WASHINGTON — This summer, with Americans hunkered down at home as the Covid-19 pandemic raged, teams of organizers located in a half-dozen battleground states made thousands of phone calls and put a theory to the test: Can an empathetic, heartfelt conversation persuade a complete stranger to change their mind about how to vote in 2020?
The experiment was led by People’s Action, a liberal nonprofit that focuses on mobilizing rural and low-income Americans, and it utilized a tactic known as deep canvassing, a form of grassroots organizing that puts more emphasis on listening and finding human connection than the traditional check-a-box door-to-door canvassing done by political campaigns.
The results of that experiment — shared with Rolling Stone ahead of their release on Tuesday — are striking: Even when done by phone, deep canvassing can indeed have a measurable effect on an individual’s voting preference. According to a study conducted by political-science professors David Broockman and Josh Kalla in partnership with People’s Action, this summer’s deep canvassing by phone led to a 3.1-point swing on average in favor of former Vice President Joe Biden. In other words, for every 100 completed phone calls, three votes were added to Biden’s vote margin after they received a deep canvassing call. That number was even higher for independents (5 points) and independent women (8.5 points), according to the study.
If those numbers seem small, bear in mind that Broockman and Kalla in a 2018 study found that the most common persuasion tactics used by partisan general election campaigns had an measurable effect of less than 1 percent and, in some cases, practically zero. Going by their research, deep canvassing by phone is estimated to be 102 times more effective than classic presidential campaign persuasion tactics like TV and radio advertising, direct mail, and brief door-to-door canvassing or phone banking.
“This is evidence that engaging people in a meaningful conversation is much more effective than throwing facts, arguments, or messages at them,” George Goehl, director of People’s Action, tells Rolling Stone. “I think that quality of conversation — one based on curiosity and compassion — can shift elections, yes, but also holds some lessons for how we might more fully come together as a country.”
The notion of deep canvassing emerged out of the decades-long battle for marriage equality, and has since been applied to a host of causes, from transgender rights and universal health care to undocumented immigration and criminal justice reform. But this latest experiment is the first of its kind to study deep canvassing in an electoral setting.
The People’s Action deep canvassing experiment involved nearly 700 phone calls that reached voters in Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all potentially decisive battleground states in this year’s presidential election.
Goehl says he and his state-based allies have a goal to make 350,000 conversations between now and Election Day, with a focus on independent women voters, who showed the most movement in this most recent experiment. “Those movement rates are so strong and the data bears it out,” he says. “This is an every-vote-counts election, so everything we can do to help we’re going to do.”
Josh Kalla, one of the two academics on the project and a Yale political science professor, says one misconception about his 2018 academic paper describing the minuscule impact of traditional campaign persuasion methods was that he and Broockman were pessimistic about whether persuasion worked at all in American politics. That wasn’t the case, Kalla explains, and instead he and Broockman hoped that research showing how ineffective existing political tactics were would act as a “call to arms” to create more potent campaign tactics.
Deep canvassing, Kalla adds, is one such innovation, and while these kinds of compassionate conversations were originally meant to happen in person, this new data shows that deep canvassing can still move the needle even when done over phone during a public-health crisis.
Anat Shenker-Osorio, a progressive consultant whose work combines political strategy and psychological research, says deep canvassing seems to work because it tries to reach voters in a way that TV ads or traditional door-knocking don’t. “At some level, all of political messaging is ‘You should think this. You should think this. Here’s why, here’s why, and here’s why,’ ” she says. An honest, nonjudgmental conversation with someone who disagrees with you, however, is really an attempt to find a common ground and a connection, and to lead someone to their own conclusions, not batter them over the head with what you want them to believe, she says.
Elianne Farhat, the executive director or TakeAction Minnesota, a state-based partner of People’s Action that participated in this summer’s experiment, put it this way: “For too long our politics have been run by fancy consultants on the coasts narrowing our politics down to the most persuasive sound bite they could possibly capture in the moment. That type of politics is a real disservice to our people and to the democracy we want to live in.” She continues, “Putting this type of tactic back at the center, deep conversation that shares stories and connects people across their differences, is the thing that we need in our country at this moment.”