Would you have a 15-minute, in-depth conversation with a stranger who came to your door asking about politics? Especially if that person was from a different political party?
In an age of shrill political partisanship and ranting on social media, a group of local residents sought to effect political change by seeking out common ground and share personal experiences by engaging in serious conversations with their political opposites.
They were part of an effort led by Riverside resident Bob Moriarty that sought to convince Republican voters in Hinsdale to help flip the 6th Congressional District from red to blue.
Their efforts paid off on Nov. 6 when Democrat Sean Casten defeated Republican incumbent Congressman Peter Roskam in the traditionally Republican west suburban district centered in DuPage County.
Moriarty, 58, grew up in North Riverside and moved to Riverside in 2011. He worked for 13 years as a community organizer and previously volunteered in the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry. He works full time as a financial advisor.
He decided to use an organizing technique called “deep canvassing,” which was developed by a fellow community organizer, David Fleischer, who now directs the Leadership Lab at Los Angles LGBT Center.
Moriarty worked in concert with Coalition for a Better Illinois 6th, a group dedicated to flipping the Roskam seat.
The key to deep canvassing is having in-depth conversations with people, focusing on shared experiences and values. The canvasser seeks to understand the perspective of the person they are talking to, find out what is important to them, seek common ground, and eventually persuade them by means of shared experiences and values.
Last December, nearly four months before Casten even won the Democratic primary, Moriarty and other area residents began ringing the doorbells of past Republican voters in Hinsdale.
“If someone had voted in a Republican primary, we rang their door bell,” said Moriarty, who recruited his next-door neighbor, Tom Jacobs, and other area residents to help. Riversiders Rob Dixon, Mary Ellen Park and Sue Pipal, along with John Twomey of Brookfield, were among the 10 or 12 local residents involved in the effort.
“We were just asking voters who they had concerns about in the current political climate and whether they saw value in having some checks and balances on President Trump,” Moriarty said. “We wanted to understand whether they still supported Trump and who in their lives they thought about when they voted.”
For seven or eight months, the group, which eventually swelled to about 45 or 50 volunteers, focused entirely on Republicans.
The canvassers found that many Hinsdale Republicans were happy to chat.
“Generally, people were great,” Moriarty said. “They were very happy to have a respectful, civil discussion with somebody who had a different experience than they did.”
The canvassers discovered that many Republicans in Hinsdale had concerns about President Donald Trump.
“Probably 30 to 40 percent of the Republicans we spoke to had serious reservations about the president and the lack of decency with which he treats people,” Moriarty said. “And many of them would say, ‘I would never want my children to behave the way he does,’ for example. Almost every Republican would say, ‘I wish he would stop tweeting.'”
Some conversations could last as long as 15 or 20 minutes. The canvassers sought to personalize the choices in the election by telling the Republicans who they thought of when voting.
Moriarty said that he was involved because his 19-year old son is in ROTC at Vanderbilt University.
“So, when I vote I think about him,” Moriarty said. “When the president is sending erratic treats threatening other nations that can affect the well-being of somebody I love very deeply.”
And he would mention his parents.
“My mother died of lung cancer, and if it weren’t for Social Security and Medicare, she would have been a very dire straits, so I was doing it for her and I was doing it for my son, who is on his way to the U.S. Army infantry,” Moriarty said.
Jacobs, an architect who immigrated to the United States from Switzerland when he was 28 and now holds dual citizenship, said he was talking to voters because of his concerns about immigration and global warming, among other issues.
One Saturday in October, Jacobs canvassed with his 18-year daughter, Joey, a freshman at the University of Illinois. With Joey standing next to him, he told voters he was doing this for her.
“I would say things like, ‘I’m here, because I’m extremely worried that my daughter here is not going to have, like, a planet to live on,'” Jacobs said.
The key to deep canvassing is finding common ground and connecting via a shared experience or feeling.
“You’re not really trying to convince them of anything, initially, you really just try to understand where they’re coming from and listen to what really drives them,” Jacobs said.
In all, Moriarty said the group had about 1,500 discussions with voters in the Hinsdale area. In the fall, the canvassing became more traditional, focusing on turning out the vote of those who indicated that they were likely to vote for Casten or still on the fence.
It seems to have paid off.
In 2016 when Roskam cruised to an easy re-election with around 70 percent of the vote in many Hinsdale precincts. This time, although Roskam still carried Hinsdale, his vote margin was significantly reduced, with Casten getting more than 40 percent in all Hinsdale precincts and even winning a couple of them.
How much of Casten’s performance in Hinsdale can be attributed to the deep canvassing effort? It’s hard to tell.
Casten, who raised $5.4 million for his campaign as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeted the district, also benefited from seemingly non-stop television advertising and direct mail that Roskam’s 2016 opponent Amanda Howland could not even dream of.
The deep canvassing effort operated mostly independently of the Casten campaign.
“We coordinated with them in final several weeks when it became more a matter of making sure people voted,” Moriarty said. “We talked to them, but we weren’t tightly coordinated. We weren’t part of their apparatus.”
Moriarty believes that the principles of deep canvassing can be applied to many facets of life.
“To have the possibility of influencing anybody in any setting being respectful and listening to them is awfully important,” Moriarty said. “It’s a cornerstone, whether it’s in business, education, any form of public life.”