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Groundbreaking Study Shows 'Deep Listening' Over 100 Times More Effective in Winning Undecided Voters Away From Trump

Research shows "respectful, non-judgmental conversations are able to move voters where many other tactics have failed, producing meaningful increases in Biden's vote margin."

Supporters of then-presidential nominee Donald Trump hold yard signs at Eisenhower Hotel and Conference Center on October 22, 2016 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images)

With less than 50 days to go until the general election, national grassroots network People's Action unveiled new research Tuesday detailing the effectiveness of an in-depth, person-to-person campaigning strategy to win over voters in conservative-leaning, rural areas across the United States.

The organization conducted an experiment after the 2016 election, when many critics of President Donald Trump in Washington and the media blamed largely white, rural voters for Trump's victory. 

"We knew the full truth was more complicated," said People's Action executive director George Goehl in a video about the group's new podcast, "To See Each Other," which details the experiment. "So we helped seed small community organizing projects across the country to address people's struggles, to get clear on the true cause of those struggles, and to do the work it takes to drop the preconceptions and with fresh eyes, see each other."

A first-of-its-kind study of the project, which included 700 interactions, showed that "deep canvassing"—the practice of having non-judgmental, in-depth conversations with voters about their experiences and struggles—was 102 times more effective than brief interactions during a typical door-knocking or phone-banking campaign.

"People's Action's work shows that respectful, non-judgmental conversations are able to move voters where many other tactics have failed, producing meaningful increases in Biden's vote margin."
—researchers Joshua Kalla and David Broockman

"These results are transformative, and tell us a different story about rural America. For so long, people in rural and small-towns have been neglected and cast out because no one took the time to listen to them," Goehl said in a statement Tuesday. "But we did, and we've found that compassion and empathy, rather than division and hatred, can lead us to a multiracial democracy that works for all of us."

Partnering with the New Conversation Initiative and two researchers, Joshua Kalla and David Broockman, People's Action found that for every 100 conversations between volunteers and voters, 3.1 voters were added to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's vote margin. Biden's support among independent voters who took part in the project grew by five points, and independent women's support grew by 8.5 points.

"This impact is larger than the 2016 margin of victory in key battleground states and would translate to 108 electoral votes," People's Action said in a statement.

In a 2017 study of typical campaign strategies, Kalla and Broockman found that the "best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero," suggesting that organizers must go much further than standard phone banking and door knocking to make an impact on an election's outcome.

"It's extremely difficult to persuade voters in a presidential election. Since taking office, Donald Trump's approval rating has held incredibly steady," Kalla and Broockman said in a statement. "People's Action's work shows that respectful, non-judgmental conversations are able to move voters where many other tactics have failed, producing meaningful increases in Biden's vote margin."

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The strategy itself is not new, but its application during the era the Trump presidency—and in the final weeks of the 2020 election—could prove pivotal.

As Rolling Stone's Andy Kroll, who had an early look at the results of the study, reports:

The notion of deep canvassing emerged out of the decades-long battle for marriage equality, and has since been applied to a host of causes, from transgender rights and universal health care to undocumented immigration and criminal justice reform. But this latest experiment is the first of its kind to study deep canvassing in an electoral setting.

Goehl explained to Rolling Stone that the "movement rates are so strong and the data bears it out... This is an every-vote-counts election, so everything we can do to help we're going to do."

People's Action worked with local groups including Michigan People’s Campaign, Down Home North Carolina, and Pennsylvania United, to hold conversations with rural voters in those states during its experiment. The network is now hosting daily phone-banking sessions with the same group and partners in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Colorado, and Arizona to connect with voters in the last weeks before the general election. 

"Your calls into these battleground states that Trump barely won in 2016, can truly tip the balance of power and make sure that we not only beat Trump, but do the work to begin healing the divisions in our country," said People's Action, which plans to make 350,000 deep canvass calls before Election Day.

Each phone bank begins with detailed trainings from organizers at People's Action and its partner organizations, which highlighted the successes of deep canvassing on social media.

"This is evidence that engaging people in a meaningful conversation is much more effective than throwing facts, arguments, or messages at them," Goehl told Rolling Stone. "I think that quality of conversation—one based on curiosity and compassion—can shift elections, yes, but also holds some lessons for how we might more fully come together as a country."

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