The Power of 'Deep Canvassing' to Change Minds

A new study confirms a serious conversation on a doorstep can change minds, even on controversial issues such as transgender rights, which should be a message for issue managers who face entrenched opponents.

A new study confirms a serious conversation on a doorstep can change minds, even on controversial issues such as transgender rights, which should be a message for issue managers who face entrenched opponents.

A big part of an issue manager’s job is to change people’s minds. Recent studies by political science researchers indicate face-to-face contact, preferably initiated by people most impacted by a policy decision, can change minds.

The studies examined political attitudes before and after political canvassers went door-to-door to talk about same-sex marriage and transgender rights. The most recent study concluded that gay and transgender canvassers were the most effective in personalizing the issue and persuading people.

Called “deep canvassing,” this intense form of political campaigning has broader applications. It is commonly acknowledged that state legislative candidates who devote a lot of time to knocking on doors, introducing themselves and engaging in front-porch politics are usually the victors. As one campaign consultant preaches, “Voters like to see and touch the flesh of the candidates they support.”

The concept of deep canvassing goes beyond retail politicking. It involves sharing your story and experiences, not just explaining an issue and asking for political support. The shared personal experience is what cultivates a political attachment.

If canvassers go door-to-door in favor of a bond measure to renovate or build a school in a neighborhood, they may get polite support. If parents or children canvass, the bond measure seems more personal because you see people who are impacted.

However, talking about a school bond measure is a cake walk compared to trying to convince someone to switch their views on unisex bathrooms or anti-discrimination measures for transgender people. The study, which tracked transgender canvassers in Dade County, Florida, showed deep canvassing techniques had a durable effect on voter attitudes. 

The county had passed an anti-discrimination ordinance to protect transgender people and opponents promised a challenge to repeal the ordinance. The Los Angeles LGBT Center dispatched more than 50 canvassers to employ deep canvassing, as researchers tracked results using a series of surveys sent to people three days, three weeks, six weeks and three months after the canvass. Survey results showed that one in 10 people canvassed showed a marked shift in favor of equal rights.

Arthur Lupia, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times a 10 percent shift in opinion may not seem like a big change. “Any presidential candidate would welcome that kind of effect from a doorstep conversation.” Small shifts in attitude change the pivot point of other conversations conducted over the back fence, at a community center or in a book club. There is an ongoing ripple effect.

The shifts noted in Dade County parallel how views began to change on same-sex marriage after its advocates launched an effort to remind people they had gay family members, coworkers and friends. Personalizing the issue made it easier to sell policy that says the government shouldn’t decide “who you should love.”

Most contentious policies don’t involve culture wars. They more typically center on a housing development, shopping mall or road improvement near a neighborhood. The issues are disruption, safety and change. Attitudes can be just as entrenched as someone’s views on gay rights. 

The scope of some projects may seem too large to allow for deep canvassing, but that may not be the case. Communications options exist to expand the reach of actual canvassing, such as capturing doorstep exchanges on video (with permission, of course) and sharing them on a website and through social media. Live streaming a small-group interaction in someone’s front room could be another way to share the process beyond the doorstep.

The biggest takeaway is that personal contact is a must to change attitudes or roll back opposition. This isn’t easy or quick. There is no absolute guarantee it will work. But the personal touch has a much higher chance of success than slick, superficial presentations or just plunging ahead and hoping for the best.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.