Skip to main content

How Can We Reduce Prejudice to Change Voters’ Minds?

Open-ended conversations that helped combat transphobia in Miami hold promise for more broadly changing political opinions.

By Elena Gooray


(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

We recently got some positive news on overturning prejudice in an election season that has seen far too much of it. Door-to-door canvassing successfully reduced transphobia in Miami, according to a study Tom Jacobs reported on last week. Those findings bring us a step closer to a strategy for changing voters’ minds — especially on topics that can be charged with prejudice, like civil rights and immigration.

Jacobs writes of the research:

[The study] finds a canvas of homeowners in a conservative Miami neighborhood significantly reduced prejudice against members of an ostracized sexual minority.

Researchers found that a 10-minute, empathy-oriented discussion increased acceptance of transgender people among residents of all races and political ideologies. What’s more, this attitude shift persisted for at least three months, and influenced views on a related political issue.

The researchers looked at canvassers from the Los Angeles-based advocacy group Leadership Lab. The group’s volunteers are trained to prompt two different behaviors in the people they speak with: first, empathizing with the experience of another person; second, thinking deeply about issues relevant to that person’s life.

Lab director Dave Fleischer hopes to apply this approach beyond transphobia, he told the New York Times:

Though he has devoted much of his political and community-organizing career to L.G.B.T. issues, he believes this kind of canvassing could change people’s thinking on everything from abortion and gun rights to race-based prejudice. He also hopes it will usher in a new era of political persuasion. “Modern political campaigns have focused mostly on communicating with people who already agree with them and turning them out to vote,” Fleischer says. “But what we’ve learned by having real, in-depth conversations with people is that a broad swath of voters are actually open to changing their mind. And that’s exciting, because it offers the possibility that we could get past the current paralysis on a wide variety of controversial issues.”

Fleischer’s methods have not always delivered such heartening results. In 2014, a study claimed that canvassing from gay and lesbian Leadership Lab volunteers converted opponents of gay marriage into supporters. But the study had to be retracted five months later after news broke that one of its authors had falsified data.

This latest study vindicates Fleischer’s approach — or at least suggests it can effectively fight transphobia. Extending this kind of canvassing to other topics might require tweaking. Transgender rights have only recently gained visibility in politics, as political scientist Melissa Michelson noted to the New York Times. That means this issue may trigger less deeply rooted prejudices than a topic like abortion, which for decades has stagnated between harsh ideological divides.

From issue to issue and election to election, it’s hard to pinpoint whose opinions can actually be shifted and how best to do so. Political scientists Lynn Vavreck and John Sideswrote for Pacific Standard in 2014 about the difficulties of predicting voter behavior, even in this age of “big election data” that tracks voters’ activity both online and off:

Elan Kriegel, Obama’s battleground-states analytics director [in 2012], says that the implications of the campaign’s persuasion modeling changed over time: People who appeared persuadable in March were different from those who appeared persuadable in September and October. This is to say nothing of the challenge of translating findings across campaigns in different election years or in different states or districts. Showalter describes how Obama emails seemed to work better when they were shorter, but her counterpart on Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign discovered that they raised more money when supporters got long emails that Warren wrote herself. What worked for Warren, Showalter says, were “‘things that broke all the rules.”

Nonetheless, the Leadership Lab’s success in Miami suggests an approach focusing on empathy and critical thinking can change minds, with real gains for civil rights. And that approach could have plenty of impact on transgender communities.

North Carolina (and otherSouthern states) are considering bills to ban transgender people from using bathrooms that match the gender with which they identify, rather than the gender they were assigned at birth. Tackling that kind of legislation, and fighting transphobia, could use a tool like convincing canvassing.