7 Questions with Dave Fleischer on Deep Canvassing

by Joe Fuld (He/Him)

deep canvas

7 Questions on Deep Canvassing

After disappointing outcomes on Election Day for Democrats across the country, plenty of folks are wondering how we move forward and run better campaigns in the future. Dave Fleischer, the Project Director at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Leadership LAB,  has big ideas on how campaigns can improve their deep canvassing efforts.

1. What is a deep canvass and how is it different from a traditional canvass?

In a conventional canvass, campaigns try to control the message by sending volunteers out with a script to recite exactly as written. 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. There’s still a script, but it’s designed to help the canvasser build a good rapport with a voter. The distinguishing feature of a deep canvass is you take a lot more time to talk to voters and have a bona fide two-way conversation about real experiences that shape their thinking about the issues. Instead of a script that lasts 60 seconds, volunteers spend 10 or 20 minutes talking with each voter.

2. Who can you reach with a deep canvass? 

There’s no difference regarding who you can speak with in a deep canvass. Rather, the deep canvass is built on a different set of assumptions than a traditional canvass. In many campaigns, polling data and focus groups tell us that very few people are persuadable, so we ignore those voters and stick with talking to the voters who are already on our side. But many times this approach underestimates who’s persuadable. In a deep canvass, we go to the turf where voters have voted against our causes in the past, and we find out why. Then we try to convince them to change their minds. 

In addition to being a strong persuasion medium, for some issue areas, the deep canvass can also help to serve as an effective voter research tool as well. Through a deep canvass, we can at times identify a voter’s deeply bias and prejudices, views that may not be identified through polling or focus groups but can be utilized by your opposition. 

3. What’s the coolest thing about this method of canvassing?

There are three things. First, there’s the magnitude of the impact. We can change the minds of 1 in 10 people we talk to. Then there’s the duration and longevity of the impact. The effect of most campaign messaging is short-lived and can evaporate in as little as 3-5 days. But research shows that the impact of our deep canvass conversations can last nine months or longer. And finally, this method dramatically changes who volunteers on a campaign—we get a more engaged and self-motivated volunteer base when we tell volunteers to interact with voters as human beings rather than as robots.

4. How long does a deep canvass program typically take?

First, there’s a learning curve involved in setting up a deep canvass because this method is so different. It can take six months or more for an organization we’re partnering with to get the hang of the method and recruit and train volunteers to carry it out. 

In terms of the length of the canvass program, you have to look at the outcome you are trying to achieve. For instance, Donald Trump won Michigan by 10,000 votes. If a group wanted to oppose him in the next election, you would want to have 50,000 conversations to change 5,000 voters’ minds. Over a 2-hour shift, our volunteers will complete an average of 5 conversations. But remember, the impact of these conversations can last nine months or more. 

In our experience in 5 years of canvassing on same-sex marriage in LA, we logged 12,000 completed conversations. Deep canvassing is a long-term investment, but the impact is cumulative. 

5. How much does a deep canvass program typically cost?

We are still in the process of figuring this out. Costs in the early training phases are somewhere around $200,000 - $250,000. You will also need a team of at least three full-time organizers, which is the majority of the budget, and you need a dedicated team of volunteers (ideally 200 or so).

6. What are the drawbacks of this method?

A lot of organizers don’t know how to motivate volunteers, and if they can’t rally volunteers around the urgency or desperation of an issue its difficult to mount a successful deep canvass program. It’s also a challenge to change a campaign’s habits and make the goal of canvassing be to successfully relate to other people.

7. Why is deep canvassing relevant to the world we live in today? Does this give us any guidance on how to talk to folks we don’t agree with?

The lessons from deep canvassing are that when you’re trying to talk to people that may disagree with you and change minds, you have to work as a team. Don’t try to change someone’s mind alone. This doesn’t mean that you all confront that person at once. You can do training and prep together prior to canvassing and then come back and debrief afterward. 

The key to changing people’s minds is to be curious about what other people think. Think back to the last time you changed your mind about something important. It likely wasn’t because someone berated you. The biggest gift you can give someone whose mind you want to change is a supportive environment that lets them think about their experiences and how those experiences affect their opinions on issues. We’re just beginning to learn how to do this well, but it’s important. And the data shows it works.

Have more questions about long form or deep canvassing? Check out Dave's Ted Talk here, or ask them below!