Dave Fleischer on the Power of Deep Canvassing

by Elizabeth Rowe (She/Her)

deep canvassing

Deep Canvassing  Interview With Dave Fleischer 

David Fleischer is the founder and former director of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Leadership LAB, and the creator of the pioneering outreach approach called “deep canvassing”. Before the Leadership Lab, David led political training programs at the LGBTQ Victory Fund and the National LGBTQ Task Force. He has politically organized all over the country, advocating for LGBTQ+ rights for decades. His work has been profiled in major publications such as The Atlantic and the New York Times days, David has an amazing Substack you should check out and writes about deep canvassing and its empirically proven ability to change hearts and minds. This week, we asked Dave 7 questions about his career path and experience.   Check out the podcast interview here.


So Dave, talk about what you’re up to these days. What are you doing?

I'm doing two things. I am writing about deep canvassing to try to put it in human terms, because the truth is, we just have too few people doing it. And if somebody lives where there's going to be a really close election, this approach potentially could make the difference between whether we have a terrible, tragic outcome in 2024 or whether our country makes it through. So, I'm not under any illusions that writing alone can save the world, but maybe writing will help more people decide that they really wanna step up at a moment when we desperately need their help. The second thing I'm doing is spending time in some of the places where elections are sure to be close. I was just in Wisconsin a little over a week ago and visiting with different community leaders. They're wonderful. These groups are all very different. What I'm trying to do is see if I can encourage them to start earlier than they normally do, because honestly, and I almost hate to say this aloud but, I feel like we've gotta acknowledge the reality. The Republican Party has decided that its essence is disinformation, prejudice, division, and appeals to fear. As a result, we are about to see an election year like none we've seen in my lifetime, where chaos is going to be a frequent companion to any political activity. And where, sadly, the Republican party's willingness to legitimate violence is predictably going to make it very difficult if we wait and start our campaigns late because, in the final hundred days when a lot of people start, that's when things will hit the fan. It's going to be very hard to stay focused and disciplined on having lovely conversations and one-on-one with voters in that environment. So I wanna help folks in Wisconsin and other states start much earlier doing something that will potentially affect the outcome so that then we're able to sustain that even when things really get difficult.

So let's start, you and I have talked about this before, but for those who haven't read earlier blogs, what is deep canvassing?

Sure. Deep canvassing is a set of best practices that give us a better chance to get somebody new on our side and voting with us. It's a way to overcome a lot of the misunderstanding that occurs when we start a conversation with somebody who's not just like us already.

Talk about how you got to deep canvassing in the aftermath of Prop 8. Talk a little about how this started and how deep Canvassing came about.

So Prop 8 was a vote in 2008 on whether or not LGBTQ+ couples could legally get married in California. Measures like this had been voted on in many other states around the country. We lost over 30 of these, but when we lost this vote in California, liberal California, when we were favored to win, and when every poll published in advance showed we were going to win, it really shook people up. LGBT people felt hurt. They didn't understand. Were they mistaken in thinking that prejudice had lessened over time? How is it that so many people voted against us being able simply to marry the person we love? And so in December of 2009, I came here (Los Angeles), and met with a bunch of people. People did not know what to do. I felt very discouraged and angry—a bad combination for taking action and doing good thinking. So after meeting with people, I had a couple of ideas that I thought might be helpful, One of them turned out to be the best idea I've ever had in my life. Since polls obviously had failed to capture how we were really doing with voters, and since our own common sense and experience about our neighbors also was not helping us see our true situation, I thought, well, maybe we just need to go door to door in the neighborhoods where we got crushed and talk to the people who voted against us and ask them why they did that. That is what led to the discovery of deep canvassing. I had lost plenty of campaigns prior, but it had never occurred to me to go talk to the people who voted against us and find out why. And as we began doing that, as we began having conversations in a wide variety of Los Angeles neighborhoods because quite honestly, we lost in a wide variety of Los Angeles neighborhoods, we started to not just learn the superficial answer to that question, but we got better at connecting with them so that they would talk more candidly about the feelings that were underneath. We discovered that we were starting to be able to change people's minds when we reached that depth of a conversation, not because we could somehow magically talk people into it. Anybody who thinks that's what persuasion looks like is really mistaken when it comes to anyone over the age of two. What really can happen is, when we help people reflect on what really matters to them most, some of their political opinions don't fit with how they really behave in their real life with real human beings. People started to notice, wow, these two things don't fit together. And so we asked them to consider which matters more. And it turns out they believe their real lived experience more than they believe their lousy opinions. And so some of them change their mind.

