Political attitudes are notoriously difficult to change, and political psychologists and other social scientists have found that many of the traditional methods politicians and activists use to sway public opinion are ineffective. Door-to-door canvassing, for example, does not reliably translate into long-term shifts in attitudes (e.g., about climate change) or behavior (e.g., voting for one candidate over another). And yet direct contact with potential voters is one of the only tools that grassroots activists have to motivate social action or dispel myths about laws and social policy that harm marginalized groups.
In a highly publicized study, political scientists Joshua Kalla and David Broockman found that transphobia could be durably reduced (i.e., over time) by talking to voters in a way that was less about argumentation and debate and more about listening and storytelling. Indeed, in partnership with activists, social scientists have shown that this form of “deep values canvassing” can shift even some of the most recalcitrant of attitudes by leveraging the power of empathy, active listening, and narrative in the context of brief conversations with voters. The emerging evidence about deep values canvassing suggests this mode of political engagement could be invaluable to social movements across the country.
In Tennessee, which now has a total, no-exceptions abortion ban, deep values canvassing has been of long-standing interest to the statewide Planned Parenthood affiliate and its political arm, Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood (TAPP). In collaboration with TAPP, we set out to conduct a door-to-door canvassing field experiment to test the efficacy of deep values versus traditional canvassing on voters’ attitudes toward sex education in Spring 2020 with support from SPSSI’s State/Local Policy Work Grant program. You can guess what happened next….
By the time TAPP and our research team were ready to relaunch the project in 2021, it was apparent that abortion attitudes were even more paramount given the steady march of court cases challenging Roe v Wade. Kalla and colleagues had recently reported mixed efficacy of this new canvassing mode through work with Planned Parenthood in Maine, and we were eager to see if we could replicate or extend their findings. Throughout fall 2021, we launched the first three waves of a phone banking study in which voters were contacted throughout the state to talk about abortion. Paid canvassers interacted with hundreds of voters using one of two scripts: one traditional canvass, and one that took the deep values approach. Each conversation began and ended by asking voters to rate their attitudes toward abortion and Planned Parenthood. Though both conversations shifted attitudes slightly, only the deep values condition exhibited durable change—in favor of legal abortion access—after three months.
Canvassers are currently calling all the of voters who had initial calls nine months ago and are assessing their attitudes once again. The Dobbs decision represents a major blow to the abortion rights movement and to our quasi-experiment—it’s a major temporal confound, of course—but we are hoping these data might further inform social scientists’ understanding of political attitude change and abortion stigma, as well as activists’ efforts to use their limited resources in ways that best promote voter engagement and positive social change.