lgbt rights canvassing
Photo by Matt Stoller, via Flickr, CC 2.0.

Those who believed the nationwide legalization of same sex marriage would usher in a new area of full LGBT equality have been rudely awakened to a different reality.

In the wake of gay marriage becoming legal we have seen a host of anti-LGBT bills making their way before state lawmakers, in some cases becoming law, such as with North Carolina’s infamous HB2.

The question of how to best work toward true LGBT equality is an important and hotly debated one in light of these setbacks. Where should resources go in the battle to end discrimination once and for all? A recent study might point the way.

A different type of canvassing 

Canvassing, going door to door to speak with voters about a political issue or candidate in order to change minds and win votes, is a staple of campaigning. Individuals passionate about the issue or candidate show up on doorsteps and make their pitch.

Activists at the Los Angeles LGBT Center wondered if perhaps there was a better way to canvas in 2009 after Proposition 8 struck down same sex marriage in the state. Instead of trying to convince people through facts, figures and political argumentation like was typically done, what if they simply shared their stories and asked voters to share theirs?

They went out and did just that and it seemed to be working.

Many of the people they spoke to reported changing their minds after speaking with the canvassers. But were these self-reported changes in opinion the real deal and would they stand the test of time?

To find out, leaders at the Los Angeles LGBT Center reached out to UCLA graduate student named Michael LaCour to do a long term study to see if the canvassers were having a significant impact or not.

The results of the study were better than could be believed. It showed that the impacts were real and long lasting. They were able, it seemed, to change strongly held political opinions in less than half an hour.

The impressive results were published in the journal Science. “This American Life” produced a story on it as well.

Researchers at UC Berkeley and Standford, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, wanted to replicate the findings, and started the same way LaCour had, by having people fill out online surveys ahead of a visit from canvassers. This would allow them to know where those people stood on the issues before the canvasser showed up at the door.

When those researchers had much less success getting responses they wondered what they were doing wrong. When they dug deeper, it was discovered that LaCour had been making up his results, not utilizing the data that had been collected through all those surveys.

But just because those results had been faked, that did not necessarily mean that the canvassers were not having a powerful impact on those with whom they spoke. It was simply unknown, since all of the data collected had gone to waste.

So Broockman and Kalla decided to do the study the right way.

They looked at individuals who had been canvassed about transgender rights in South Florida. Three months after the visit, those who spoke with the activists still had a higher opinion of transgender people than those who had been canvassed on an unrelated topic, recycling, which had been done as a control.

Roughly one in ten voters canvassed by representatives from the Los Angeles LGBT Center about trans rights had changed their minds about transgender people in the positive.

Those results have now been published. “This American Life” has done a story on this new study as well, which also gives a rundown of the original fake story and how they got bamboozled.

Listen to the “This American Life” episode here.

Broockman and Kalla have presented their research in a transparent manner, going to great lengths to ensure that their data is available for those wishing to inspect it and confirm their findings.

“They were very transparent about all the statistics,” Elizabeth Paluck, a psychologist at Princeton University who was not involved with the work told NPR. “It was a really ingenious test of the change. If the change was at all fragile, we should have seen people change their minds back [after three months].”

Not effective for all issues, but effective for some

They have also looked into the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s abortion canvassing and found, unlike what LaCour reported, that there had no long term impact whatsoever among that group.

“How do you explain that this worked with the trans issue but it didn’t work with the abortion issue?” “This American Life” host Ira Glass asked Broockman.

“One possibility is that trans issues are so new, whereas abortion is so ingrained, that it was just easier (to change mind’s about transgender people),” Broockman said.

Broockman explained what was so different about this form of canvassing and why it may be more effective.

“Really what’s happening here, is it’s listening and asking questions to voters to get them to say the words and to get them to do the mental work to think through how the experiences they’ve had are relevant to this issue,” Broockman said. “The idea is that if the words come out of your own mouth, it’s much more meaningful to you than if they come out of someone else’s mouth. So it’s not that this isn’t common sense, but it’s also not what any campaigns do.”

Expect that to start changing.

Both sides of the political spectrum will likely jump on this tactic. Those wishing to bring about LGBT equality would be wise to put resources into this type of canvassing now to get out ahead of their opponents.

Jeff Taylor / Social Media Editor

Jeff Taylor is a journalist and artist. In addition to QNotes, his work has appeared in publications such The Charlotte Observer, Creative Loafing Charlotte, Inside Lacrosse, and McSweeney’s Internet...