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 Brockman 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.