Persuasion Through Values-Based Conversations

Values-based conversations, in which staff or volunteers working to win the freedom to marry engaged in individual conversations with conflicted voters, was one of the key persuasion tactics developed for marriage field campaigns. The conversations, where the voter and canvasser share and discuss their common values, were dramatically different from typical political canvassing because they required the canvassers to work without a specific script, to share aspects of their own personal beliefs and history, and to address concerns brought up by the voter. They were also significantly longer conversations than typical canvassing efforts. 

The use of these long-form, values-based conversations developed over the course of the marriage movement and were employed, tested, and refined in multiple states with the key goal of figuring out how to win at the ballot.

The use of these long-form, values-based conversations developed over the course of the marriage movement and were employed, tested, and refined in multiple states. The development of this strategy was spurred by several factors, including failures of previous field campaigns to engage in persuasion, willingness of volunteers to share personal aspects of their lives, and messaging research to support this type of conversation – and, above all else, the need to figure out how to win at the ballot.

Prior to Persuasion Field Work

In Massachusetts, from 2004 until 2007, the movement faced successive legislative efforts to repeal the freedom to marry or overturn it via referendum. In late 2005, MassEquality, the campaign to protect marriage in Massachusetts, created the largest canvassing effort on marriage until that point, with volunteer teams and an in-house paid team of 14-25 canvassers who knocked on doors in targeted district five days each week for a period of almost two years.  

Freedom to Marry's Thomas Wheatley helped organize canvassers for door-to-door conversations all across Washington.

Freedom to Marry's Thomas Wheatley helped organize canvassers for door-to-door conversations all across Washington in 2012.

This effort was geared toward supporting the legislative campaign, focusing on identifying marriage supporters and enlisting them to make the case to their own lawmakers.  The campaign’s message that it was “wrong to vote on rights”—to respond to the argument that some lawmakers were using, that they weren’t necessarily opposed to marriage but that the people should decide.  Each canvasser had three talking points, one of which was the number of rights and benefits that came with marriage and the others dealing with the impropriety of voting on rights and the importance of signing a card to their legislator. Canvassers were encouraged to “come out” at the door – as long as they could “keep it short.” The qualitative feedback was incredibly positive response from voters across the state.  This feedback – and the success of these 25,000 conversations – was one of the first indications that we could affect voters by asking them personally to take action with us, and that most voters would be willing to engage on a “controversial” subject. Those who agreed to sign a post card to their lawmaker were then asked to call the lawmaker from their door on a cellphone the canvasser carried.  There were certainly some impolite voters, and of course the dog bites occurred, but overall, voters were not afraid to talk about gay subjects.

While this approach was very successful in getting a high quantity of constituent contacts for lawmakers, there was still no model for more in-depth conversations to move voters our way in order to prepare for a ballot fight. It became “conventional wisdom” among some leaders and funders that the marriage movement couldn’t persuade voters one-on-one, or that it would take far too long. For these reasons major campaign efforts like California’s Proposition 8 Campaign, the largest LGBT volunteer effort ever to that point in time, specifically created canvass scripts that contained only a few talking points connected to persuasion– one of which began with “regardless of how you feel about gay people….” The campaign in the 2009 Maine campaign was even more scripted, with impersonal talking points based on that campaign’s assumption that we could not persuade people but should instead focus on identification and turnout of our supporters. 

Early Development of Values-Based Conversation Practices

Three months after the Prop 8 loss, some southern California activists who had been discouraged by the results of the Proposition 8 campaign began canvassing to see what voters had really thought about when they went to the polls. They started with a script that was essentially a list of questions, beginning with asking how someone had voted the previous November and then asking the voter why. Activists from the LA Gay and Lesbian Center were joined by a newly built Equality California field team, and engaged in 40,000 such conversations in six different communities throughout the state in year one, while other testing occurred in other states. 

Building Public Support

Honing the Marriage Movement's Message

Read more about the years of work and research that contributed to the key values – love, commitment, and family – that helped move voters toward support for the freedom to marry.

Read More

At the same time, Freedom to Marry provided new messaging advice that emphasized common values – love and commitment, family, connection – and highlighting universal values such as the Golden Rule of treating others as you would want to be treated. This research and gave organizers and volunteers a clear mandate to change the focus of engagement and was cited in every canvass training throughout the 2011-12 Maine campaign, producing a kind of “aha” moment for volunteers initially resistant to cutting down on communication focused on rights and benefits. Newer scripts were developed focusing on these core issues.

In California in 2008 and 2009, volunteer-collected data showed that values-based conversations were moving 25% of all undecided and opposed voters to be more supportive of marriage – with about half of those voters moving toward undecided and the others moving to be new supporters. Working with researchers in California, tests to track the durability of these conversations showed that the effect was persistent. Voters remembered those conversations.  

Marriage supporters in Maryland prepare for a campaign event to protect the freedom to marry.

Marriage supporters in Maryland prepare for a campaign event to protect the freedom to marry.

When the 2011 public education effort launched in Maine, rebounding from the ballot-measure loss in 2009 and hoping to move people to support, the small population size of the state and the existence of a volunteer team eager to do persuasion after focusing on turnout in the unsuccessful 2009 effort, influenced the field team to plan a large program based on individual, values-based conversations. To reach the needed level of impact, the team needed to be able to conduct conversations by phone, which was considered a questionable approach, especially with taciturn Maine voters. Before launching the full-scale program, a test with the Analyst Institute—which employed some of the best social scientists working on testing organizing tactics—demonstrated that the calls were “effective at changing target’s level of support on a marriage equality index by as much as 12.2%,” a very strong finding. With that green light, the Maine public education and electoral campaigns combined for 172,096 conversations with approximately 125,000 individuals during the 18 months between March 2011 and November 2012.  Volunteers completed over one-third of those conversations, and the rest were by paid staff on the phones or at the door. Before television ads began running state-wide in late June 2012, support for marriage in Maine had increased 4% from the start of the field work. 

