Deep canvassing and year-round organizing
Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s Organizing Director talks about what organizing looks like past Election Day
Every two years in October, hundreds, or even thousands of volunteers may swarm a community to knock on doors and make phone calls on behalf of a candidate. A week after Election Day, those volunteers are often nowhere to be found. The cyclical nature of politics means that campaign organizing programs typically disappear after the first Tuesday in November, but some are finding value in organizers remaining in their communities for the long haul. For this week’s Campaigner, we spoke with Daniela Michanie, Organizing Director for Rep. Ayanna Pressley, about her work leading long-term, “deep canvassing” programs in Boston.
Q&A with Daniela Michanie on deep canvassing and year-round organizing
Campaigner: How’d you get started in politics?
Daniela Michanie: I'm originally from Argentina. I was born in Buenos Aires and immigrated to the states when I was six years old. I think that when you grow up in a low-income, working-class, immigrant family and community, you become very aware of the ways that government lets us down pretty early on. Even if you don't have language for it, you kind of know that something's off.
I grew up very aware of inequities in my community, but it wasn't until high school and college that I really started to understand that a lot of those inequities are legislated - and that government can and should work to make people's lives better. In college I got involved in campaigns for the very first time, working for an organization based in Boston that focused on electing first-time, female and minority candidates at the municipal level. That was really cool. After that, I joined the Warren campaign in Massachusetts.
I think what I realized on that campaign is that I've kind of been organizing for a very long time - I just didn't know that it was called organizing and that you could do it and get paid for it. (laughs) I had kind of organized for different causes in high school - things like keeping public libraries open or increasing funding for schools or having more student representation on school boards, stuff like that. So to see how easily that experience kind of translated over into organizing people for a candidate was really cool. I’ve been organizing ever since.
Campaigner: Now you’re working for Rep. Ayanna Pressley, can you talk about what you’re doing with her team and why it matters?
Daniela Michanie: I joined the Congresswoman's team last summer, the summer of an “off year”, and at that time, we had just finished our work in the 2020 election. I was unemployed for several months because of the pandemic, and it was kind of a crazy time. I was ready to take a break from campaigns, as 2020 was just really tough for so many of us. I connected with the Congresswoman’s team, and they shared with me their vision for building an organizing program that didn't start and stop around the election every year. They wanted to build a sustainable organizing model and they were specifically really interested in something called “deep canvassing.”
Campaigner: What is deep canvassing and how does it work?
Daniela Michanie: Essentially deep canvassing is like traditional canvassing, but the goal is to have a longer two-way conversation with somebody, and really talk in depth about a specific issue and create space for them to feel comfortable changing their mind. Oftentimes, if you've ever tried to convince anyone of anything, you've probably failed. (Laughs) It's hard. I come from a family who holds very, very different political opinions from mine, and have lots of experience just absolutely failing to change their minds.
I was immediately on board with this idea. Now, I have been in this role for around seven months, and we’ve done exactly that. With every program that we've executed and built, the goal has been less about traditional campaign metrics and more about how we can use the time and resources that we have to build community, connect with constituents and figure out what they need from us right now and not the other way around. So, for example, we spent last summer running what we call the “neighbor-to-neighbor program,” where we were just reaching out to folks in the community, asking them if they were okay, checking in on them, and connecting them to resources. If they were struggling with access to food or with housing, or they needed to figure out where to get vaccinated, we would help to connect them to those resources. Then, if it required more follow up, we would pass them over to our official side (Congressional office) to do more follow up there.
At the same time, we also asked them what political or policy issues they cared about. That’s because we were planning on running a “deep canvassing” program, which typically centers around a specific issue, and we didn't wanna make that decision ourselves. We wanted to truly understand what the community is thinking about right now. What do folks care about? That work led to folks having real conversations with their neighbors, and the top issue that we heard about over and over again across age groups was student debt forgiveness, so that's what we decided to build our deep canvassing program around.
People don't change their minds based on logic, they change our minds based on emotion. That's how we move people. So we decided so to go out into the community and connect with people on the issue of student debt. We’re not gonna focus on the list of policy reasons for why canceling student debt makes sense. Instead, we're just going to try and connect with people emotionally to understand where they're coming from and share our personal stories as a way to move them.
Campaigner: And how do you know if its working, if you’re actually changing someone’s opinions of an issue?
Daniela Michanie: One of the goals of these conversations, is that there is a scale that we use to measure how supportive someone is of say, canceling student debt, on a scale of one to ten. The hope is that we move them up that scale from not being supportive at all, or maybe being on the fence, to being more supportive by the end of the conversation. I think what's really unique about these conversations, and I honestly think it's a model that we can use in a more traditional campaigning sense, too. When we start having “persuasion” conversations with voters as we approach the midterms this is something that everybody should be doing.
It never works to shame someone while trying to convince them to support something, right? In our conversations, we often heard folks say something like, “well, I don't think that we should be canceling student debt. I paid off my loans. Why should a whole generation of young people have theirs forgiven?” And, your first instinct might be to get angry and say that's so selfish.
