Central Pennsylvania native Onah Ossai was lighting a cigarette on her front porch on a mild, late-summer day in 2019 when she was approached by a pair of political canvassers. Instead of showering the single mother with reasons to support a candidate, the two canvassers asked how Ossai felt about expanding access to healthcare. From there, a 20-minute conversation about healthcare ensued, ending with shared stories of loved ones’ experiences with immigration.
“I already believed that we should have universal healthcare and all people who live in the US should receive it regardless of immigration status,” Ossai told The Real News. “When I shared with the canvassers and they shared with me, it made me want to be a part of making that happen.”
This strategy, called deep canvassing, utilizes active listening and asking non-judgemental questions instead of laser-focused sloganeering—and research shows it is highly effective in building support for progressive causes. When deep canvassing was first used by California LGBTQ activists just over a decade ago, these intimate door-to-door conversations provided an elusive and powerful tool to fight prejudice and sway California voters who supported banning same-sex marriage in 2008. Deep canvassing also aims to sway voters who may support an issue or candidate, but lack the motivation to participate in the electoral process.
Deep canvassing contrasts sharply with traditional canvassing, which aims to boost turnout by targeting voters affiliated with an issue or party on a mass scale, and presenting facts and information to encourage them to vote; but there’s increasing evidence door-knocking alone is not an effective strategy.
The job of a deep canvasser is to listen and gauge participants’ emotional response to a topic, and then methodically build lasting human and emotional connections by sharing personal anecdotes and by asking participants to do the same. In other words, canvassers talk to a participant the way they might talk to them if they weren’t part of a political campaign. When executed well, the strategy can often enable canvassers to cut through people’s entrenched biases and preconceived notions about politics and party lines.
For those on the ground working to mobilize potential voters in today’s political landscape, which is in many ways defined by a mix of fierce factional polarization and exhausted resignation, the need for deep canvassing is urgently felt. Leading up to the 2020 election, Pew Research Center found “roughly 8 in 10 registered voters in both camps said their differences with the other side were about core American values, and roughly 9 in 10—again in both camps—worried that a victory by the other would lead to ‘lasting harm’ to the United States.” Another study by the American National Election Studies found that after the 2020 election, Americans have abysmal views of the opposing political party, or as CNN reported, “statistically, Democrats and Republicans hate each other more than ever.”
Deep canvassing has had remarkable success, even as conservative economic and political elites increasingly scapegoat people of color, the LGBTQ community, and government spending for rising systemic social and economic inequities. One report found it had a more than 100 times deeper and longer-lasting impact than traditional canvassing in nine key swing states leading up to the 2020 presidential election. Such findings have been backed by research, including a recent study that found while face-to-face persuasive conversations failed to reduce voters’ prejudice, conversations employing deep canvassing reduced xenophobia and transphobia.
Along with reducing bigotry, it can also be an effective method for motivating people to take action. Before Ossai was deep canvassed, she supported universal healthcare but was not politically active.
“My first experience with deep canvassing was getting deep canvassed,” recalls Ossai, 34, who first encountered the strategy as it was being deployed by the grassroots group Pennsylvania Stands Up to build support for the inclusion of undocumented immigrants in universal healthcare.
She was so swayed by her initial deep canvassing experience that she joined the Pennsylvania Stands Up campaign.
“I got a call a week later. And they were like, ‘You had really great stories, and the canvassers really thought they were really powerful.’ And then the next thing you know, I’m doing it,” she said.
Deep canvassing seeks to explore the emotions that subconsciously contribute to our political and social views. The idea is that by helping the participant understand how their views are wrapped up in and impacted by human emotions and personal experiences, they can begin to acknowledge that impact and develop an approach to thorny political issues that is more measured and self-reflective.
“I’m not making an argument with you,” Ossai said. “I want to know why you care about something, and I want to know why you feel the way that you feel about something. And I’m going to ask you real questions to get to the root of why you feel that way.”
