A New Strategy to Persuade Voters: Listen Carefully. And Don’t Hurry.
Canvassers usually knock on doors hoping to chat briefly. With deep canvassing, the idea is to engage voters in more meaningful conversations.,
MINNEAPOLIS — Late on a Sunday afternoon, Emily Hoch heard a knock at the door. She had just returned home from her shift working as a librarian.
A woman holding a clipboard, Amanda Otero, asked Ms. Hoch if she planned to vote in favor of a ballot measure that would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety. Ms. Hoch had a ready answer: Absolutely not. But she was happy for a distraction and willing to chat for a bit.
They ended up talking for nearly 20 minutes.
“I think this is setting something that is very good up to fail,” Ms. Hoch, 35, said. “It doesn’t have enough substance to it.” But she was also critical of the police. She knew people who had been mistreated.
It sounded, Ms. Otero said, as if they shared the same values.
“Something is really getting in the way of real change,” Ms. Hoch replied with a heavy sigh.
Ms. Otero, the deputy director of TakeAction Minnesota, listened as much as she talked. Finally, she asked: On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being completely in favor of the ballot measure, where would Ms. Hoch place herself?
She had called herself a three at the beginning. Now, she labeled herself a five.
This was deep canvassing in action — a messy, roundabout way to persuade voters not with talking points or pamphlets, but by getting them to talk about their experiences and feelings.
Ultimately, the goal is to get voters to support a specific policy, but also to change their minds for the long term, not just in one election or on one issue.
In Minneapolis, the aim is not just to gain support for the charter amendment that would transform the police department, but also to help voters rethink what law enforcement should look like in the country, and in the city where Derek Chauvin, a former police officer, was found guilty of murder in the killing of George Floyd, a Black man whose death galvanized a protest movement for racial justice.
In an era of mass texting, automated robocalls, email blasts and 280-character social media posts, deep canvassing seems out of step with modern politics — a sort of slow food movement for the activist set. In typical campaign work, canvassers knock on doors with the intent of getting a voter to talk for a minute or two. In deep canvassing, the idea is to exchange stories — in this case, experiences with the police — and develop empathy for anyone who thinks differently.
And while many modern campaigns on the left and right are designed to engage people who already agree on the issues, deep canvassing aims to preach far outside the choir or even the congregation, to those whose minds would need to be changed for them to support a given policy or candidate.
Minneapolis is an important test case for those eager to bring deep canvassing to communities all over the country. Envisioning tens of thousands of people trained to talk with people who disagree with them, they aim not just to win over converts on policy, but to help restore voters’ faith in democracy.
“We’re in an era when many people think the opposition is the boogeyman,” said Steve Deline, whose New Conversation Initiative has worked with teams to lead deep canvasses on climate, immigration, jail reform and other issues. “This is giving people the space to share what they are feeling and experiencing, and not just tell them they’re wrong, but instead get to a shared place that is relatable and human.”
Proponents argue that in a polarized age, the strategy can work to persuade those who have not yet embraced sweeping progressive changes on such issues as immigration, transgender rights and policing. Knocks on doors often lead to conversations that can last as long as half an hour and that often leave both the canvasser and the voter feeling disarmed and more open.
“Progressives have a superpower right now, and that’s getting a big idea into the national conversation like never before,” said George Goehl, the director of People’s Action, which trains liberal groups like the one in Minnesota. “But we think to really get things across the finish line, you have to be in conversation with people who do not see eye-to-eye with you.”
The work is both labor-intensive and expensive. Training canvassers takes hours. The vast majority of voters never even open their doors, and those who most strongly disagree are often the least likely to speak to a stranger at their door. In Minneapolis, a city of 2.9 million, about 60 volunteers and staff members have reached just 2,400 voters after visiting 6,900 homes and making 49,000 phone calls.
Still, the method of persuasion has been shown to be effective.
It was pioneered by gay-rights advocates in California in 2009, after a state ballot measure there outlawed same-sex marriage. Three years later, advocates in Minnesota relied on deep canvassing to help defeat a ballot measure banning same-sex marriage. So far, the political tactic has primarily been used by activists on the left.
A 2016 study by researchers at University of California, Berkeley and Yale found that deep canvassing in Miami and Los Angeles had changed the attitudes of some voters who were reluctant to support transgender rights, in part by prompting voters to reflect on their own experiences with being treated differently.
And Mr. Goehl’s group used deep canvassing by phone to try to win over rural white voters in swing states on behalf of Joe Biden in 2020, with an internal study showing that it was far more effective at persuading voters than traditional canvassing.
This year, supporters of the charter amendment in Minneapolis, who contend that Black residents are unfairly targeted by the police, turned to deep canvassing as a way to engage voters first about racism, and then about the push for law-enforcement reform — whose opponents have reduced it to a loaded phrase: defunding the police.
Changing minds on race requires “the hard work of human-to-human contact — listening to learn, not to confirm,” Mr. Goehl said. “There will be no quick fixes or shortcuts.”
But there are things that go unsaid even in the lengthiest conversations on the police issue. Racism was not mentioned in training sessions or in conversations with voters observed by a reporter over two days earlier this month — in which most of the canvassers were white, as were most of the voters they encountered. Some white voters said they would be more likely to vote in favor of the measure if they were convinced the majority of Black voters supported it.
It was only as Ms. Otero was leaving the home of Ms. Hoch, the librarian, that Ms. Otero noticed a Black Lives Matter sign in the front window. Perhaps she had missed an opening.
But then came a welcome surprise: A woman sitting on the porch next door waved her over. She, too, had a Black Lives Matter sign posted at the front of her house, along with a sign spelling out “love” in several different languages.
Mary Scavotto introduced herself and announced that it was her birthday. Ms. Otero politely declined a piece of cake and launched into her script. Had Ms. Scavotto heard about the charter amendment?
Oh, she had.
“The whole idea of throwing everything up in the air and exploding it, without a plan, concerns me,” Ms. Scavotto said.
Ms. Scavotto said she had lived on the block for nearly 20 years, but would move out of Minneapolis if the measure passed. She pointed to a gas station that burned down last summer. She recalled how she and her neighbors were careful to take anything off their porch that could be taken and used to cause damage to their homes.
“We had our bags packed and gas in our tank and were ready to go at any moment,” she said.
Now, she added: “We’ve seen what happens with less police. I don’t want my kids out anymore after dark.”
Nodding along, Ms. Otero noted that increased spending on the police had not made anyone feel safer. Then she described her younger brother’s struggles with his mental health and her own ambivalence toward law enforcement.
“Do I want the cops to catch my brother so that then he gets help?,” said Ms. Otero, who is Latina. “Well, but wait, I don’t want him to have a record — and would they give him the help?” She spoke of her fear whenever her husband, an immigrant from Nicaragua, drives around Minneapolis.
Ms. Scavotto, who is white, listened intently.
“I understand that people of color have not felt safe with the police, and so I know we have to reform,” she said.
Ms. Otero said she hoped that more conversations like this would bring about that kind of clarity. “What do you think it would take in Minneapolis for us to really come together, across age and race and class and life experience?” she asked. “Because we are reeling from a year of trauma.”
“Well, that’s the million-dollar question,” Ms. Scavotto replied, with a nervous laugh. “I can’t even get along with my eight siblings right now.”
Looking back on their half-hour conversation days later, Ms. Scavotto said it had kept her up that night. She remarked how Ms. Otero had listened more than she spoke. And she said she had promised herself to attend local forums to better understand the charter amendment.
“I wouldn’t change my vote yet,” she said, but added: “I feel more open to it.”