Instead, we try to approach them and ask them what their experience was like. How was it paying off your loans? Did you have to make financial sacrifices? How much debt did you have? What would you have done with that money instead? If you didn't have to pay it back, would you have a house by now? Its so incredibly effective to be curious about that person's lived experiences and then have a real genuine conversation with them. During the [student debt canvassing program], we were able to move people up this scale by an average of two points. That doesn't seem like a lot, but that is really, really significant getting someone to admit to you that they now approach an issue from a different perspective.
Campaigner: That also has to be much more engaging for volunteers too, right? Instead of cold calling strangers with a template script?
Daniela Michanie: Yes! And for the folks that we talked to, it was impactful because we weren't calling to ask for their money or for their volunteer hours. We were just calling to hear their opinions on something and have a conversation because we cared about what they had to say. For our volunteers, they weren't calling making transactional asks. They were having a conversation with someone who is in their community and feeling like their conversation could have a direct impact on how somebody feels about an important issue.
“You can only motivate people with urgency and fear for so long…when people operate out of hope and the excitement of getting to connect with a neighbor or a community member, it makes for more sustainability in this work.”
I'm always thinking about those two things: How do our programs impact the communities that we're targeting and how do they make our volunteers feel? When you're thinking about organizing programs that are sustainable and long-term, you don't wanna burn your volunteers out. You want volunteers to feel like they’re making a difference. You can only motivate people with urgency and fear for so long. You've gotta give people hope, and I think when people operate out of hope and the excitement of getting to connect with a neighbor or a community member, it makes for more sustainability in this work. Our volunteers are the ones really powering our movements.
Campaigner: You mentioned measuring conversations on a scale of 1-10. How are you physically tracking some of these interactions?
Daniela Michanie: Even though its less metrics-driven than traditional canvassing, this type of work is still very data informed. We are trying to have an impact and to target the communities where we think these conversations could be really impactful. Our list comeS from [the voter file], and we make targeting decisions based off of universes where we think there is a potential to really move people. And like I said, we use that scale to track movement on an issue, and we have all types of visuals set up. I really like Google sheets for this, which allows me to look at all of the conversations that we're having. Its important to visualize what's our average movement rate, and what is it about our conversations that's moving people. We have a debrief at the end of every phone bank, and I ask volunteers at what point did they notice that shift in opinion? That type of qualitative data is hard to track, but important.
Campaigner: This doesn't seem like a very common tactic in electoral politics or particularly for sitting members of Congress to have any type of year-round organizing operation. Have you heard of other examples of folks doing this?
Daniela Michanie: We’ve learned a lot from other members of “The Squad” and an organization called People’s Action. Another organization that's doing this work is Super Majority, which I know has built a deep canvassing program around getting women excited about voting.
But you’re right, I don't think it's very common, and I don't think that we're doing it enough, especially with how effective we have found it to be. I think People’s Action has a metric that says that deep canvassing is two or three times more effective than traditional canvassing. Having built the trainings and run the trainings and created all of these materials, I understand that it is more heavy lifting. Trainings are longer than traditional canvassing.
It takes more time, and requires more intentionality in terms of building out materials, recruiting volunteers, setting expectations that it may take practice over time to get good at having these conversations.
Campaigner: You know, it shouldn’t really be seen as groundbreaking or innovative campaign tactic to just listen to voters and have a conversation with them, right? How did we get to this point in traditional organizing that is so transactional?
Daniela Michanie: One hundred percent. I think we now have to be brave enough to step a little bit outside of that playbook that we've been handed down and think about what is really effective and sustainable. I keep coming back to that concept of sustainability because I’ve seen so many people burn out, exhausted from transactional, one-way campaign conversations. So yeah, I think it's absolute common sense to just ask people what they care about and take the conversation from there. For metrics-obessesd campaigns, that means that maybe instead of having like 50 conversations in one day, you're having 10, or you're having 20 and you need to invest more in an organizing team and in training and building up your volunteer base. I think organizing is worth investing in.
Campaigner: Last question: what's one thing that Democrats should be doing better to communicate with audiences and with voters this year?
Daniela Michanie: My hot take, which is more of a lukewarm take, is that the way that you campaign is a reflection of how you will govern. If you are taking the time to talk to voters, if you are valuing the people that you work with and the campaign team that you're building and trying to do authentic outreach into your community, then that's how your work will translate when you're in office.
If you're building a campaign that's transactional and just focused on the numbers and the winning and getting across the finish line, then that’s how you'll govern. I don't think that's a great way to approach this work.
Arena Toolbox and Training Highlight:
Daniella talks about creating a Google Sheets dashboard to track her deep canvassing progress. Check out our spreadsheet tool on Arena Toolbox to level up your spreadsheet skills>>
Arena Academy is back in person in Phoenix, AZ May 4-8! Applications just opened for our first in-person Academy since 2019. Apply by March 21>>
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