Transformative change comes from dialogue, not talking points, canvassing experts say

One of the ear­ly pan­els on on the first day of Net­roots Nation 2021 took a look at deep can­vass­ing as an alter­na­tive to tra­di­tion­al can­vass­ing meth­ods for get­ting swing and inde­pen­dent vot­ers enthu­si­as­tic about pro­gres­sive causes.

Research from 2020 showed that tra­di­tion­al can­vass­ing meth­ods dur­ing cam­paigns, which tra­di­tion­al­ly cen­ter around talk­ing points and stick­ing to scripts, rarely lead to long-last­ing opin­ion changes.

This is usu­al­ly mea­sured through the per­sua­sion rate, the mea­sure of vot­ers who start­ed the con­ver­sa­tion either con­flict­ed or lean­ing slight­ly towards vot­ing for Trump and end­ed com­mit­ted to vot­ing for Biden.

Not only is the per­sua­sion rate poor, the results don’t last.

Stud­ies con­duct­ed by David Broock­man, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor and UC Berke­ley, and Ella Bar­rett, Co-Founder of The New Con­ver­sa­tion ini­tia­tive, both fea­tured speak­ers on this pan­el, found that despite an ini­tial bump in vot­er opin­ion fol­low­ing tra­di­tion­al can­vass­ing, with­in two months of elec­tion day, there was lit­tle evi­dence that vot­er opin­ion had changed at all.

Mehrdad Aze­mun, Senior Strate­gist at Peo­ple’s Action, cit­ed these stud­ies, and went on to com­pare the per­sua­sion rates from deep can­vass­ing cam­paigns with those from tra­di­tion­al canvassing–and the results would have been enough for any cam­paign man­ag­er to start tak­ing notes. Dur­ing the ground­break­ing Geor­gia Sen­ate runoff elec­tion in 2020, “deep can­vass­ing out­reach efforts to infre­quent vot­ers result­ed in a 58.9% per­sua­sion rate.” In oth­er words, infre­quent vot­ers were more like­ly to be per­suad­ed to become com­mit­ted voters.

To fur­ther demon­strate this, lis­ten­ers were pre­sent­ed with a pre-record­ed pre­sen­ta­tion by Broock­man (who was unable to attend live due to a sched­ul­ing con­flict) demon­strat­ing the sci­ence of deep canvassing.

The effects of deep can­vass­ing in stud­ies he helped con­duct found that they could lead to “as much as a 20% increase in sup­port,” and that sup­port showed no signs of wan­ing three months after their con­ver­sa­tion with the canvassers.

This extend­ed to issues that are often weaponized by Repub­li­cans to be divi­sive issues, such as immi­grant rights or trans­gen­der rights.

So what makes deep can­vass­ing different?

The pan­elists said that it’s all about con­ver­sa­tion and dialogue.

Fol­low­ing Broock­man’s pre­sen­ta­tion, Bar­rett stepped in along­side Brooke Adams to talk about the method­ol­o­gy of deep canvassing.

Typ­i­cal­ly, she said, unde­cid­ed vot­ers are caught in an “emo­tion­al con­flict towards an issue and away from an issue.”

“Deep can­vass­ing is the oppor­tu­ni­ty for peo­ple to process their emo­tion­al con­flict,” the pan­elists explained.

They then shared a video of the method in action.

The video fea­tured Jack­son dis­cussing mar­riage equal­i­ty with an unde­cid­ed vot­er, Clint. Clint began the con­ver­sa­tion flat­ly against it.

“Can you tell me why you feel that way?” Jack­son asked.

Even­tu­al­ly, Clint revealed that his cousin had a long-term part­ner­ship with a woman, and became emo­tion­al as he described how hard it was watch­ing her and her part­ner’s inabil­i­ty to man­age each oth­er’s med­ical needs due to their not being legal­ly married–one of the many strug­gles queer cou­ples faced pri­or to the fed­er­al legal­iza­tion of same-sex marriage.

Jack­son com­pas­sion­ate­ly guid­ed Clint through his con­flict­ed feel­ings, ask­ing many ques­tions, before end­ing the con­ver­sa­tion by ask­ing Clint how he felt about mar­riage equal­i­ty after their exchange.

Con­ver­sa­tions like this, the pan­elists said, demon­strat­ed the pow­er of deep can­vass­ing through the fol­low­ing steps:

  1. Sur­face hon­est opinion
  2. Share emo­tion­al stories
  3. Process con­cerns (for exam­ple: ‘thank you for listening–let’s pause for a moment and ask how you feel about this issue now?’)
  4. Make the case for the issue
  5. Rate how the vot­er feels on a 1–10 scale.

The pan­el con­clud­ed with a tes­ti­mo­ni­al from Jill Mur­phy, a for­mer skep­tic of the method. Jill said that at first she was­n’t sure this method would work — she came to the train­ing frus­trat­ed and angry with the injus­tice and lack of empa­thy shown by oppo­si­tion vot­ers. How­ev­er, once she tried it dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a stranger about immi­gra­tion, “by the end she was ask­ing me ques­tions!”

“[By show­ing my] vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, I had opened up hers,” she said.

At one point dur­ing the dis­cus­sion, pan­elists made clear that this method was­n’t to sway “hard oppo­nents,” but “unde­cid­ed vot­ers and soft supporters.”

Deep can­vass­ing isn’t about the recita­tion of com­mon talk­ing points, they reit­er­at­ed, but fos­ter­ing con­nec­tion, lead­ing with com­pas­sion and curios­i­ty, and giv­ing peo­ple the space to nav­i­gate their emo­tion­al conflicts.

Caya Berndt

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