Ossai, who is African American, recalls a 2019 conversation that ended up with a rural white voter increasing his support for universal health care. When she shared a story of her aunt who is undocumented, the man asked, “Why should we have to help other people?” She responded that she used to feel the same way, but becoming a mother made her “appreciate other people, and understand their experiences that are different than mine.” The man admitted to his daughter that he had never considered how our experiences affect our opinions.
The national progressive advocacy organization People’s Action designed the 2019 campaign, which also targeted rural white voters in North Carolina and Michigan. It resulted in a 20% shift in support for the inclusion of undocumented immigrants in the expansion of universal health care, according to data they released.
Today, Ossai is a Rural Field Organizer with Pennsylvania Stands Up, one of People Action’s 40 local partner organizations, and has used deep canvassing on half a dozen campaigns, including Joe Biden’s Pennsylvania win in the 2020 presidential election.
The groups are again planning to help Democrats in the 2022 midterms. An expected razor-thin margin in Pennsylvania will decide the races for a US Senate seat, Governor and Lt. Governor, and control of the legislature—nationally, control of Congress and the future of President Biden’s agenda hang in the balance.
Progressives have increasingly embraced deep canvassing as a tool to break through America’s increasingly toxic, polarized, and rage-filled political landscape—the reality of Ossai’s native Central Pennsylvania.
“Where I live currently there’s a ‘let’s go Brandon’ flag down the street, and there’s also still some people that have got some Biden signs still up,” said Ossai, who lives outside of Steelton, Pennsylvania. “It is super politically divided and It’s wild because everywhere you go it’s divided, there’s always going to be spicy hot takes from either side.”
During the 2020 election, canvassers also had to contend with the pandemic, which not only limited personal interactions but also brought misery, mass unemployment, sickness and death, and caused those who might support the issues Ossai was canvassing for to become “despondent,” she explained.
Voting in the election was not a top priority for many voters Ossai spoke to.
“Yes, you support Joe Biden, right? You want to make sure Trump’s out of office, but where’s your motivation to vote, to get up and go vote, when you feel like it doesn’t matter, everything’s just unraveling all at once?”
Canvassers with Pennsylvania Stands Up and People’s Action had over 383,000 conversations with voters across the state, and said that 48% of completed calls ended with increased support of Biden, with one in five shifting to Biden from Trump or from being undecided.
In a state where Biden defeated Trump by just 81,000 votes, deep canvassing contributed to the Democrats’ margin of victory.
Anyone can become a deep canvasser, but getting the necessary experience requires serious commitment and ongoing training. About 50 participants, ranging from veteran activists to those who said it was their first political training, logged onto a Zoom call organized by People’s Action to learn the theory and practice of deep canvassing on the evening of Jan. 19.
The event focused on reaching New Hampshire voters about the importance of federal legislation to fight climate change. After an hour-long interactive presentation, the participants were divided into breakout groups to practice deep canvassing on each other using an online interactive script, including a prompt to describe a time when their lives were impacted by climate change.
Canvassers ask participants to rate their feelings toward a campaign or topic on a scale of 1-10. As the canvasser wades into the participant’s response, the script automatically updates with prompts and questions to guide the participants through the deep canvas. Before the conversation concludes, the participant is asked to again gauge their attitude towards the topic; this net change is how persuasion is measured.
After reflecting on the training, participants made real deep canvassing calls to New Hampshire residents for the final 30 minutes of the training. Some noted that it was more difficult to get a human connection with a participant over the phone than in person, a difficult reality of organizing and canvassing during the pandemic.
“I feel like these conversations are so much easier in person. It’s hard to say ‘No’ [to] someone when they are looking at you,” one participant said.
Others had more success.
“The person I talked with told me that no one had ever spoken with them before about these issues,” participant Robin Schneider said.
