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A national network of grassroots organizations says a new form of canvassing can help change the preferences of voters, including those living in rural areas, to generate more support for progressive candidates.

People’s Action, which includes 36 citizen groups in 27 states, used a process known as deep canvassing to talk to possible voters, including those in rural areas. The technique encourages canvassers to listen carefully to potential voters in nonjudgmental ways and share stories, rather than try to persuade voters directly on policies or candidates.

Scholars studying the project found that support for Vice President Joe Biden grew by 3.1 points after those conversations. Movement toward Biden was greater among subgroups such as women (plus 4.9 points), independents (6.7 points), and independent women (8.5 points). 

This is the first time a group has documented the impact of deep canvassing on voter preferences, as opposed to issues, People’s Action states in a report it released last week. 

“This is a highly statistically significant finding,” said political scientist Joshua Kalla, who assisted with evaluating the project. He said the 3.1 percentage point change is “quite large” — bigger than the 2016 presidential-vote margin in eight states.

The graph shows the movement of registered voter away from Donald Trump that the study says resulted from deep canvassing. (Source: People’s Action report)

“All of this is to say that these types of persuasive effects really matter because many, many states have close elections,” Kalla said. “If People’s Action is able to sway just a few thousand votes here and there, that’s the difference between [Donald] Trump winning and [Joe] Biden winning.” 

The study used a series of surveys to identify voters in six states (Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) who were undecided or conflicted about their choice for president in 2020. People’s Action talked to about 13% of these 7,800 registered voters. A subsequent survey compared the candidate preference of the group that spoke to People’s Action to the group that did not. The study presumed that changes between the two groups were prompted by the deep-canvassing conversations.

The experimental deep canvassing started with door-to-door visits in March 2020 but quickly moved to telephone calls as the pandemic progressed.

At the rate of gaining about three voters for every 100 conversations, influencing the results in even close swing states would take big investments. People’s Action Executive Director George Goehl said deep canvassing is part of a longer-term strategy to engage rural voters. He said too many candidates have written rural voters off as unpersuadable.

“These results are transformative and tell us a different story about rural America,” Goehl said in a press release. “For so long, people in rural and small-towns have been neglected and cast out because no one took the time to listen to them. But we did, and we’ve found that compassion and empathy, rather than division and hatred, can lead us to a multiracial democracy that works for all of us,” 

The organization partnered with the New Conversation Initiative on the design of the deep canvass. Besides Kalla, researcher David Broockman also helped evaluate the experiment. 

Deep canvassing takes the form of a nonjudgmental conversation between the canvasser and prospective voter. Canvassers encourage participants to share stories about important and meaningful events. The stories reveal values, which in turn, relate to issues or candidates.

Political scientist Kalla said he is unaware of research on whether deep canvassing is effective when used for conservative issues or candidates. 

“Given that we have found listening and the non-judgmental exchange of narratives effectively change minds across a number of diverse issues (e.g., LGBT and immigrant rights), one could imagine finding similar effects on more conservative issues,” Kalla told the Daily Yonder in an email. “That is an empirical question which, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t yet been answered yet, so we don’t know.”

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