Everything you need to know about Deep Canvassing

Published on July 16, 2023

Deep canvassing is a canvassing strategy that stems from a simple idea: You can change minds through conversations. 

So, what is deep canvassing?

Deep canvassing is a two-way empathic and non-judgemental conversation between canvassers and voters focused on structuring the voter’s beliefs. Canvassers use this method to engage voters in a conversation and get them to a mutual understanding by providing alternative perspectives. 

The strategy involves:

  • Sharing your experience and getting the conversation started
  • Listening to voters, getting them thinking and sharing
  • Highlighting common humanity

Vivian Topping, an LGBTQ rights activist, along with some other activists and allies, used deep canvassing to keep transgender protections in 2018, and were successful

In this article, we’ll learn everything you need to know about deep canvassing to plan your next canvassing campaign strategy.

The basic component of deep canvassing

Deep canvassing can be segmented into the following elements: 

  1. Asking for the voter’s opinion on a certain issue and exploring it.
  2. Asking for the voter’s personal story or experience pertaining to the issue.
  3. Connecting a personal story to the voter’s initial opinion.
  4. Engaging with their initial concerns and opinions and giving them time to ponder.
  5. Getting back to the original issue and seeking their opinion.

How is deep canvassing different than other political canvassing?

Typically, in political canvassing, the canvasser shares a bunch of arguments to show the voter why they should support the candidate or the cause associated with the campaign. 

Deep canvassing is different. Let’s see how.

Traditional Canvassing Deep Canvassing
Campaigns control the message by sticking to the script Campaigns use a script to help build rapport with voters.
Canvasser delivers a message stating facts and statistics about why the voter should support their cause. Canvasser starts a two-way conversation
Under 5 minutes Between 10-20 minutes
Suggests issues of concern to voters. Learns what matters to voters.

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.

A good example is the
conversation an LAB activist had with a voter about transgender rights and turned the voter around.

Why does Deep Canvassing work?

Deep canvassing uses 4 techniques which helps in convincing voters to change their minds. The techniques are explained below:

  1. Self-persuasion is an aspect of social influence. In simple terms, voters take an active role in persuading themselves to change their attitudes or thoughts on a particular issue. The canvasser plays no role in persuasion, rather they place voters in situations where they persuade themselves to change. This motivation comes from within, canvassers don’t have to put in the extra effort to change minds.
  2. Active Processing is an approach that facilitates experiences, role-playing, simulations, and scenarios. Here, people apply what they already know. So, when the voter is presented with the canvasser’s experience or thoughts on a particular topic, the voter tries to generate, re-organize, and self-explain it to himself. This way, it makes the voter think and talk about their own experience.
  3. Perspective-taking is rather simple. It considers or understands an issue from an alternative point of view. When canvassers share their perspective, it makes voters ponder and consider the alternative. Sharing their own experience adds value as they see the same old issue in a new light.
  4. Cognitive Dissonance is the tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in your mind at the same time. This is when your actions don’t match with your belief. The act of deep canvassing helps people realize that their beliefs and actions don’t go hand-in-hand, compelling them to change (voters decide on their own).

How long does it take to gain momentum?

According to Dave Fleischer, who coined the term deep canvassing, it takes about six months for a campaign to get a hang of the method and to recruit and train volunteers. Deep canvassing is a long-term investment.

In terms of time, the program will gain momentum over a long period meaning that you need to start at the early stages of campaigning. But the impact of deep canvassing lasts for about 9 months, unlike traditional canvassing, where the effects of persuasion are short-lived.

Let’s say you want to beat Candidate X, who won in Michigan by 10,000 votes. Studies on deep canvassing suggest a conversion rate of 10%. That means you need to create 100,000 conversations to change 10,000 minds and win the vote.

Volunteers working a 2-hour shift, on average, can complete 5 conversations. But remember, the impact is cumulative. Start your deep canvassing campaign 10 months before elections and start training volunteers 6 months prior to your door-to-door canvassing efforts. This way, you have enough time to influence said voters.

Skills volunteers must have for deep canvassing

  • Active listening is a skill that all volunteers must possess. It is very important to show you care. While listening, volunteers must be empathic, give validation and be honest. Also, ask follow-up questions based on what the voter shares.
  • Hold real conversations with voters when you knock doors for canvassing. Volunteers need to echo the voters’ feelings back to them, give them enough space to reflect, remain on their side, and maintain positive body language.
  • Share personal stories. The purpose of sharing is to display vulnerability and to help the voter build a safe space in the conversation. By doing so, voters are more inclined to remember, share and reflect on their personal experiences.

Challenges to deep canvassing

  1. Lack of motivation presents a real problem for deep canvassing. The idea is to have real and passionate conversations with voters. And to do so, field organizers must have a thorough understanding of the issue. They must also be able to motive, train and prepare volunteers to carry out effective conversations in the field.
  2. Running a deep canvassing campaign requires much more time as compared to the traditional method. The campaign will have to recruit way more volunteers. These volunteers must be trained and have to be passionate about the cause. But to make a sudden change in campaign habits is hard. Campaigns will have to start their work way earlier and put in additional effort to train, recruit and retain volunteers which is challenging.

When is it strategic to use deep canvassing?

You need to use deep canvassing when you want to break through to voters who have a different perspective or have voted against you. Also, to garner support when faced with controversial topics and polarized issues.

Voter persuasion is the right time to run a deep canvass. In this stage, you will have plenty of time to engage with voters and change their perspectives.

When does deep canvassing fail to work?

Deep canvassing takes a lot of time but has a lasting impact.

  • This method will not work during GOTV due to time constraints.
  • The strategy fails to work if you don’t have a well-trained team of volunteers and if you cannot motivate them to work.

You need to recruit a good team of experienced organizers to make volunteer recruitment.

If you intend to make a lasting impact on voters and don’t mind spending more time to engage with people, then deep canvassing can work wonders for your campaign. It is a powerful tool rooted in listening, understanding, and presenting voters with new perspectives.