Deep Canvassing

This week we’re doing a “deep” dive into “deep canvassing,” a much-hyped, relatively new organizing tactic that focuses on engaging voters in empathetic conversations. Promising studies have shown that deep canvassing can be effective in reducing prejudice against marginalized groups and changing voter’s minds, even on hotly contested issues like immigration or transgender rights. But just how effective really is deep canvassing? And how can it be a tool in the fight for Medicare for All?

Show Notes

Our guest is Lizzie Rutberg, a Boston-based activist and experienced campaign organizer. She has first-hand experience with deep canvassing from her work with the 2018 “Yes on 3” campaign for transgender equality in Massachusetts.

Deep Canvassing was pioneered in 2008-9 by LGBTQ activists in California. After suffering a huge loss with the passage of Prop 8, activists went door-to-door seeking to better understand voters who were against marriage equality. They transplanted this strategy to other parts of the country where marriage equality was on the ballot, example: Minnesota in 2012.

Lizzie tells us about her experience on a massive deep canvassing program as part of the Massachusetts Trans Rights “Yes on 3” Campaign in 2018. (Lizzie actually got active in the movement when she was visited by a street canvasser about the campaign!)

Unlike in traditional canvassing, where the canvasser typically asks how someone is planning on voting, gives a quick spiel, and moves on, “deep” canvassing involves asking voters open-ended questions and engaging in extended conversations. The voter and the canvasser both have a chance to “share their stories” – it’s a two-way street.

Deep canvassing is 1) Non-judgmentally inviting a voter to open up about their real, conflicted feelings on an issue 2) Sharing vulnerably about their own life, and asking curious questions about the voter’s life (especially the experiences that have shaped how they each feel about the issue).

There is also an emphasis on the fact that deep canvassing does not involve peppering voters with facts or information – the focus is on exchanging stories, not on facts or trying to “teach”

The work itself is more time-consuming and emotionally challenging than traditional canvassing. Training volunteers is more time consuming. And even the most promising studies show differences in only a few percentage points between traditional canvassing and deep canvassing.

A lot of the origins of deep canvassing have to do with trying to change biases. Canvassing for Medicare for All is a bit different, obviously, but it can still be an effective tactic. People are not likely to be persuaded by facts on healthcare policies; there’s actually evidence showing that data-based arguments are less effective than personal stories. In the case of both trans rights and Medicare for All, we’re trying agitate people based on fundamental moral values. That kind of work can’t be done online.


Healthcare-NOW Telling your Story training:

More reading: 

How to talk someone out of bigotry with deep canvassing – good place to start, talks about Massachusetts Yes on 3 campaign and breaks down all the UC Berkeley studies

A New Strategy to Persuade Voters: Listen Carefully. And Don’t Hurry. – article about using deep canvassing tactics on voters in Minneapolis re: defunding the police department

These scientists can prove it’s possible to reduce prejudice – overview of the 2016 study that showed deep canvassing reduced transphobia 

Campaigning Could Be 100 Times More Effective. Here’s How – deep canvassing in the context of 2020 election /COVID 19

How Do You Change Voters’ Minds? Have a Conversation (Published 2016)

What is Deep Canvassing? from the New Conversation Initiative:

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