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A New Strategy to Persuade Voters: Listen Carefully. And Don’t Hurry.

In an era of mass texting, automated robocalls, email blasts and 280-character social media posts, deep canvassing seems out of step with modern politics — a sort of slow food movement for the activist set. In typical campaign work, canvassers knock on doors with the intent of getting a voter to talk for a minute or two. In deep canvassing, the idea is to exchange stories — in this case, experiences with the police — and develop empathy for anyone who thinks differently.

And while many modern campaigns on the left and right are designed to engage people who already agree on the issues, deep canvassing aims to preach far outside the choir or even the congregation, to those whose minds would need to be changed for them to support a given policy or candidate.

Minneapolis is an important test case for those eager to bring deep canvassing to communities all over the country. Envisioning tens of thousands of people trained to talk with people who disagree with them, they aim not just to win over converts on policy, but to help restore voters’ faith in democracy.

“We’re in an era when many people think the opposition is the boogeyman,” said Steve Deline, whose New Conversation Initiative has worked with teams to lead deep canvasses on climate, immigration, jail reform and other issues. “This is giving people the space to share what they are feeling and experiencing, and not just tell them they’re wrong, but instead get to a shared place that is relatable and human.”

Proponents argue that in a polarized age, the strategy can work to persuade those who have not yet embraced sweeping progressive changes on such issues as immigration, transgender rights and policing. Knocks on doors often lead to conversations that can last as long as half an hour and that often leave both the canvasser and the voter feeling disarmed and more open.

“Progressives have a superpower right now, and that’s getting a big idea into the national conversation like never before,” said George Goehl, the director of People’s Action, which trains liberal groups like the one in Minnesota. “But we think to really get things across the finish line, you have to be in conversation with people who do not see eye-to-eye with you.”

The work is both labor-intensive and expensive. Training canvassers takes hours. The vast majority of voters never even open their doors, and those who most strongly disagree are often the least likely to speak to a stranger at their door. In Minneapolis, a city of 2.9 million, about 60 volunteers and staff members have reached just 2,400 voters after visiting 6,900 homes and making 49,000 phone calls.

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