Open-minded Politicians are LESS LIKELY to Get Elected!

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Back in my early 20s I made some extra money working as a political canvasser for a group called Washington Citizen Action. We were dropped off in a neighborhood around 5pm and knocked on doors, asking for money to support our lobbying efforts. Back then the organization was lobbying to get George W Bush’s administration to include prescription medication coverage under Medicare. It’s a cause I believed in very much, and I still believe in it. We had seniors who were taking buses to Canada to get affordable prescriptions, or sometimes just going without their prescriptions because they couldn’t afford or were too sick to travel. When Medicare was created in the 1960s, prescription drugs were incredibly cheap, so it wasn’t a big deal that they be covered under Medicare, the governmental insurance Americans get when they reach the age of 65. But in the 90s, those prices started shooting up. Pharmaceutical companies claimed it was to cover research and development, but their budgets revealed that most of their money was going to marketing and lobbying. Most research and development came from sources like the taxpayer-funded National Institutes of Health.

So it was an important job, but friends: I was terrible at it. In order to keep the job, we had to collect a minimum amount of money each week. I never once hit that quota, so I was constantly on the verge of being fired but they were too nice to fire me.

My best friend at that job was another girl about my age who was also named Rebecca, and she brought in more money than anyone. She was amazing and had a knack for convincing people that our cause was good and that our organization needed their money.

I did not have that knack. I did believe in our cause, but I’d get into these discussions with the people I was canvassing. They’d ask about the cause and I was pretty well-versed in it, so that wasn’t a problem. But where I ran into problems was when they’d ask things like, “How do I know that giving you $100 is the best way to fix this problem?” I’d have to admit that I wasn’t sure. Maybe there are better organizations! I don’t know. Or they’d be skeptical that I even worked for the organization and I would agree that they were right to be skeptical. They could mail in a check but generally if you leave a house without money, they’re never going to get around to sending the money in on their own.

Or I’d have someone willing to give me money, but they themselves were clearly poor and needed the money, so why should they give it to my organization when their rich neighbors slammed the door in my face? 

There were too many variables and at the end of the day I’d have to admit that people were generally right to not write a big check to the stoner who randomly knocked on their door. But my coworker, Becca, had none of those doubts. She was single-minded in the fact that we had a vitally important cause, that people should give her money for the organization to fight for that cause, and sometimes she would convince them to double the amount they were giving before they’d finished signing the check.

I’ve thought of her a lot over the years because Becca made me realize that in order to get anything done in a job like that you need someone with that single-minded focus and that charismatic attitude. And a skeptic like me just can’t do that.

I’m thinking about all this right now because of a new study that found that politicians who are open to new ideas and experiences are less likely to win their elections. In a survey of about 3,000 Canadians, researchers found that people who are creative and open-minded are more likely to want to run for office, but when they’re up against an opponent whoever is least open is the one who tends to win. The researchers suggest that this might be because the most creative, open-minded people may have trouble sticking to a message. In order to mount a successful campaign, things need to be black and white, in a way, and politicians need to explain their positions in easy-to-understand sound bites for the general public. The open-minded individual is less likely to be able to do that, in part because of doubts, skepticism, and constantly fine-tuning their views to be sure that they are doing what they believe is the right thing.

Just to be clear, this was a very small effect and the study only involved Canadians, so we shouldn’t take it to be gospel and there are a million other factors that can affect elections. But it strikes me that we really do see so few scientists and open critical thinkers in office. Getting any politician to change their mind is a monumental achievement that usually requires the entire country turning against them, like Hillary Clinton suddenly being okay with same sex marriage in 2015.

And from a voter’s perspective, we hate “flip-floppers.” Changing your mind is seen as weakness, and that view is constantly pushed by political opponents. How can you trust the politician you elect to stick to the promises they gave you if they’re constantly changing their mind? Forget about why they change their mind, like if a check from Big Pharma landed on their desk or they evaluated the scientific evidence and realized their position was untenable — we just want consistency. So those creative, open-minded types (who also tend to be more liberal than others) lose the election.

