks like. It’s also the recipe for some enjoyable and satisfying conversations.

The issue foremost on the minds of these rural voters, which needed to be addressed, was inflation. Rural voters, with their heavy reliance on gasoline (tractors and trucks), are particularly sensitive to rising prices. Encouraged by Fox News, their primary source for news and commentary, they are quick to lay the blame for inflation woes at President Biden’s feet. In response, Monte found it useful to remind his listeners that he – and they – had both lived through three or four inflationary periods — some under Democratic administrations and some under Republican administrations. Then, as if sharing an interesting recent discovery (“You want to know what I recently learned about inflation?“), he found that voters were willing to listen — and hear — that inflation is triggered not by politicians, but by major global events like OPEC holding back oil production, the COVID pandemic, and Russia’s war on Ukraine (things that disrupt supply chains and trade), and that Republicans and Democrats both use the same tools to bring inflation under control.    

When he heard criticisms of Biden — that he’s too old, not as sharp as a president needs to be, too reliant on staff and handlers, etc., Monte noted that Trump is also quite old, and asked what voters thought we – as citizens – should do about the prospect of aging Presidents. A number of voters suggested age limits. While openly acknowledging that age is a valid concern and that he wishes Biden wasn’t as old as he is, Monte declared that he has tremendous admiration for President Biden, citing his experience, the fact that he knows all the world leaders by their first names, and his legislative accomplishments. Monte briefly pointed to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the Science and Chips Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act and mentioned one thing about each act that really helps people. He presented this as his own thinking, as a different way of thinking about Biden. He just put it out there and did not press the voters to agree with his assessment. 

Building relationships is the overarching goal of early canvassing in rural districts. Canvassers like Monte are building bridges to voters who otherwise remain disdainful of and sometimes hateful toward members of the other Party (tribe).  Monte sought to give partisan conservatives the experience of having a friendly, enjoyable, and often lighthearted but sincere, respectful, and forthright interaction with a fellow American who happens to be a Democrat. And he tried to end each conversation with a recognition that, despite their disagreements on some things, they share many values and have a common interest as sincere Americans in wanting the best for their country. The handshake that ended each conversation put the stamp on that understanding.

– Brent Whelan is a retired teacher, a climate activist, and writer of postcards to swing state voters. He lives in Allston, MA.

Intrigued by the possibility of canvassing or like to hear more about canvassing opportunities?

Volunteers from Swing Blue Alliance are canvassing in VA November 3-5. If you’d to learn more, there’s a Trip Update meeting on Thursday, October 26, at 7 pm and you can register here. Alternatively, for more info about canvassing in VA, contact host@swingbluealliance.org