What do folks need to be successful at deep canvassing?

Well, the first thing they need is to not try to guess what it'll be like to do it until they do it, because people's expectations about what it would be like to talk with a stranger are very, very pessimistic. So, people who've never canvassed or never deep canvassed, they're afraid these conversations are going to be brutally difficult. They're not. They assume these are going to lead to an argument. They don't. The beauty of deep canvassing is that what we've learned really works is to offer radical respect, unqualified respect, and listen. And it turns out when you do that, people are really surprised and they don't want to miss the opportunity we're giving them to talk about what really matters to them. Then the nice reason that it pays off politically, is that some of these people change their mind. And when we deep canvass them and they change their mind, their minds stay changed. That's the unusual thing about this tactic.

What does an organization need to be successful at Deep Canvassing? We talked about what an individual needs, but if an organization wants to do this, what are the resources they need? What's the kind of commitment we're talking about to be successful in deep canvassing?

Well, well, the funny thing is, it's not that hard. Almost every organization could do this. And in fact, even if no organization exists that wants to do it where you live, you could pull together a group of your friends and do it. There are a few things that you're going to need. You're going to need a team of people who want to do it or at least try it. You're going to need to get some help with training so that you get to practice and start to integrate the principles of deep canvassing into how you have your conversations. You might need a little help with a script. And I think it's helpful to have access to some voter files because you really want to keep track of how you're doing. You really want to self-measure your effectiveness every single time you go out, and you want to do it in a way that's not going to give you an inflated sense of whether you're good yet. And then when you try this, you need to try it for a little while. Honestly, anyone can initiate a deep canvassing project where they are. They might be afraid it's going to be very small, but we've had congressional races in the last couple of cycles decided by a hundred votes, even as few as six votes. The truth is, one person and their friends could have changed the outcome just by talking to some people they don't know.

We're in a digital world and there's a digital bubble that filters a lot of our conversations.  How does digital hurt conversation? Is there a way that digital can help in the conversations? 

I use digital tools every day, but I try to use them for what they're good for. It's the same way that if I need to change a light bulb, I don't use a hammer. There are better tools available, more likely to help me succeed at changing the light bulb. Hoping that digital communication will change someone's mind is similar to hoping that the hammer will change the light bulb. It's not what the tool is good at. So when people ask me, is there an app for that? There isn't. Is there anything that you could post that would change somebody's mind? No, there isn't. Because the most important things that happen in a deep canvas conversation are the words that come out of the mouth of the other person. That's what they really remember, not our words. So the idea that what we say is going to change them, that is very, very rare. When people talk about American politics being polarized today, where people can't talk to each other, they're a hundred percent wrong. In fact, the only hope for depolarizing is for people to talk to each other, ideally face-to-face. That's the only way. You don't really know a person till you've been humble with them, curious about them, and respectful towards them. None of that is communicable online.

What advice do you have for folks who are organizing in the field right now? Do you have general advice?

Start today by making a list of your friends who might wanna do this with you. Start talking to them one-on-one describing why you're concerned. Ask if they're concerned about the political situation. Describe what you want to try and see if they're open to it. One person at a time. You're going to find, you've got a team of people who would be willing to try this with you. And then you're going to need to get together as a team and figure out, well, who are we going to ask to train us? Maybe there's a local group that already does this. There certainly are a few national groups that do this. I regularly Zoom with readers of my Substack who want to learn about this, so they can even get training from me should they want that. Because ultimately, people are going to need training and then they've gotta try it right away. The real point I would say is begin as soon as you can stand it. Because what if you love it? What if this ends up being the most satisfying, joyous political work you've ever done?

Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges around building empathy these days, especially in a post-pandemic world?

Well, empathy is kind of a tricky word because some people have it and some people don't. But you know, what everybody's got is curiosity, if they're willing to develop it. So, I am not the most empathetic guy. It does not come naturally to me. I am cognitive. I am so much better cognitively than I am using my emotional intelligence, honest to God. And yet here I am finding that the best political work I've ever done in my life requires me to draw upon the little bit of emotional intelligence I've got. The cognitive part of me can help because I know how to communicate respect to somebody, and I'm capable of being quiet and listening, especially when people are starting to talk about something that matters. sually, it happens when you find some common ground. The phrase common ground sounds obvious, but it isn't, because common ground, we tend to think it's where we are. They're going to come to us. Common ground is where they are. And so what we've really gotta do is be curious enough about their real lived experience.

Can you talk a bit about how important storytelling is in your work?

Before we persuade anybody, we have to connect with them. They have to want to be part of this interaction with us. And storytelling makes connections much more likely. Especially if we're talking with somebody who has a different take on politics and voting than we do. Because if all we do is talk about our political opinions and we disagree, the conversation's over, very rarely does it lead to a meeting of the minds. But when we tell a story about somebody we love and we make ourselves vulnerable, what the other person realizes as they're listening is we're not there to judge or shame them. They realize maybe they trust us a little. So when we ask them to tell us a story about somebody they love, they might trust us enough to start to do that. The thing that's unusual about deep canvassing compared to conventional canvassing is you can't just have a one-minute or two-minute conversation with a non-voter, somebody who's missed the last three presidential elections, and change their mind. It's just not going to happen in two minutes. But in 15 minutes, there's enough time for us to tell a vulnerable story of ours and listen to a story of theirs, and for us to help them notice the common ground, not because we're the same, but because we do share something really important, that's what we end up discovering in the course of the conversation. That's very exciting for people.

Can you talk a little bit about why testing and evaluation are so important and why other people should allow evaluation of their programs?

You know, the funny thing is all of us know how crucial measurement is for anything we really care about. I don't know anybody who has a retirement account and they're not interested in the measurement of how much money is in it. I've just not met that person. When things really matter, we always measure them. So, in politics, if we are not going to measure, we're really saying this isn't important. They've gotta do something repeatedly so they're good at it. So they get a measurable result. So the academics and institutions that are willing to help measure and will independently measure whether we're doing a good job, they're like our best friends.

You write quite a bit on your Substack, do you have a favorite thing you’ve written lately? 

The most practical piece, if you were going to pick one post, would be to read the one about how to help a non-voter decide they're going to vote. Because in this country a third of the eligible voters didn't vote for president in the last presidential election. In fact, at least a third of all eligible voters in this country have failed to vote for president in every presidential election for the last 100 years. So that means some of the people we know aren't voting, even if they agree with us and feel strongly about how terrible Donald Trump is, they're not voting. So the simplest, easiest conversations you could begin with would be to talk to some of your friends who don't vote and help them reconsider. So there's one piece specifically on this. There's also another piece specifically on how to talk to people you know, who aren't voting. So maybe those are the two to start with, but they're short pieces.

Are there any other things you are reading or listening to these days that inspire you?

I just finished Rachel Maddow's new book about the pro-Nazi movement to keep the US out of World War II or to get the US to align with Hitler. The book is a piece of forgotten history that we ought not to forget because the parallels to the moment we're in are really striking. But if that's feeling a little too dark for people, you know, if somebody told me they wanted to be a more empathetic person, what I would really say to them is read, Anne Patchett. In fact, she has two books that collect her essays. Specifically, there's an essay in one of the books that is a novella in length, but it's about her relationship with a nun who was her teacher in first, second, and third grade, and with whom she has remained friends over the course of her whole life. Because It's going to remind any of us that there are moments when all of us need help.

How can folks get a hold of you if they want to learn more about deep canvassing?

They can find me on Substack at https://davefleischer.Substack.com. There I have my email address so readers can reach me directly. I try hard to respond to every email I get. If someone wants to know more, I want to help.

Have questions about deep canvassing? Drop us a line!