The researchers also note that those types tend to not bother running for re-election. Hey, I get it. I quit that canvassing job after a few months of torture and I will never, ever go back to it. And don’t worry, I won’t be running for office any time soon. Let’s get a slightly less-open but still pro-science person to run instead, and then we can vote them out when they refuse to change their mind if new data comes in.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. OMG, you brought me back to my days as a canvasser in my 20s! I canvassed for the local branch of a national nonprofit environmental organization. I still believe in their causes. Like you I did it for extra money. It was pure hell.

    We also had a quota, but it was a DAILY quota. I don’t remember the amount now. For 5 evenings a week, all the canvassers met at the local office from 2-5 pm for a “debriefing” in which we received our scripts and talking points, then we drove to a targeted neighborhood and canvassed from 5-10 pm. Three canvassers were assigned to each target. Prior to arriving at that evening’s target, the 3 of us registered our group with the local police so that anyone who called them — and people called on us frequently — the cops could tell them that we were legit. Registration was not legally required in our state but it was a good idea.

    So the 3 of us divided the neighborhood into 3 sections to canvass individually. When I first started, I observed an experienced canvasser for a week to learn how to do it and what to expect. Then I was on my own. We went out every evening, weather be damned. I got a lot of exercise, which was good, but I encountered a lot of hostile people, which was bad. However, national always gave us the names and addresses of current and former donors living in the target neighborhoods, so some of our contacts were already familiar with the organization. We were REQUIRED to get donations from these folks. We accepted only checks. No cash. We provided all donors a receipt for their records.

    Like you, I had many doors slammed in my face. I was called all kinds of names. I feared a lot of dogs. And I also feared for my personal safety — here I was, a woman alone in a strange neighborhood, knocking on strangers’ doors, and asking for money. Anyone could have had a weapon. Anyone could have forced me inside their house. I worried about this constantly. When I voiced my concerns to the organization, they took me seriously, for which I was relieved. They reassured me that in all the years they’ve done this they’ve never had any canvasser physically harmed on the job. Nevertheless, I still worried.

    In my brief canvassing career, I made daily quota only once. Most of the time I returned empty-handed. What I really wanted to do was work in the organization’s local office. They only promoted from within, which was good. Unfortunately, to even be considered for an office position, a canvasser had to make daily quota 4 out of 5 days a week for at least 6 months. That was a huge hurdle, even if an office position were available. There were only 2 paid office staff, both former canvassers, and neither planned on leaving soon. Both the canvassing and the lack of advancement greatly discouraged me.

    I really liked all my coworkers. They were genuinely nice people. Like me, they were all young, idealistic, and progressive. I saw only 1 non-white staffer, however, and he was a Middle Eastern canvasser in my group of 3. I felt bad for him being the only person of color in the local organization; I wondered how he felt about it. Most of the canvassers were men and the office staff were both women. When I first started, the organization told me that women canvassers were less likely to receive donations than men. I quickly learned this was true. People were simply unwilling to give a check to a woman. Misogyny strikes again! However, all canvassers were required to meet the same daily quota. How is that fair, I asked, when the organization knows that women receive fewer donations than men? Since both paid office staff were former (women) canvassers, I knew that women regularly achieving daily quota was possible. Still, it really bothered me.

    In the end, however, I became disillusioned. I lasted as a canvasser about 2 months. I was tired of nasty people, tired of walking a few miles every night, accomplishing little to nothing. I was tired of earning minimum wage without benefits. Moreover, I was bored. I still believed in the organization, but canvassing was not the job for me. I was so relieved when I left. I have not, nor will I ever, do it again.

    Flash forward to the present, many years later in a different state. My neighborhood gets a few canvassers for various causes. Some solicit customers for local for-profit businesses, some act on behalf of local candidates for public office, and some represent various nonprofits. I always empathize with them. Their job is not easy.

    So readers — the next time you encounter canvassers, PLEASE be polite, especially if you are not interested in their organization. They’re decent people just trying to make a living.

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