Changing the Conversation Together, was founded to use deep canvassing in election campaigns. “Deep canvassers” are trained to initiate respectful conversations, exchange stories, and build relationships with each potential voter.

Three years ago, I struck up a conversation with a young woman named Kim in Norristown, Pennsylvania. I asked the nineteen-year-old Latina resident of Norristown what she thought of President Donald Trump. “He’s a bad influence on our society,” she said, “making the racists come out stronger than they already were.” I was canvassing voters to stop Trump, so you’d think I’d found an ally. But I had to curb my enthusiasm—Kim didn’t plan to vote. “I don’t get involved in that stuff,” she told me. Her likelihood of voting? “I’m a zero,” she told me.

Many traditional canvassers might jump in at this point to lecture Kim, telling her that she should vote to fight the racists and giving her a voter registration form (or QR code) before rushing to meet the next voter. But when you’re trying to convince someone to reconsider their stance on something, well-rehearsed arguments don’t work. Persuasion requires trust and an emotional connection.

In the wake of Trump’s election in 2016, I helped found Changing the Conversation Together, an organization that pioneered using deep canvassing in election campaigns. “Deep canvassers” are trained to initiate respectful conversations, exchange stories, and build relationships with each potential voter.

So I didn’t lecture Kim, and I didn’t move on either. Instead I told a story about my wife and a time she’d really helped me. Then I asked Kim who she loves and depends on. We talked, honestly and personally, for ten to twelve minutes before I turned back to the subject of politics and Trump’s abhorrent nastiness—the opposite of what we both value. Kim agreed to register to vote. On election day, she texted me to share that she’d followed through: “It went as smooth as possible! I voted!”


The term “deep canvassing” was first coined by Dave Fleischer when his team’s efforts to reduce anti-transgender bias were shown to be effective in a randomized control trial. Those studies built on earlier work showing that face-to-face conversation was the most effective way to engage voters and that the more personal an interaction is, the more it raises the chances of a person voting. Whereas other approaches to trying to persuade people to vote make no difference, studies showing the effectiveness of deep canvassing have been replicated in campaigns around abortion rights, welcoming immigrants, and other issues.

We built our organization around the vision of having as many interactions like the one I’d had with Kim as possible. We saw the fight against authoritarianism as an all-hands-on-deck battle—one that required every tool in the toolbox.

So we got to work recruiting volunteers by going to every club and organization that would have us, speaking with every community leader who would see us, and organizing our own events to entice anyone we knew who would listen to us. We developed and perfected our rap. We sought people and partners who shared our sense of urgency and who were willing to work. These are the folks who show up, do the work in hot weather and cold, stay focused on the end goal, and get you over the finish line. We also partnered with the original deep canvassing pioneers then leading the LGBTQ Connection PAC.

With success, word spread, and we became known for offering a way to respond to the fascist threat in a way that was meaningful and effective. People showed up, stories were written, and then more people came. 

People needed time to get trained and practice doing it. We spent time training volunteers in small workshops and individual coaching sessions, and eventually, those who became experienced would train those newer to the process.

We learned ways to train people in storytelling. The purpose of the story is to show your authentic self, which includes an element of vulnerability, to make a connection. Some trainees came ready to tell stories, and some came prepared with a story tied to an issue in the headlines. “My nephew is going to graduate with a lot of college debt.” So we taught them that it was more important that the story be deeply felt than directly connected to politics. 

Others came attempting to use what seemed more like longer-form traditional canvassing strategies, listening for issues in the headlines and being ready with factual talking points. “I hear that health care is a big issue for you. Did you know that a bill being proposed will expand Medicaid?” We found ways to teach canvassers how to find their deeply felt personal stories that helped to connect with the person they were speaking with. Instead of trying to tell our targeted voters what to think, we wanted to help them see themselves differently.

Ultimately we became known for helping flip Staten Island, New York, by engaging in deep canvassing of swing voters in 2018. We were then invited to help flip Pennsylvania from red to blue in the 2020 presidential election. Building on that success, we aided in the crucial 2022 Pennsylvania Senate and gubernatorial elections. And now we’re helping others who want to learn the strategy as well.


Every election cycle, campaigns spend billions of dollars on advertising, but too many leave door knocking for the last minute, if they do any at all. Often they hire inexperienced staff to “handle” thousands of volunteers who report working under “young, overworked field organizers who are not familiar with local issues, culture, and relationship networks.” This leaves both canvassers and canvassed feeling dissatisfied. Daniel Laurison explains in his book Producing Politics how, even when shown evidence that voters don’t make decisions based on advertising, campaign professionals still keep the ads running. They’ve always done it that way, so they keep doing it that way. Organizers and scholars have been pointing out for years that campaigns have it all wrong—this approach doesn’t work.

A lack of commitment to sustained outreach exists in other progressive organizations as well. “We know that the work we do for these campaigns isn’t effective,” one union staffer admitted to me a few years ago. “The only reason we ask members to volunteer for campaigns is to be on good terms with the candidate when they win.” Other staffers struggle in building support for canvassing because of internal cultures that favor doing outreach by phone and text. What does this teach leaders about the hard work that will be required when they go on to try even harder work such as organizing unions or getting crucial local legislation passed? These successes are all built upon having real one-on-one conversations with people in their communities.

