It’s possible to lastingly persuade conservative voters to support a controversial issue like marriage for same-sex couples-and at a greatly accelerated rate compared to their neighbors-according to groundbreaking data published in a recent issue of the peer-reviewed journal Science. The 12-month study also shows how the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s voter persuasion methods reduced anti-gay prejudice and may have the potential to reduce other forms of prejudice.
The independent researchers who led the study, prominent Columbia University Professor and political scientist Donald P. Green and Michael J. LaCour of UCLA, found that the Center’s LGBT canvassers changed the minds of conservative voters to support marriage for same-sex couples five times faster than their neighbors were evolving on the issue. More than that, the doorstep conversations had a long-lasting, measurable impact on reducing the voters’ prejudice against LGBT people and had a “spillover effect,” changing the minds of others in the same household.
“I’ve been studying the impact of voter treatments for 20 years and co-authored a paper that examined 900 treatments to reduce prejudice,” said Green, “and the honest truth is that few of them, including TV ads, door-to-door canvassing, mail, and phone calls, have much effect. Careful scientific measurement shows that the few attempts at voter persuasion that do have an impact decay in three to five days. That’s why we were so surprised by the data from this study. It turns out that the Los Angeles LGBT Center has discovered a new approach that has a bigger, longer-lasting impact than anything we’ve seen before.”
Over five years, the Center’s Vote for Equality staff and volunteers had more than 12,000 one-on-one conversations in Los Angeles neighborhoods that overwhelmingly supported Proposition 8, the California ballot measure that repealed the freedom for same-sex couples to marry. The approach studied by the researchers was developed through continuous, iterative learning, resulting from the work of more than 1,000 volunteers and 18 staff who talked with and videotaped conversations with voters; studied the footage; developed new messages and approaches; and adapted training programs accordingly.
To measure the Center’s impact, LaCour and Green applied the same techniques used to evaluate the efficacy of medical treatments. Voters were randomly assigned to a control group, placebo group, or treatment group and surveyed at regular intervals. Volunteer canvassers talked about the value of recycling with voters who were in the placebo group; those in the control group weren’t canvassed at all.
During the 12-month study (June 2013 – May 2014), voters in the placebo and control group experienced a 3-point reduction (on a 100-point “feeling thermometer”) in prejudice against lesbian and gay people. Among voters who were canvassed about marriage by the Center’s LGBT volunteers, the change was much greater: they had a 15-point reduction in prejudice. Just as important, the new, lower levels of prejudice persisted without decay throughout the year-long study.
“The data show that in 20 minutes, the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s volunteer canvassers accomplished what would have otherwise taken five years at the current rate of social change,” said Dave Fleischer, director of the Center’s Vote for Equality and Leadership LAB programs. “How did we do it? Our team had heartfelt, reciprocal and vulnerable conversations on the doorsteps of those who opposed marriage for same-sex couples, and volunteers who were LGBT came out during their conversations.”
The research showed that non-LGBT canvassers were initially just as effective as LGBT canvassers at changing minds on the issue of marriage, but the effect of their conversations rapidly decayed. After about 12 days, the data show they were only about half as effective as LGBT canvassers in reducing prejudice against gay and lesbian people.
“We’re optimistic that our approach can be adapted to persuade voters on other issues,” said Fleischer. “We’re currently canvassing to reduce prejudice against transgender people and, with funding from Planned Parenthood, to increase support for abortion and reduce the stigma against those who have one. The research data from those projects is preliminary, but very encouraging.”