Last year, before the pandemic, I stood on the front porch of a house near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, while the homeowner, a former military man, heaved pro-Trump talking points at me. His anger was palpable. He was upset about the state of health care. He blamed immigrants. With a clipboard in my hand, I listened carefully to everything he had to say.
I am the director of People’s Action, an organization of working-class and low-income people. I was in Pennsylvania as part of deep-canvass efforts targeting rural and small-town voters, testing whether patient, nonjudgmental conversations about race, immigration, health care, and the economy can help people reexamine their views, and perhaps even lead them to vote for Joe Biden instead of Donald Trump.
By November 3, People’s Action will have logged more than 200,000 deep-canvassing conversations with conflicted voters in battleground states. They don’t always go well. The man in Harrisburg? He didn’t change his mind about anything. I’d swear that some nights a hardheaded Sean Hannity answers five doors or phone calls in a row. But on the best days, the discussions are transformative.
So far, more than 3 percent of the voters we’ve engaged have switched from planning to vote for Donald Trump to planning to vote for Joe Biden. Even more significant, 8.5 percent of women independents—and 4.9 percent of women overall—said they planned to change their vote to Biden. David Broockman and Josh Kalla, academics who measure what helps shift hearts and minds, told me this persuasion rate is 102 times more effective than traditional electioneering efforts aimed at persuading people to change their vote. On average, these exchanges took 15 minutes. Although spending that kind of time with voters nationwide may not be possible, and would challenge much about how candidates campaign, the lessons we learned—of listening and showing empathy—are important to recognize in this divisive election.
Typically, when volunteers engage in a canvassing campaign, the effort basically amounts to verbal leafleting. They make a one- to two-minute targeted pitch for a candidate or a ballot initiative, and then they leave or hang up the phone.
In a deep canvass, we want to have a real conversation. To get people to open up, we start by asking the basics: How are you doing? How are you holding up in this global pandemic? We respond not with canned answers, but with more questions: Oh, you’re watching football? Who is your team? How is your family doing? We’re really asking, and we really listen. Eventually, a true back-and-forth begins, one where we exchange stories about our lives and what is at stake for ourselves and for our communities in this election. Usually, by the end, what emerges is some kind of internal conflict—why the person is frustrated, why she can’t decide who to vote for, or why she is skeptical of Biden.
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.
Research has shown time and again that people vote from an emotional place. It’s not so much that facts don’t matter. It’s that facts and talking points do not change minds. And arguing opinions at the start of a conversation about politics causes the interview subject to keep his defensive, partisan walls up and prevents him from connecting with the canvasser.
We don't try to directly persuade people to change their minds on a candidate or an issue. Rather, we create intimacy, in the faith that people have an ability to reexamine their politics, and their long-term worldview, if given the right context. We’ve found that when people start to see the dissonance between what they believe and what they actually want, their views change—many of them come around to a more progressive perspective. For example, if a woman says she believes that immigrants are the main problem in our society, but reveals that her top personal concern is health care, then we talk about whether immigrants have anything to do with that worry. When a man says he wants to feel safe, we ask questions about what, in particular, makes him feel unsafe. If he answers COVID-19, then we talk about which candidate might be better suited to handle the pandemic.
Throughout our effort, I’ve been struck by how willing people are to be vulnerable with our canvassers. Amazingly, more than 85 percent of those we engage in an actual conversation have shared something with which they are deeply struggling. In these personal exchanges, we are embracing empathy for people who are sometimes wildly different from ourselves, and empathy, it turns out, is an extremely effective conversion tool.
On one recent evening, a volunteer named Judith had a long phone call with an older voter. In the beginning, the voter talked about being so stressed that he was unable to think clearly and couldn’t make up his mind whom to vote for, because he felt uneasy about both Trump and Biden. When the voter realized that Judith wasn't trying to "force Biden down his throat," he opened up about his anxieties: family finances, his grandkids’ health. Judith told him about her concerns for her own grandchildren. By the end of the call, he stated that he was leaning strongly toward voting for Biden, and he even thanked her for helping him clear his mind.
Such discussions are not transformative just for the people on whose doors we’re knocking (or whose phones we’re on the other end of)—they are also transformative for the canvassers. In our podcast, To See Each Other, about rural communities that are often described as Trump country, our organizer Caitlin Homrich-Knieling shared her experience of having deep-canvass conversations about immigration in rural Michigan. We’re strangers, she said, “starting out with a blank slate, and in that conversation, we’re showing them so much care and empathy about their own hard times and asking so many questions about their own life. We really honor their story and their wisdom and their dignity.”
The connections she made while knocking on doors made her see that she was not bringing that same spirit—of listening and radical empathy—to her relationships back home, in the state’s upper peninsula, where she and family and friends didn’t always see eye to eye. That realization has changed her relationship with her mother, her aunt, and her childhood best friend. Now, when they talk about politics, race in America, or immigration, they approach their talks with a willingness to learn and listen.
Overall, our conversations have not modeled the broader narrative of division that this election tells. They show that on the individual level, we all want to understand one another—how we have come to see the world, what we are up against—and we all want to be heard. It may not be possible for everyone to spend hours listening to the stories of strangers. But as we chart a path for a new America, we must see listening as an essential political strategy, and a way to create the future we all want.