We can’t treat voters, volunteers, or organizers like online commodities, where we can just click “buy now” at the last minute and expect them to follow us, let alone stay with us. We need to build cohorts that are clear about what Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, calls our “north star” of fighting fascism. We need to use the best tools we can find to build relationships internally and externally, to build our base, and to stand up for what’s right and against what’s wrong. This means investing in organizations that are in turn investing in the highest quality work. It means offering work to organizers that is meaningful, and, indeed, deep canvassing is a tool every organizer should have in their toolbox.

So much of progressive strategy has relied on the weak tactics discussed that it leaves us vulnerable. We can’t afford to run campaigns on the same failed strategies that got us into the situation we’re in now. When we neglect to put skin in the game and shoe leather to the pavement on a regular basis, we pay the price.

While Pennsylvania saw voter turnout increase during another contentious competitive election, Philadelphia’s turnout decreased for the third consecutive election cycle. Similarly, in Wisconsin and Michigan, overall turnout increased statewide while Milwaukee and Detroit saw turnout fall 10 to 12 percent below 2018 levels. These are troubling patterns. These numbers highlight the limited (some call it racially coded) perspective that persuasion is only for swing voters. Sometimes we’re competing with the Right. But sometimes we’re competing with the couch, and sometimes we’re competing with complacency and distractions. Sometimes canvassers for large canvassing organizations are being asked to reach so many doors so quickly that there’s no time to get personal and find out that a woman’s mom is in hospice, as one of our canvassers did this past fall.

There are all sorts of people who don’t have it on their radar screens to vote. While some complain about voter apathy, we find that many of the infrequent voters we speak with, like Kim, are not apathetic. Many will open up and share strong opinions that are in line with ours. Jasmine, a Haitian American resident of Philadelphia, had a lot to say criticizing the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump-supporting extremists. But before being reached by a canvasser, she simply didn’t see the election as relevant to her life.

Omar started out “only fifty-fifty” on voting. But then Marcos, a Philadelphia-based volunteer with Changing the Conversation Together, got Omar talking about cooking with his grandmother and about how voting connects us to the people we love. Alex, another one of our volunteers, ran into a young man who didn’t know what the US Senate was, but because Alex took the time to patiently explain why he was out there and why he cared, the young man opened up.

By taking the time to connect, relate, and listen, our canvassers were able to help these people connect the dots between the people they love and voting. In these moments, people are transformed from not knowing or caring about elections into people committed to participating in our democracy.  

It’s why we think this form of year-round transformative interpersonal interactions holds so much promise. And there’s some good news!

The good news is that there are thousands of potential voters who share our outlook and are hungry for conversation. Even in swing states, most potential voters, when given the opportunity, will vote against authoritarian, extremist agendas if they know what’s on the ballot. We just have to take the time to get out there, find them, and talk with them.

The good news is that, despite Philly’s consistent decline in voter turnout, our deep canvassing strategy works. We know that, because we’ve debriefed after every canvass and heard stories like the ones discussed here. And we know it because, after elections, we look up the voting records of those we spoke with and compare it to those we couldn’t reach to see if we made a difference, amid all the other campaigning. We found that in 2020, the Philadelphians we spoke with voted at a rate that was 10 percent greater than their comparable neighbors. In 2022, the Philadelphians we spoke with turned out at a rate 15 percent higher than their neighbors.

The good news is that there are canvassers who are seeking meaningful ways to engage in politics and who appreciate getting trained in how to meaningfully engage with potential voters. We just need to take time to find, train, and support them.

The good news is that there are groups and organizations that are trying!

When we organize, we can win. But we need high-quality canvassing going on year-round. While Trump is no longer president, the culture surrounding Trump has only intensified and become more vitriolic since he left office. The 2024 presidential campaign is just around the corner. That’s why we are calling on ourselves and others to expand this kind of work. Let’s start now!

Imagine what would happen if we saw investment in year-round, high-quality organizing in all organizations dedicated to this fight—unions, community organizations, 501(c)(4) advocacy groups. Those of us dedicated to winning these fights can gain so much by investing in this work. If the Democratic Party spent a fraction of what it spends on ads on developing sophisticated volunteer and canvassing infrastructure, it might just have a base that would outlast election results. If all progressive organizations committed to treating the time of their members as gold and to only asking them to use their time for the highest impact work—namely deeply personal, face-to-face interactions—we might just see a tidal wave of change. Do you work for a progressive organization that doesn’t trust the Democratic Party? Use deep canvassing to build power for your vision to hold the Democrats accountable to your concerns!

When it comes to fighting authoritarianism and standing up for what’s right, we need to build our power. We need people to talk to one another. We need to build meaningful connections with thousands of disengaged voters and gain their trust, help realize their ability to affect change, and restore our collective hope. Let’s do it right—one conversation at a time. 

The author is a professional organizer and the director of Changing the Conversation Together.



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