Organizers shared that out of the five people canvassers reached who did not initially support the clean energy initiative, three said their views were significantly changed at the end of the call, a 30% persuasion rate.
Participants are encouraged to take part in a series of training sessions that emphasize different skills needed to be an effective deep canvasser, says Brooke Adams, People’s Action’s Director of Movement Politics.
“We are actually training people on soft skills, like how you practice compassionate curiosity, like how you are assertive and direct a conversation, how you tell your own story in a way that prompts vulnerability for the person you’re speaking to,” she said.
Along with requiring more training than traditional canvassing, and simply taking longer (a single conversation typically lasts 10-20 minutes), deep canvassing has other limitations: to maximize effectiveness, each deep canvas script is created through extensive experimentation to determine which option creates the greatest impact for individual communities, which is also a time-consuming and expensive process. The final script used in the 2020 presidential campaign, for example, had over two dozen iterations.
“When you’re looking at using this strategy to essentially transform the American electorate and build a nationwide multiracial working-class base, there’s just a lot of differences and how people are experiencing problems in their communities. And we have to be sensitive to that, while also building the structure to be able to replicate deep canvases at scale,” Adams said.
Voters have reasons to be skeptical of politicians and political parties: Working-class Americans have endured decades of skyrocketing inequality and eroding economic and political power, while decades’ worth of conditioned adherence to consumeristic “individualism” has been used to erase empathy and solidarity from the popular imagination.
“Ultimately, this project is about renewing people’s faith in government and government spending, and actually moving people towards a positive vision of a political system, where people from all backgrounds are actually able to thrive in this country,” Adams said. “But we’re doing that in the context of people not having gotten basic necessities met by the government, people are struggling right now.”
Canvassers face the challenge of building support for expanding government services that have thus far failed to provide Americans a social safety net.
“We’re constantly operating in this tension of needing to recognize that reality, while also trying to move people towards seeing the possibility that government spending and government dollars can be good,” Adams said.
Ossai stresses that deep canvassing is a long-term strategy.
“There is a sense sometimes that we want to just force it to work quickly, we want to make it work during a midterm because we need to have a blue wave, right? When we know that these problems have been here, these problems have persisted. And that one midterm election isn’t going to fix it,” she said.
In practical terms, for canvassers during the pandemic, this often meant that they spend time helping connect an individual with resources before canvassing them.
It can also put canvassers in uncomfortable and dangerous situations.
“I’m not fearful to knock on a door and have a hard conversation,” Ossai said. ”But there were times where I would have an address up a one mile gravel driveway, the only one car could get up. And there’s like a big MAGA billboard that says ‘Trump.’ And I’m just like driving up the driveway. I don’t want to get stuck, like, I don’t want someone to be coming down this driveway at the same time I’m going up and then being like, what are you doing here?”
Ossai has had the police called on her multiple times.
“Being a person of color canvassing in any neighborhood where you’re not supposed to be there, having police called on you can always be an issue,” she said.
In recent years, People’s Action and its local partner organizations like Pennsylvania Stands Up have used it in campaigns to increase support for Medicare for All, immigration reform, and the defund the police movement. Other groups have successfully used it to protect the rights of transgender people in Miami-Dade County, Florida, build a multi-racial working-class coalition in rural North Carolina, and unseat Maine’s GOP minority leader.
“Anybody can deep canvass and it doesn’t just have to be when someone gives you a script,” Ossai said. “Why do you think you’re so opposed to these masks in school? Have you ever had to do something to protect other people? Has that ever happened before in your life? And Uncle Jerry will tell when there was a he had to protect somebody else. And he had to do something, maybe that made him a little bit uncomfortable.”
Despites the challenges, Ossai feels optimistic that deep canvassing will have a positive impact on the 2022 elections.
“I think people are fired up this year. And I think that these local races are something that could get people out to the polls,” she said. “I think that the state races are things that will get people out to the polls, when they really know why it matters to them and their families.”
This article is part of a series made possible with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.