The first time I went canvassing, I was in college.
I found a local field office, I got a clipboard with a walk packet and a script, and I knocked doors for the better part of an afternoon.
Every person I talked to was a Democrat. I wasn’t trying to change any minds or persuade someone on the merits of a particular policy position. I wasn’t even really trying to learn how much support my candidate had.
I was just trying to get people to show up. Every person on my list was a registered voter who had an inconsistent record of participation. My goal was to nudge them toward a polling place on Election Day.
It’s been almost 20 years. Those walk packets are a little better organized. The data that volunteers collect has mostly been digitized. But on the whole, the process and the results those actions generate are exactly the same.
Two years ago, however, David Broockman, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, and Joshua Kalla, a political scientist at Yale, showed that a different approach to canvassing could produce a wildly different outcome.
They partnered with an LGBT organization in South Florida working to prevent a backlash after Miami-Dade County Commission passed an ordinance protecting transgender people.
Instead of sticking to a script, Broockman and Kalla had their volunteers engage voters in a genuine dialogue — one that lasted 10 minutes on average. Their canvassers asked voters to share a story about themselves — about a time when they themselves felt marginalized for being different. In the flow of that conversation, the canvassers pushed then voters to apply what they felt after those experiences to the situation of trans and nonbinary people.
Using a survey tool called a “feeling thermometer,” Broockman and Kalla were able to measure the impact of those conversations. Their canvassers increased positive feelings about transgender people by an average of 10 points on a 100-point scale. In their write up of the study for the journal Science, they note that this change was larger than the average “increase in positive affect toward gay men and lesbians among Americans between 1998 and 2012.”
More interesting still, that change in attitude seems to be durable. When Broockman and Kalla conducted surveys three months after the canvassing conversations, those whose minds were changed still registered decreased transphobia. That stands apart and above what we understand about every other persuasion channel. The effect of TV advertising, for instance, seemingly decays in a matter of weeks.
And best of all, Broockman and Kalla have now replicated those findings with a significant expansion of their study. In a new, peer-reviewed paper, they document the results of three placebo-controlled field experiments featuring 230 canvassers in seven different communities throughout the course of 2018. Their organizers were working on a wider set of issues, as well — including immigrants’ rights.
The key insights from this research are centered around empathy. To change someone’s mind, you need to listen to them, find common values, and try to build a genuine human connection.
It’s also about trust.
Campaigns need to trust their canvassers to go off script. Canvassers need to trust that voters will be receptive to an open-ended conversation. Voters need to trust that the canvasser is willing to engage in a dialogue without judgment or condemnation.
At a time when trust in institutions of all kinds — from the media to universities to politicians — is falling, when partisan identities dictate attitudes on everything from questions of policy to the purchase of sneakers and spin class memberships, this kind of innovation focused on one-to-one connections couldn’t be more welcome.
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