What the Conversation Looked Like in Maine - 2011- 2012

A typical long-form, values-based persuasion conversation began with asking the voter to give an initial rating of their support for marriage, usually along a five-point scale. If a voter proved strongly supportive or strongly opposed based on responses to several questions, the canvasser would move to the next door, as this effort was focused on making the case to those who were persuadable. Then the voter was typically asked what was the most important reason for their position. Next, the voter was asked why this reason was important to them, or to elaborate on their reasoning. 

From there, the voter led the conversation, with the canvasser always trying to dig deeper to uncover the voter’s underlying concerns. A list of open-ended questions was provided, rather than talking points, and the trained canvasser used these questions to break down the voter’s superficial objections or talking points down to core values where they might find commonality. We sometimes called the process peeling the onion. Lots of questions started with “why” and a typical canvasser response to brief answers was “Can you tell me what that really means to you?” 

Canvassers focused on real, lived experiences, rather than hypotheticals. Voters were often asked if they were married, and if so, what their marriage meant to them – often eliciting very warm responses. Voters were also asked if they knew gay and lesbian people, what they were like, and how it would feel to the voter if they were married. 

The canvasser’s job was also to share their personal values and experiences with the voter. Because every voter is different, canvassers couldn’t have just one personal story – but rather, they needed to be experts at relating to others.  If the voter had a faith concern, the canvasser might share their history or family members’ history of supporting marriage as a person of faith. If the voter concern was around kids, the canvasser might empathize and share bonds of concerns for children in their family.  Eventually, the canvasser would be able to bring the conversation back to actual same-sex couples.

The canvassing team for 2012's Mainers United for Marriage, over the course of two years, helped to pioneer the values-based, persuasion-focused field effort.

The canvassing team for 2012's Mainers United for Marriage, over the course of two years, helped to pioneer the values-based, persuasion-focused field effort.

In training, this information was often boiled down to five key concepts:

  1. Focus on shared, personal values, not rights and benefits or abstractions.
  2. Practice genuine curiosity – conversations work when we are really listening to voter concerns and what might be behind them, rather than planning our next thing to say.
  3. Digging is great, and pivoting is forbidden- the voter leads the conversation and we try to get underneath their concerns, not avoid them.
  4. Focus on real, lived experiences and real people – Stay away from hypotheticals, use real names, and probe the voter about people they really know.
  5. Sharing is a two-way street – be open, be empathetic, and be real about your own experiences and relationships.

As a rule of thumb in Maine, canvass leaders hoped the voter would be speaking and the canvasser listening for at least two-thirds of the conversations. Average conversations at the door lasted about seven minutes, and phone calls lasted just over five minutes. Conversations with supporters were used to reaffirm their support vocally but were much shorter than those with conflicted voters. Strongly opposed voters were not engaged in conversation. 

Check out video of one edited example of an at-the-door conversation:  

Key Lessons Learned

  • Volunteers must be encouraged about the benefits of engaging in personal  conversations about values: Many volunteers preferred to talk about rights and benefits. This is not surprising, since rights and benefits are often more comfortable for volunteers, especially for gay and lesbian volunteers who may feel vulnerable sharing emotional content with conflicted or opposed voters, and who were all too aware of the legal rights denied to them. Often the most progressive supporters felt strong connection to the rights-based discourse, even though these values may not align as well with conflicted voters.
  • Canvassing without a written script can be challenging and takes training: Before each volunteer canvass in Maine, organizers held trainings that ran 45 minutes or longer to acquaint canvassers with the questions on the script and allow them to practice asking probing questions. Even after this training, it often took canvassers several attempts to become comfortable asking personal questions of voters. 
  • Conversations take much longer than typical canvassing contacts: On average, Maine volunteers would have only four conversations in a door canvass shift and reach about two conflicted voters. On the phone the numbers were only slightly higher. Throughout the Maine campaign, organizers struggled to determine the most efficient conversation length, as open-ended questioning sometimes led to nonproductive conversations in which the voter felt comfortable sharing very long anecdotes or explanations.
  • Longer and challenging conversations led to increased expenses: In Maine the majority of persuasion conversations were conducted by paid staffers. The complicated and long nature of the conversations can make large-scale programs, volunteer or paid, expensive endeavors. 
  • High-quality, unscripted interactions strongly impact persuasion abilities: Long-form persuasion conversations were adopted as a strategy by 3 of the 4 marriage ballot campaigns in 2012. After the 2012 victories, organizers from labor, choice, and environmental campaigns have reached out to marriage organizers and asked to share scripting. Many other issue and candidate campaigns have adopted longer-form conversations, and this has become standard practice for many campaigns. 

A final note: some may have read about a tainted study that had highlighted the efficacy of in-depth conversation efforts.  No doubt, it was very frustrating to see a detailed and expensive study have to be discarded because of unscrupulous researchers. However, it’s crucial to note that it was the one study that was flawed – not the approach it aimed to test; the efficacy of this type of persuasion and approach has been proven again and again. There are downsides to it—much training, cost per conversation, etc.—but it has shown to be the most effective way to move people on marriage and other challenging issues.