Reformer readers react to ‘deep canvassing’

October 22, 2021 9:40 am

Voters in Minneapolis. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

Thursday’s Daily Reformer featured a New York Times story datelined Minneapolis about what’s called “deep canvassing.” This is a technique in political campaigns in which the canvassers spend lots of time with an individual voter — and more time listening than talking. They hope to develop a connection, with the possibility of persuading the person to come over to their side. As the Times describes it: 

“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.”

The piece refers to a 2016 study by researchers at Berkeley and Yale, which found that “deep canvassing in Miami and Los Angeles had changed the attitudes of some voters who were reluctant to support transgender rights.” Another internal study by People’s Action, which trains progressive organizations in the technique, purports to show deep canvassing worked better for supporters of Joe Biden than regular canvassing with rural white voters in swing states. 

The canvassers in the piece were trying to move skeptical voters to support Question 2, which would dismantle the police department and create a new department of public safety with a public health focus. 

In the Daily Reformer I quoted a DFL operative who was skeptical, calling it a waste of time when a canvasser could instead reach more actual supporters and remind them to vote. 

The Times piece noted the significant time required for deep canvassing: The Minneapolis effort to persuade voters with deep canvassing on the police ballot initiative employed 60 volunteers and staff members, who reached just 2,400 voters after visiting 6,900 homes and making 49,000 phone calls. 

This item attracted a lot of response from Daily Reformer readers. 

Reader A.J.: 

I think you misrepresented the Times article. Yeah, it’s time-consuming, but the article also mentions several elections where deep canvassing was effective. I remember canvassers at the Minnesota State Fair telling people to vote no during the attempt to ban gay marriage in 2012 — I was 15 then, and I remember being amazed that the canvassers would be spending their whole day taking the time to talk and listen to people. Something that’s missed here is that the changes from deep canvassing can ripple out past an election. I think it’s primarily about winning better policies, but also about having conversations that encourage people to reflect on their own beliefs – and maybe even change?

Another reader mentioned the gay marriage campaign of 2012: 

I was a field organizer on the Minnesotans United campaign, working primarily to organize people of faith, and even though we didn’t use the term “deep canvassing” at that time, that’s what the entire campaign’s field operation was built on. We had lengthy, relational conversations with people intended to change their hearts and minds on the issue of gay marriage, and it worked.

A reader was supremely annoyed with the Democratic operative I quoted: 

If only the Dem operative quoted in this email cared as much about expanding the electorate as he does about being condescending. 

Reader B.H. says the goal is more than just one election and thinks I gave the technique short shrift: 

While of course the impact on this election matters, deep canvassing is tied to strategies that look beyond any given election cycle to support shifts towards much longer-term change. 

The reader said my blurb didn’t give a full picture.   

One reader was so annoyed with me and the Democratic operative I quoted that he gave $100 to TakeAction — the group doing the deep canvassing in Minneapolis. (Reformer gets results!) 

I have no dog in this fight. I’ve been reporting how to win elections for a long time. I found this old clip from 2007 quoting then-Yale political scientist Donald Green on the importance of face-to-face contact with voters. And, of course, there was Sasha Issenberg’s “Victory Lab.” 

I also vividly remember the Democrats’ 2006 effort to reach rural voters, when I spent 10 hours in the car with an organizer driving hundreds of miles around Nevada for face-to-face meetings, reaching just a handful of volunteers. Democrats got crushed in rural Nevada that November. 

Most instructive to me was a conversation with Stanford political psychologist Jon Krosnick, who was frank before the 2010 election about what moves voters. The truth is, he said, we can’t be sure. Too much is behind the black curtain of the unconscious. 

Anyway, deep canvassing relies on the belief that humans can have real connection with people unlike them. I hope it works.

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and two young children