By Carol Smolenski

When I tell my friends that I do door-to-door political canvassing as part of a project that engages people in a deep conversation about why they vote the way they do, the first skeptical question I get is: Do people really open their door to you? The surprising answer I give is “yes, they do!”

I first signed up for CTC Together in late 2017 as one of the many people who despaired about the election of Donald Trump and the growing political polarization in our country. But I genuinely believed that we could overcome some of the divisions by just talking with our fellow citizens, even those we disagree with adamantly. I thought that through conversation we would be able to come to an understanding that as Americans we have some common bedrock beliefs and values. It turns out, many other people were thinking the same thing at the same time. And then CTC Together came on the scene.

CTC Together succeeded in bringing many of us together and helping to channel this notion that we could have these political discussions across lines that divide us. It is an innovative project using a technique called “deep canvassing” to win over voters for Democratic candidates, not by arguing, or offering facts, but by sharing stories about who we are and what we value. The CTC Together method was still being developed back then. Volunteers got together to discuss, plan, practice and sketch out a way to start having these conversations. It was invigorating to be part of it.

The CTC Together method relies on using a script to guide the conversations with voters, so there is some standardization. But it promotes the idea that telling a personal story about how your values influence how you vote should be the centerpiece of the canvass. And crucially the technique asks the person whose door you knocked, to share a story about what they value. It is this story-sharing experience that has now been demonstrated to have an impact on how people actually vote.

But the big uncertainty that loomed for many of us from day one was, would anyone open their doors? On my very first day trying it out, before the script was even fully developed, I had a 20-minute conversation with a middle-aged Russian immigrant couple who were both Trump voters. I have to admit, I don’t think I made much progress in getting them to change their minds. I was still trying to figure out how to use the technique. But they were a lovely couple, they invited us in (we were a team of two), offered tea, and were willing to engage in a serious discussion. I learned right off the bat that people want to talk, even to strangers at their door, even to people with whom they are so politically incompatible.

Of course, most doors did not open. As I gained experience, I learned how to influence the likelihood that the door would stay open. (Hint: don’t ask if you can talk to them — just start talking.) And the CTC Together script got better at launching the interaction. In particular, this question is a very successful door-opener: “if you had two minutes to talk to President Trump today, what would you tell him?” This question is the one that truly pique’s people’s interest. They really want to answer it. And then the conversation begins.

I learned that many people can be generous with their time, they understand civic engagement is something important and they were intrigued about who we were and what we were doing at their doors. Most movingly, I learned that many, many people were willing and even enthusiastic about engaging and talking across what seemed like intractable boundaries. It turns out that there are plenty of good people who might not be out on the street knocking on doors but understood the need to have that talk.

I talked with a woman on a beautiful sunny Sunday, as her family was having fun in the backyard pool. She was around my age, close to retirement. She tended to vote Republican. I talked about my husband’s dependence on Medicare for his numerous health problems and that I would soon be retiring. I told her my daughter was starting a new career and was relying on the Affordable Care Act to get health care for now. This really resonated with her. Her husband, too, was in poor health and depended on Medicare. We talked together about how great it is to have the security of a consistent and dependable health plan in our lives as we age. By the time I walked away, she was leaning toward voting for the Democrat in the Fall.

I have already had so many front-door conversations. I spoke with a few Trump voters, some who regretted their votes, and some who did not. I spoke with many middle-of-the-road, or infrequent voters. I spoke with immigrants who wanted to pull up the welcome mat now that they were in the country and those who were more interested in electing candidates that still believed in the poem on the Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired, your poor…”. CTC Together offers a way to have those conversations. CTC was successful in helping to flip a Congressional district on Staten Island from Republican to Democratic in 2018 and is building a national corps of deep canvassers to flip swing states in 2020.

Just as importantly CTC helps to get Americans to literally open the door to each other.

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