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Deep Canvassing

What is deep canvassing?

It seems to have become common knowledge that you can’t convince people away from hardened viewpoints. Narratives in mainstream media support side-taking and partisanship. Social media ‘echo chambers’ simply reflect back to us  the views that we are already signed up to. Nowhere is this view more widely held than in the world of politics. If someone is a [Green, Republican, Labour, take your pick] voter then they won’t be convinced out of it. If they vote pro-life then they won’t be moved from that belief no matter how hard you try. However, deep canvassing [you can understand it as in-depth conversations] does seem to be able to cut  through the hardened views and present a new way for grassroots activists to change hearts and minds.

A recent experiment by Joshua L. Kalla and David E. Broockman showed some intriguing insights into deep canvassing’s effectiveness.

The field experiment tried to ascertain whether an open conversation with individuals, as opposed to a traditional persuasion canvass, would yield results in terms of reducing exclusionary attitudes to outgroups. It was run a bit like a drug trial with a placebo group, a group who received a traditional persuasion canvass, and a group who received the full deep canvassing treatment. The placebo group were engaged in conversation that had nothing to do with the topic. The individuals were then followed up with a week, a month and several months later to see if the canvasses had had any impact on their attitude.

The results of the subsequent surveys showed no change in attitude among the placebo group. It showed no change in attitude among the traditional persuasion canvassing group either. The group receiving the deep canvassing showed a 4% increase in likelihood to support policies inclusive of undocumented immigrants. As Kalla and Broockman say, “ Non-judgmentally exchanging narratives can help overcome the resistance to persuasion often encountered in discussions of these contentious topics.”

They go on to say, “Now we can show experimentally that when you take away the two-way nature of the conversation, the effects go away,” Broockman says. It’s this “nonjudgmental exchanging of narratives” that Broockman and Kalla think is the critical way in which deep canvassing works.

When is it strategic to use Deep Canvassing?

When you have a challenging demographic in front of you who do not agree with your campaign or issue

When you need to build support for a misunderstood or controversial issue

When you are in the early stages of an election campaign and want to gather rich data while changing attitudes

Deep canvassing strategy

The theory and strategy of deep canvassing is simple. The implementation of it might be a lot harder and require a good deal of training and experience to get it right.

The strategy lays out:

Engage people in open conversation and ask them their views

Actively listen and share your personal experience to connect with their points of view

Give perspective and highlight commonalities and alternative viewpoints

The tactics suggest:

Get the person’s opinion and explore it

Find out what personal experience made them arrive at their opinion

Connect your personal experience to their view

Work through their concerns and seek to explore in more depth and give perspective

Revisit original views and see if they have been changed

Traditional canvassing versus Deep canvassing

Traditional Canvassing


Canvassing scripts are designed to elicit specific information like voting intention or support for a cause

Canvassers typically deliver a set message as part of the interaction

Interaction is short and designed not to be intrusive

Specific issues that the voter needs help with can be quickly captured for follow-up by a team member

Deep Canvassing


The canvasser has talking points to act as a ‘jumping off point’ for conversation

The canvasser uses story and eliciting of personal information to create a safe space of debate and consideration

Interaction can take between 10 and 30 minutes as necessary

The aim is to understand the viewpoint of the voter and try to capture that in note taking

In deep canvassing, the only concern is to start a conversation around an issue, find what the voter wants and address it through the campaign. Canvassers don’t worry about the time or think about reaching targets. Their main goal is to reduce prejudice (changing minds and votes) and voter research.

In a deep canvass, volunteers don’t use polling data to know how many voters are persuadable. Rather, they contact voters who have voted against their cause in the past, find the reason behind it and try to change their mind.

Why does deep canvassing work?

A group called People’s Action, led by George Goehl, undertook 200,000 deep canvassing conversations with Trump supporters over the past two years and their analysis was revealing. Based on their data, deep canvassing boosted Joe Biden’s rate among those contacted by 3 percent on average, and higher amounts with some groups (e.g., 8.5 percent with independent women). That may not sound like a tremendous swing, but it is 102 times more effective than other, more traditional, electioneering methods. The secret seems to lie in taking one’s time and creating an opportunity for the target to think and share, without becoming defensive. It is a conversational approach to persuasion. Goehl describes an interaction with one of his team at People’s Action in a recent Atlantic article entitled, How we got Trump voters to change their minds.

“Recently, one of our volunteers, Angela, reached a man by phone while he was at work on a construction site (during the pandemic, we’ve switched from door-knocking to phone-banking). When Angela asked how he was doing, he initially said he was fine, but when Angela shared how much she’s been struggling and how worried she’s been about the pandemic, the conversation changed. Angela said that her husband’s grandmother had died in a nursing home—along with 50 other people—and he opened up about his wife coming down with COVID-19 and about the time that she called him at work to say she was struggling to breathe. This led to a conversation about health care and the need for good leadership. At the beginning of the call, he said he had no plans to vote but was ready to cast a ballot when he hung up, and Angela ended the call feeling a depth of connection.”

When does Deep Canvassing fail to work?

Deep canvassing will be difficult to implement if you are:

Time constrained

Do not have the ability or resources to train your canvassers

If you are not targeting the right people to engage with

If you are using paid canvassers or volunteers who are not sufficiently motivated

If you want to make a real lasting impact in your community and are invested in engaging people then deep canvassing can work really well for you. It is an impactful tool that changes narratives and perspectives over time through the power of real conversations and relationship building.

Setting up your deep canvassing using Ecanvasser

Deep canvassing is a long-term investment in people and processes. Dave Fleischer who invented the term says it takes about six months to get everyone trained and effectively working. Persuasion at this level though has long-term impact and ultimately changes whole communities if it is done correctly.

When using Ecanvasser you will want to calibrate your dashboard to reflect this way of working. You  can start with:

Create a Campaign Effort called Deep Canvass to separate it from other outreach campaigns

Customize your canvassing screen with the correct data points that need to be captured

Train your team members in the strategy and tactics of deep canvassing - use Ecanvasser as the mobile cue for the stages of the conversation

Set up Talking Points to direct canvassers in the field indicating how to elicit information and detailing sample talking points to direct conversations

Create a follow up Campaign Effort

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