A political argument can be a deeply frustrating experience. Despite our superior knowledge and mastery of the relevant facts and figures, the other person simply can’t be persuaded to agree. Could there be a better way?
Notwithstanding the recent explosion in digital communication, canvassing – at front doors or street stalls – remains an essential component of most political campaigns. Canvassing has two purposes: to identify supporters, and to persuade potential converts.
In a typical campaign, a team of canvassers knocks on doors and the voter being canvassed is presented with a set of arguments about why they should vote in a particular way, often summarised on a leaflet. It is generally acknowledged that canvassing is effective in identifying voters who already agree with the position being advanced, and that this information can be used effectively to support a ‘get-out-the-vote’ operation at election time.
But is it effective in persuading non-supporters to change their mind? Almost certainly not.
A different approach, ‘deep canvassing’, was developed in the United States. In contrast to the traditional attempt to change minds by argument and presentation of facts and figures, deep canvassing aims to change political opinions by making an emotional connection by means of a non-confrontational non-judgmental conversation, using empathic listening and real-life personal stories.
Deep canvassing for activists
Deep canvassing is almost unknown in the UK. But recently (September 2022), around 80 participants attended a webinar that was mounted by two pro-European organisations – Grassroots for Europe and the European Movement – to introduce deep canvassing to the UK.
Introducing the session, Richard Bentall, a professor of clinical psychology, pointed to the difference between therapeutic conversations, in which a therapist aims to help clients to navigate their own solution to the issues that are troubling them, and political conversations, where the aim is often to brow-beat an opponent into agreement. He posed the telling question: did you win your last political argument?
The first speaker, joining from Los Angeles, was the co-founder of deep canvassing, Ella Barrett. She described the origins of the technique, in a 2009 campaign that followed the failure of Californian voters to adopt a proposition legalising same-sex marriage. After this 28th successive failure, a decision was taken to try out a different approach.
Instead of training canvassers to use a script to deliver a message, a small crew of organisers trained volunteers to listen, ask questions, and exchange vulnerable stories with the voter. As part of her presentation, Ella showed a video clip of a voter who was initially uncommitted, but who became emotional when describing a well-liked cousin who was in a long-term same sex relationship, and declared himself in favour.
The team were astonished by how frequently they saw a similar outcome. From this beginning, many thousands of trained volunteers have used a non-judgmental, non-confrontational approach – deep canvassing – to persuade conflicted people and to motivate people to take action in numerous campaigns across the USA.
Evaluating deep canvassing
Josh Kalla, who joined the webinar from Yale University, is a professor of political science who has extensively evaluated the effectiveness of deep canvassing. He opened with a slide summarising almost 30 studies showing that the overall effect of traditional canvassing is effectively zero. And in rare instances where traditional canvassing did have an effect, it disappeared over the few days following the canvass.
Josh then described a series of 14 controlled trials, conducted in the context of real-world campaigns, in which voters were randomly allocated to be canvassed using either deep canvassing or traditional canvassing, or in some studies a placebo intervention involving a conversation about an unrelated topic. Topics addressed in different studies included transgender rights, attitudes to immigration, reproductive rights, affective polarisation, and the 2020 US presidential election.
Some studies were conducted face to face and others by phone; some used experienced volunteers, while in others the canvassers were newly trained. In every case, deep canvassing was more effective than traditional canvassing, or the placebo condition, in decreasing prejudice and increasing policy support (as well as increasing Biden’s vote share in 2020). And the effects persisted for at least six months.
Deep canvassing in the UK
The third speaker, the European Movement campaigns manager Richard Kilpatrick, is one of very few campaigners to have used deep canvassing in the UK. He described two small studies of the use of deep canvassing to increase support for the Liberal Democrat party, both conducted with unaffiliated voters in electorally unfavourable areas.
In one study, deep canvassing produced large changes in voter affiliation, while in the other, changes in voter affiliation were smaller but there was a substantial increase in turnout among people who had been canvassed, and in the LibDem vote at the election.
Richard attributed these gains to a sense that deep canvassing brings people together and creates a sense of community. He estimated that in excess of 20% of people canvassed came on board. This is much larger than the effects seen in the US studies, where around one voter in 20 (5%) changed their position. The difference may reflect the fact that in the UK implementation, canvassers made multiple visits to voters.
Assessing the drawbacks
Deep canvassing has some drawbacks. While a single canvass can cause a 5% change, given that only 1 in 3 voters canvassed open their door, canvassing the whole population would only produce a 1.5% change. (And while this would be no small achievement, it is unlikely that a canvass would actually encompass the entire population.)
Also, deep canvassing is an expensive use of canvassers’ time: a typical deep canvassing conversation takes upwards of ten minutes, far longer than is usually spent on a doorstep. On the plus side, however, the evidence is strong that deep canvassing is an effective means of producing long-lasting changes in voter attitudes and behaviour, and the effects may be amplified by making multiple canvass visits.
Another issue is that deep canvassing is not for everyone. Deep canvassing does not employ the comfort blanket of a fixed script. And some volunteers, particularly those of an introverted disposition, feel uncomfortable initiating a personal conversation with a stranger, particularly so because the expectation is that this will be a two-way conversation in which the canvasser also discloses personal information. So training is essential (and in the course of training, some volunteers may conclude that this approach is not for them).
The art of persuasion
Could deep canvassing be the future for UK progressive campaigning? This is a powerful technique that is estimated to have increased the Biden vote in 2020 by 3.1% overall among people canvassed, and by as much as 8.5% among some groups – over a hundred times more effective than the average presidential persuasion programme. But be aware that taking on deep canvassing is no small undertaking: US campaigners estimate that it takes around six months for a campaign unfamiliar with the technique to get to grips with it and to recruit and train volunteers.
In the meantime, there is a halfway house. The essence of deep canvassing is that to be persuasive a conversation needs to be empathic. Some simple techniques that promote empathic conversation – a sort of ‘deep canvassing lite’ – are summarised in a set of ‘conversation guidelines’. The guidelines could be adopted either as practice for using the full deep canvassing package when training becomes available, or to explore how comfortable it feels to engage in empathic conversation with strangers.
A recording of the webinar can be viewed here, and for anyone who would like to dip a toe in the water, a copy of the ‘deep canvassing lite’ guidelines is available from the author on request. Please email [email protected] for more information.
Some further reading:
- How to talk someone out of bigotry
- Everything you need to know about deep canvassing
- Deep canvassing in the US presidential election
Googling ‘deep canvassing’ throws up many more websites with commentary and videos.