I spent a recent Sunday in Croydon, Pennsylvania, a working-class town along Neshaminy Creek in the southeastern corner of the state, learning and practicing deep canvassing, a promising method for persuading voters to change their minds about politics.
I was there as a volunteer with Changing the Conversation Together (CTC), an independent group that first experimented with deep canvassing in 2018, training several hundred volunteers who fanned out across Staten Island and helped tip that usually Republican House seat into the hands of Democrat Max Rose.
As several studies have shown, deep canvassing, which involves deliberately developing a nonjudgmental, empathetic connection with a voter through 10 to 15 minutes of authentic conversation, can - if done properly - lead to persistent changes in people’s attitudes on issues like immigration and transgender rights. A new peer-reviewed study by academics David Broockman and Josh Kalla, soon to be published in American Political Science Review, replicates those findings and suggests that it is precisely by focusing on having a nonjudgmental attitude and working to make a real connection that canvassers can effectively move the people they talk to.
So far, no one has figured out for sure if deep canvassing can change a voter’s mind about their choice for president, particularly in this polarized age. That’s what I, along with about 80 other volunteers from a couple of Indivisible groups, was there to try.
First, we were asked to talk about love.
In a pre-training before that Sunday led by Adam Barbanel-Fried of CTC and Dave Fleischer of the Leadership Lab, we sat in small circles and went through a series of exercises. First, we spent a minute talking about “things I love.” Then, another minute on “people I love.” We were forbidden to use the word “like.” Then we practiced telling a longer story about one person in our lives whom we love, and why.
Why love? For multiple reasons. First, people respond to stories far more easily than they respond to factual arguments. Studies indicate that if you confront a voter with facts that challenge their views, you will most likely just reinforce their views. No one wants to admit they are wrong; we resist anything that might undermine our self-image.
Second, we told the stories about love because stories are more powerful than facts. And I saw this as I talked to voters whose doors I knocked on that afternoon. I told them about my love for my 30-year-old daughter and how she has always shown a fierce determination to conquer life’s challenges. How at the age of five she first picked up a baseball mitt, and after resisting our entreaties that she put it on her left hand (she’s a righty), she rapidly became a star Little Leaguer. How as a fourth-grade pitcher she was sent in to protect a one-run lead with the bases loaded and no one out, and showed no fear as she struck out the side. How, when she told us at the age of 12 that she wanted to play varsity softball in college, and we said it would be a huge commitment to become that competitive, she didn’t flinch. And how she ultimately helped lead her Tufts University softball team to the national Division III finals.
Each time, after I shared a version of that story, bubbling with pride, and asked, “How about you? Is there anyone in your life who is special to you, who you think about as you think about the world?” I got an amazing story back. A 75-year-old grandfather talked about the five-year-old grandson he was teaching to play chess and the drums, and how he worried about his future. A 62-year-old grandmother who admitted that she had given up on voting told me about how one of her granddaughters, a teenager, was really smart but was getting bullied in school so badly that she had pulled out and was homeschooling herself.
Talking about people you love is irresistible, once you get past the awkwardness. And when you ask people to contrast how they feel when they think about the people they love with how they feel about Donald Trump’s cruelty and lack of basic decency, it moves them.
In two hours walking the streets of Croydon, my canvass partner and I knocked on ten doors. Four opened, and each voter happily stood and chatted with us for 10, even 15 minutes. One even thanked us for the lovely conversation and didn’t seem to want us to leave! Two of the people I engaged in conversation moved strongly toward voting Democratic. A third, the 62-year-old grandma with the teenage granddaughter, went from telling us that she had given up on voting because none of the underdog candidates she voted for ever won, to saying ruefully that she didn’t think she was allowed to vote because she hadn’t voted for governor in the previous election, to elation when I looked up her registration and showed her she was still registered. I’ll take the fact that she went from saying she had given up on voting, to saying she was in the middle about which candidate she would vote for, as a victory.
The underlying presumption of so much political debate is that people are persuaded by rational argument. A corollary to that presumption is that people are persuaded by policy positions and advertising that reinforces those distinctions.
What deep canvassing is challenging us to consider is the possibility that this is largely wrong, and that people are movable if we connect with them emotionally, specifically by talking very concretely about a person in our lives whom we love.
It’s important to note here that lots of field organizers are starting to use the term “deep canvassing” to mean things slightly different than what we were trained to do. Some canvassers are being trained to use storytelling as they talk to voters (Obama canvassers were asked to tell their “story of self” at the doors). Others are being taught to listen more. But in most cases, these approaches are being grafted onto the more conventional door-knocking work of engaging voters with an issue in mind and a pitch aimed at convincing people to think about how that issue affects them personally, rather than this more open and empathetic approach.
The research into deep canvassing says the shift in attitudes that we obtained will stick months later. But all of the people being targeted in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where Changing the Conversation Together is focused, are going to be re-canvassed and called. Every voter I talked to willingly gave me their phone number when I asked for it to stay in touch.
Policy is obviously important in governing. But imagine if thousands of well-trained Democratic volunteers were doing lots of this deep-canvassing work, instead of thinking that finely calibrated policy positions and symbolic statements meant to appeal to various demographics was the way to win.