Can Millions of Deep Conversations With Total Strangers Beat Trump — and Heal America?
September 30, 2020
Grantee News From People’s Action:
COVID-19 has upended the 2020 campaign. Activists are testing a cutting-edge strategy to change the hearts and minds of voters in our pandemic election
L. said he wasn’t a fan of former Vice President Joe Biden, either. “I’d be leaning more toward Biden because he’s a gentleman,” he said. “Not because he’s any smarter or not because he’ll get any more done. He doesn’t shoot his mouth off like a freaking idiot like Trump does.”
On a scale of one to 10, with one being a vote for Trump and 10 a vote for Biden, L. said he was a five. But if he was being honest, L. added, he wasn’t sure if he would vote at all in November.
Kruggel’s conversation with L. went on like this for nearly half an hour, the personal and political intertwined. Needless to say, it was not your typical campaign phone-banking shift. Kruggel’s call was part of a larger project in search of answers to an urgent question: How do you win the hearts and minds of voters in the middle of a deadly pandemic?
The COVID-19 crisis has all but ended political campaigning for the foreseeable future. Joe Biden will likely be nominated at the first-ever digital Democratic National Convention. Even President Trump’s die-hard supporters stayed away from his disastrous Tulsa, Oklahoma, campaign rally. Congressional and Senate candidates have dramatically scaled back rallies, meet-and-greets, and other in-person campaigning for fear of spreading the virus. Most of the political sparring right now is happening online, but even that could see a dramatic drawdown if Facebook follows through on a possible plan to ban political ads closer to Election Day.
But as we approach the final stretch of the 2020 election year, political operatives and activists are adapting their tactics for contacting homebound voters who (rightly) won’t answer the door if a stranger with a clipboard knocks on it, but who are more anxious than ever about the state of the country and keenly aware of the consequences of November’s elections.
This spring and summer, I remotely “embedded” with a handful of state-based grassroots groups that are trying out a relatively new but promising method for contacting and persuading voters in the time of COVID-19. Under the auspices of People’s Action, a nationwide progressive-populist organization, these local organizations are employing an intriguing organizing technique called “deep canvassing” to persuade voters in time for the 2020 election.
Deep canvassing is when volunteers and organizers engage in extended, empathetic conversations, with the goal of combating prejudice and shifting beliefs. (The typical door-to-door canvasser, by contrast, gives a brief spiel, asks how you’re voting, and moves on.) A growing body of academic research finds that deep canvassing done in person and by phone can have a real, measurable effect on changing hearts and minds. And in a time when so many of our conversations feel shitty and shallow despite the embarrassment of platforms on which we can have those conversations, deep canvassing offers a promising alternative, a way to find common ground and make human connections in a time of political polarization and tribalism.
Even in a pandemic.
“I think a lot of political types declared phones dead years ago either as a major mobilization or persuasion tool,” says George Goehl, director of People’s Action. “We think people want and need to connect and have real conversations to process everything that is happening in the world right now. There’s a basic human need to be in conversation with people and it’s a powerful way to relate to people in this moment that’s not going to happen digitally.”
THE LOFTY IDEA of engaging voters in deep conversations over the phone emerged from a distinctly practical problem. The year was 2012. Steve Deline and Ella Barrett, who worked together at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, had moved to Minnesota and embedded with the statewide campaign to defeat Amendment 1, which would have written a ban on same-sex marriage into the state’s constitution.
Deline and Barrett were early organizers of what would later be called deep canvassing, a concept that itself was born out of desperation. Four years earlier, on the same night that Barack Obama had won his first presidential election, the LGBTQ civil-rights movement had suffered a crushing loss with the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which outlawed same-sex marriage in one of the country’s most liberal states.
At the Los Angeles LGBT Center, one of the largest health providers for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the country, a small group of staffers hatched an idea that was both radical and simple: Let’s talk with people who had voted to ban same-sex marriage and try to understand them better. “People were open to saying, ‘Yeah, we do not know enough about our neighbors who voted against us, and the tools that we have to gain insight into them are woefully inadequate, so we better go to talk to them,’” David Fleischer, director of the Leadership LAB at the L.A. LGBT Center’s former director, recalls.
It was radical because going door to door and meeting your opponents, the people who had just voted to deny you the right to marry, wasn’t something that people did in American politics. Think of it this way: When was the last time a losing candidate for governor or for Congress traveled the state and got to know the voters who had voted against her?
The Los Angeles LGBT Center’s initial conversations with Proposition 8 supporters showed promise, hinting at a new method for countering prejudice and winning over critics. People like Deline and Barrett looked for opportunities to test deep canvassing in other fights. A few years later in Minnesota, they found an eagerness to use this new tactic (though, depending on how you come at it, employing empathetic human conversation to change minds is an age-old method; as Fleischer likes to say, “Jesus was a deep-canvasser”).
But Minnesotans United, the pro-marriage-equality campaign, had a different problem: Most of the volunteers who signed up to defeat the proposed same-sex-marriage ban were concentrated in the cities, and the universe of potential voters those volunteers hoped to reach were spread across the vast expanse of Minnesota. Logistically, it didn’t make sense to send canvassers out into the field. They decided to bridge the two groups by taking the canvassing work to the phones, knowing full well that the kinds of connections they preached might not happen by telephone. “We had skepticism at the beginning,” Barrett says. “There’s so much power with body language.”
