In 2016, campaigns spent more than $6.8 billion across the country to win the hearts and minds of our electorate. But many of us woke up on November 9 with 45 reasons to rethink our approach.
The question left on the minds of political operatives and activists across the country has been the same: What went wrong?
If the piles of post-mortem from 2016 have taught us anything, it’s that we may never be completely sure. But there are certainly ways to make sure it never happens again. Let me explain…
Think back to your time in school. We lived in the realm of grades, points, and standardized testing, with the type of pressure from our teachers that could teach the best political operatives a thing or two about persuasion.
It was those late nights -- everyone had them -- frantically skimming your books and old notes for an upcoming test, waking up the next morning and hoping you could get by with the hour or two of studying you did the night before. How’d you do on those tests, by the way? Probably not too well if we’re being honest.
And it’s pretty easy to tell you why. Cramming doesn’t work. Now what if I told you that modern U.S. elections are built on the same problem that makes cramming so ineffective? I’m not sure if anyone would be too surprised.
Media experts are talking about the death of the 30-second TV commercial. The character max for a tweet is 140 characters and has a lifespan of about 18-24 minutes. The average conversation in a phone bank lasts less than a minute. Even directly knocking on someone’s door and having a conversation averages only a few minutes.
See what I mean? It’s like political operatives are trying to get us to cram for our test on Super Tuesday.
What’s funny is academics have spent years wondering why political operatives continue down this path. There’s no evidence to say it’s all that effective. I mean, have you read the news lately?
Luckily, there’s an alternative. It’s called “Deep Canvassing” and it’s been all the rage in progressive and academic circles for quite a few years now. In this article, we’re going to explore what deep canvassing is and how it can change the face of organizing forever.
So, What is Deep Canvassing?
The idea of deep canvassing isn’t new. In fact, it’s been used for centuries. It revolves around a simple idea: conversations can change minds.
The term “deep canvassing” was officially coined by David Fleischer, who leads the Leadership LAB of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. In an interview with the Campaign Workshop earlier this year, Fleischer defines deep canvassing as follows:
“[In a conventional canvass] … there’s this belief that if we just say the right words, the voter’s going to change their mind. With a deep canvass, we want to figure out what’s relevant to voters … to help the canvasser build a good rapport with a voter. The distinguishing feature of a deep canvass is you … [have a] two-way conversation about real experiences that shape their thinking about the issues.”
In 2008, California went through an election year similar to the fervor of the 2016 election, where the electorate unexpectedly voted to approve Proposition 8, which essentially banned same-sex marriage. As a gay Jewish man working in Democratic politics, Fleischer jumped into action. Shortly after the 2008 election, he cleaned up the field offices of the Obama for America campaign and headed back to California to work for the LA LGBT Center.
The team at Leadership LABs posited that changing the dynamic of door-to-door canvassing -- from just a short conversation to a longer one (10-20 minutes on average) with a focused script -- could affect outcomes significantly.
They discovered that using the following fundamental principles could build a successful deep canvassing operation that yielded significant results for 1 in 10 people:
- Evaluate the voter’s opinion on the issue and explore it
- Use a video, story, or other outside source to explore their feelings more deeply
- Ask about the audience’s personal experience with the issue or a similar one
- Connect personal experience back to the original issue
- Engage their initial concerns
- Re-evaluate attitude towards the issue
Well, he was right.
In early 2017, David Fleischer did a TedX talk in the Midwest on the effectiveness of deep canvassing. See it in action yourself:
Now let’s explore the differences between a traditional canvassing operation and a deep canvassing operation from the eyes of a political organizer.
Traditional vs. Deep Canvassing
There are some significant differences between canvassing in the traditional sense, and conducting a deep canvass. Let’s evaluate what it takes to set up a deep canvassing operation, what it looks like out in the field, and some of the challenges associated with an operation of this magnitude.
Before you launch
- Set-up & cost to launch: In an interview with Campaign Workshop, Fleischer said it can cost between $200,000 and $250,000 to set-up, primarily staff costs for 2-3 full-time organizers and 200+ volunteers. Due to the extensive training and research required to set up a deep canvass on a specific issue, Fleischer said teams can take up to 6 months to get comfortable. This contrasts starkly with a traditional campaign, where you can get started with as little as 1 full-time organizer and just a few weeks of preparation.
- Training: During the LA LGBT Center’s deep canvasses, volunteers come for a 2-hour training prior to going out into the field. This is more training time than a volunteer would get in a traditional canvass, which can range from a simple 5-minute kick-off to a 30-minute training usually focused on getting comfortable reciting the script and talking points.
In the field
- Length of conversation: In a traditional canvass, conversations last between 1-3 minutes, with an average of 25 conversations per hour (depending on the density of housing). In contrast, conversations in a deep canvass last a minimum of 10 minutes, and up to 20 minutes. In these cases, volunteers average about 5 conversations per 2-hour shift.
- Format: In both the traditional and deep canvasses, the conversations are guided by a script. However, in traditional canvasses, organizers design scripts to deliver quick, uniform messaging and encourage sticking to it. In a deep canvass,, scripts act more as a guide, and volunteers are encouraged to focus more on creating real, organic conversation around the issues.
- Impact: After the initial success of their deep canvassing operations, Fleischer and his team recruited scientists from Stanford and Berkeley to solidify their findings in a measurable study. The study found that 1 in 10 people showed significant decrease in bias against the Transgender community for 9+ months after the deep canvass conversations. Contrast that with traditional canvasses, where voters were affected for only 3-5 days after the initial conversation.
- Quality of volunteers: In a traditional canvassing operation, volunteers have often been dragged out to canvass by a field organizer and only have light training before entering the field. But in a deep canvassing operation, given the extensive preparation required to launch, the result is highly-motivated volunteers with a stake in the issue and advanced training in voter communication.
Challenges to Deep Canvassing
Deep canvassing also has its own set of challenges, which help explain why deep canvassing isn’t as widespread as many in the progressive and academic communities would like. Some of the barriers are practical; others are political.
- Motivation: The field organizer position in most political campaigns and advocacy organizations is an entry-level position, requiring little to no prior experience or training to begin. Thus, political organizers across the country are often new to politics and don’t have sufficient training to motivate volunteers to do the work. This poses an obstacle to deep canvassing because the idea is to have real, passionate conversations that require training, deeper knowledge, and preparation.
- Campaign Habits: Running a campaign is a numbers game. For many years, consultants have relied on the hurried surveying of traditional canvassing, where they can average over 60 houses per 3-hour volunteer shift. It’s difficult to switch from 60 houses per shift, to 5 houses per shift in a deep canvassing operation.
In the current campaign environment, everything from traditional field outreach to communications plays into the idea that voters are uninterested in the issues we’re peddling.
With political communication media that last only a few seconds, and traditional canvassing that relies on 3-minute conversations to change minds, it’s becoming clear why we didn’t win last November.
The emergence of deep canvassing as a super-tool for impactful outreach reinforces what direct sales and political outreach teams have known for decades: people respond to face-to-face conversations with living, breathing people with real stories to tell.
Ready to start building your own deep canvassing operation? Check out our guide to building a deep canvass.
This guide will equip you to:
- Train canvassers in active listening
- Show your team the best way to connect with their audience
- Help canvassers understand the deep canvassing process