Deep canvassing effort in Georgia aims to flip the U.S. Senate

Volunteers and organizers with People's Action recently took part in phone banking during a virtual deep canvassing event. The group is focused on connecting with rural voters and others less likely to turn out for Georgia's Senate runoffs. (Screenshot courtesy of People's Action.)

This week voters in Georgia began casting early ballots in the two runoff races for U.S. Senate that will be finally decided on Jan. 5. Under Georgia law, candidates must receive a majority of the vote to win an election, which did not happen in those races in November.

In the special election to fill the rest of retired Sen. Johnny Isakson's (R) term, Democrat Raphael Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, is facing off against Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a businessperson and co-owner of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream. Isakson resigned in late 2019, and Gov. Brian Kemp (R) appointed Loeffler to the seat. And in the regular Senate election, Democrat Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist, is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue, a businessperson.

Joe Biden's victory in Georgia — the first time in 28 years a Democratic presidential candidate won the state — has shown what's possible when grassroots efforts receive national investment and support. Voter turnout in Georgia's November 2020 elections increased by nearly 9 percentage points over 2016, from 59.1% to 67.6%, thanks to years of organizing and efforts to combat voter suppression by groups including Black Voters Matter, Fair Count, Fair Fight, New Georgia Project, and ProGeorgia.

Now organizers have embraced another tool that they hope will continue to engage Georgia voters: deep canvassing.

Last month People's Action — a national network of 37 state and local grassroots power-building organizations — announced a deep canvassing operation to help turn out voters in Georgia's Senate runoffs. Deep canvassing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic involves 10 to 15-minute candid, two-way phone conversations in which the canvasser and the potential voter reflect on the emotionally significant experiences that shape what's at stake for them.

"I think the one thing that we've learned is that it's important to connect with people's most immediate conditions," Danny Timpona, People's Action's deputy distributed organizing director, told Facing South.

A 2017 study found that the traditional tools of political outreach like short phone calls, brief door-to-door canvassing, and TV ads have a minimal effect on changing the mind of a typical voter. But research has found that deep canvassing — extended, empathetic conversations with the goal of countering prejudice and shifting beliefs — done in person or by phone can have a profound effect on the hearts and minds of potential voters.

In the run-up to the November elections, the People's Action's outreach program called more than 47.3 million voters in battleground states and had more than 280,000 in-depth phone conversations. The group has been working in collaboration with other organizations that have been active in Georgia politics, including Black Voters Matter, Southerners on New Ground, and the New Georgia Project. The deep canvassing strategy includes an integrated race-class narrative framework that seeks to overcome the political divisions that were inflamed under the Trump administration.

"People's Action helped defeat Trump," Timpona said, "and now we're finishing the job and helping defeat Trumpism in Georgia."

The group released results from a deep canvass experiment it conducted in 2019 focused on immigration policy showing that the method is about 102 times more effective at moving individual voters than traditional voter outreach efforts. As part of the experiment, People's Action engaged in deep canvassing among white, working-class voters in rural Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania to show the technique can effectively combat the use of "strategic racism" to manufacture fear and division. The study found a shift in voter opinion for including undocumented immigrants in expanded social safety net programs like Medicaid, with eight new supporters of including undocumented immigrants in these programs for every 100 deep canvass conversations.

"Folks are trying to divide us along all these different lines, but we really think when we come together across lines of race and class, we can do some pretty amazing things as a country," said Mehrdad Azemun, People's Action's lead strategist. "It's not really about debating; it's about basically creating space for a person to make their own choice."

The organizers are currently focusing on Georgia's rural voters and others who are less likely to turn out for the runoff election. However, they emphasize they're invested in connecting with voters not just for this election but for the long haul.

"We can't afford to just contact people every four years," said Timpona. "What does that build? We need to build power from the bottom up."