By Election Day 2012, Minnesotans United had logged 222,693 extended conversations with voters. Of those conversations, Deline and Barrett say, 20,353 people who received a phone call said they had been persuaded or changed their mind about outlawing same-sex marriage in Minnesota. After 32 losses on ballot initiatives in the previous quarter-century, the marriage-equality movement notched a big win when it defeated Amendment 1.
From there, activists such as Deline, Barrett, and Fleischer continued testing and refining deep canvassing to chip away at prejudice, using the tactic on not only marriage equality but also on acceptance of transgender people and undocumented immigrants. But they still didn’t have hard data on the power of deep canvassing, so they enlisted a pair of professors, David Broockman and Josh Kalla, to study whether there were measurable and lasting effects from the form of intensive, empathetic canvassing.
Broockman and Kalla had studied at Yale University under the renowned political scientists Alan Gerber and Donald Green, who had pioneered the use of field experiments in politics to measure what actually works to persuade potential voters. In their own research, Broockman and Kalla ran experiments using the traditional tools of politics — short phone calls, brief door-to-door canvassing, and TV ads — and found that they typically had almost no lasting effect on changing the mind of a typical voter.
But the experiments that Broockman, who now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and Kalla, who teaches at Yale, ran involving deep canvassing told a different story. They’ve now conducted half a dozen major studies and, each time, as the data come in, they find measurable effects on prejudice and certain public policies that last much longer than the TV ads and short-form canvassing. One of the key ingredients, they say, is stories — about a marginalized group of people, about a time you were treated differently, but really any personal story. Another was showing respect to the person on the other end of the conversation, no matter how much you disliked or disagreed with them. “We just kept finding in study after study these results,” Broockman says. “Every time we do this, we seem to find this again and again and again.”
That conclusion applies to phone canvassing. In a paper published in January, they found that deep canvassing done by phone also succeeded at reducing prejudice — specifically, in this particular study, transphobia. Although the measurable effects on reducing prejudice were slightly less pronounced than those seen in studies that used in-person canvasses. Those effects persisted for at least a month after the initial deep-canvassing conversation. “The conversations over the phone lasted just as long, in terms of efficacy, as a conversation in person,” Kalla says.
Heartened by the encouraging results of Broockman and Kalla’s research, George Goehl, the director of People’s Action, the populist grassroots group, told me that he and his colleagues had envisioned a massive ramping-up of deep-canvassing work in the 2020 election year. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country, Goehl didn’t hesitate to move the campaign they had planned to a phone-based program. “When there’s this much at stake, you don’t want to leave a method that is powerful on the table,” he says.
THE DOZEN OR SO volunteers with the grassroots group Michigan United logged into Zoom from their kitchens, bedrooms, and couches with their scripts ready. After a brief warm-up talk, each of the volunteers dialed a voter somewhere in Michigan and tried to strike up a conversation with a total stranger about COVID-19, about health care, about, well, really anything.
There was a no-muting rule in this Zoom conference room: As the volunteers made their calls, their sides of the conversations were audible to everyone else on Zoom who had volunteered for that day’s canvass shift, a gumbo of greetings and pleadings, coaxing and joking. It’s hard to capture the sound of so many people talking at once, but it went something like this: “Sí, entonces … May I speak to Margaret, please? … Do you agree with that, or don’t agree? … I’d also like to see if you want to do volunteer work with us … Right … Thank you, I think I can infer …”
Despite all of this happening on Zoom, the “room” buzzed like a real-life grassroots organizing office, or the headquarters of a scrappy congressional campaign.
Remote canvassing calls like this are now happening across the country. People’s Action currently has grassroots groups in 15 states — including Arizona, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — contacting voters by text and phone, including deep canvassing. According to figures provided by Kruggel, those groups have contacted more than 2,756,400 voters by text or phone since May, with a goal of reaching 5 million by the end of July.
Going into the final months of the 2020 campaign, People’s Action and its partner groups are hoping to expand to reach the largest-ever universe of voters in a deep-canvassing program, Kruggel says. They’ve already trained 2,400 volunteers and have hired 120 full-time deep-canvassing phone callers, with a goal of reaching 500 by the fall.
The effects of deep canvassing can be profound for the organizers and volunteers, as well. Steve Deline and Ella Barrett, who now jointly run the New Conversation Initiative, a group that educates and trains people on deep canvassing, told me that many of the organizers who worked to defeat Amendment 1 in 2012 were so moved by the experience that they’re still involved in grassroots organizing in Minnesota, some in leadership roles. I’ve watched volunteers break down in tears as they debriefed after an especially rewarding or frustrating shift making calls. It’s important to be clear-eyed here: Many calls end without any real conversation, and some can be deflating or even demoralizing. But when a connection was made and a bond formed for however brief a time, it made the hang-ups and rejections worth it. One volunteer told me that her deep-canvassing shifts ranked as one the most meaningful experiences of her life.
As for Adam Kruggel and L., they went on talking for nearly half an hour. L. talked about his broken hip, his frustration with Trump, but really all politicians, and his late first wife. Kruggel opened up about his own doubts about Biden, and his parents, who found themselves working well into their seventies as a result of the 2009 financial crash.
And when Kruggel asked L. again, near the end of their call, how he might vote in the presidential election, L. said his mind had changed — a little. He said he was a 6, one notch closer in Biden’s direction. “You mentioned a little earlier something about respect for people,” L. said. “Joe seems to have a little bit of respect for people. … I think I could have a conversation with him. But I may change my mind by the time the election comes around.”