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Picture a campaign flier—an 8 x 11 inch piece of paper printed to advocate for a specific candidate or issue. They’ve become commonplace during election season; we receive them through the mail, unceremoniously they are placed under our car windshield wipers, or even passed out from eager campaign volunteers going door-to-door with their message.
Campaigns have used this mechanism for generations to increase voter turnout in their favor, but data has proven that mailers simply don’t sustain a long-lasting effect. Instead, their message is absorbed early on but fades over time. This can pose a problem for candidates or legislative campaigns on the opposite side of constant political barrage, such as those promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights.
“In the LGBT community, we have the unfortunate experience of having people vote on our rights,” Steve Deline, field organizer for the Leadership LAB of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, tells BTRtoday. “After a long, long string of pretty much unbroken losses, mainly with same-sex marriage but with other issues as well, we realized we had to do something different.”
The Leadership LAB decided to organize an unorthodox method of canvassing for votes. Instead of simply rallying supporters, they wanted to figure out how to speak with people on the other side of the issue, as well as those who consider themselves pro-LGBT, but are easily swayed by oppositional messaging.
“When these campaigns happen, our opposition really relies on instilling fear and preys on misconceptions and prejudices about who LGBT people are,” Deline says.
To see these misconceptions firsthand, simply time hop back to Rick Perry’s “Strong” campaign ad from 2011, or check out the comical Super PAC advertisement supporting Mitt Romney and denouncing same-sex marriage. More recently, outrage has sparked over the issue of transgender individuals’ freedom to use the bathrooms of their choosing–which has led to a fresh wave of fear-mongering and ridicule.
There’s no question that issues surrounding LGBT rights are divisive, but in order to increase public understanding and knowledge, the folks at the Leadership LAB knew they needed to start talking. With traditional campaign methods gaining no new ground, a revitalized approach was necessary.
In response to the Prop 8 amendment, which overturned same-sex marriage in California, the LAB implemented a new technique known as deep canvassing. Much like traditional canvassing, volunteers go door-to-door, but instead of dropping off a flier and moving on down the line, they attempt to engage the voter in an open conversation about their feelings. It involves the volunteers being completely nonjudgmental, as well as making themselves vulnerable by sharing stories about their experiences in the hopes that the potential voter will reciprocate.
“In a lot of ways, we’re out there to invite voters to express their honest feelings,” Deline says. “The training that we give volunteers is very extensive, and really revolves around training people to build a rapport with the people at the door, listen really, really carefully, and signal a lot of openness to the voter being honest with us.”
Another important step, Deline explains, is for volunteers to remain proactively curious, and ask a number of questions of voters, inviting them to talk about themselves, their feelings, and their lives. This creates a two-way dialogue of trust, which is a key means of connection with people who might not respond as well to figures.
“Going to them and saying that we can show all the facts and figures that have been passed across the country, that there haven’t been any problems—that just bounces right off,” Deline says. “Whereas if we can have this deeper conversation, then suddenly we’re helping process and work through emotions in a way that is much more effective.”
The method appeared to be working; though a fraudulent study based on false data created diffidence around its effectiveness, it was eventually uncovered and dismissed in 2014 by political scientists David Broockman of Stanford and Josh Kalla of UC Berkeley. Broockman and Kalla were conducting their own study of the same canvassing method, using volunteers in Miami to create conversation around transgender rights and discrimination.
Fifty-six canvassers went door-to-door and spoke with 501 voters, before the study concluded that the “conversations substantially reduced transphobia.” The effects were felt three months afterward, and even “increased support for a nondiscrimination law, even after exposing voters to counterarguments.” According to Kalla, those findings are encouraging–especially given the unconventional technique.
“We know surprisingly little about persuasion and about how voters make up their minds about the views they have,” Kalla tells BTRtoday. “There have been hundreds of studies that have been conducted in artificial settings like college laboratories with college students, or in survey experiments, but there have been very few studies in the real world with real political activist groups who try to change voters’ minds.”
Though the analysis is ongoing—Broockman and Kalla will continue sending out surveys to the voters reached in South Florida—the success may not seem all that surprising when considering the overall power a conversation can have on people. Within the realm of politics, though, it’s still considered “out there.”
“In the world of campaigns, it’s highly unorthodox,” Deline says. “The idea of using canvassing to speak to people who aren’t on your side has long been considered folly, really. In a lot of ways, it’s not something that’s been tackled before.”
Despite the labor intensiveness of coordinating volunteer training and outreach, the early success of deep canvassing suggests it could help with other divisive topics.
“We believe that if organizations and campaigns get into the habit of doing this kind of work, it kind of shifts the ground level of support they’re dealing with,” Deline says. “Also, the next time they go out and vote on this issue again, they’re going to face a fundamentally changed electorate.”
“You can definitely see how the contours of this style of canvassing could be applied to other issue areas,” Kalla says.
Only a few studies have been conducted on deep canvassing’s impact, but its connection to the LGBT community remains paramount due to the ongoing struggle to reach empathy, especially for transgender individuals.
“The climate that transgender people face in our society right now is just brutal,” Deline says. “There is so little understanding of what it means to be transgender, and so much fear.”
Celine also believes that this kind of canvassing for gay and transgender rights could have a far-reaching impact that goes well beyond the political.
“Having these conversations, I not only see a lot of political benefit to it, but also a vital moment to help our society work out how we’re going to treat people who are transgender.”