Undecided Voters Were Key to Trump's Win in 2016. Will They Deliver Again?

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Illustration by Britt Spencer for Newsweek; Photo by SensorSpot/Getty

As stark as the differences are between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, millions of Americans can't seem to choose between them. They're the 10 percent of prospective voters who, with less than three months to go until the election, are still technically "undecided:" They haven't made up their minds between the Republican and Democratic nominees, currently back third-party candidates or, at this point, just don't care. Analysts say there are fewer undecideds this year than in 2016, when a surge of last-minute converts to Trump among them helped decide the election. But it's still a sizable enough cohort—particularly in key battleground states—to potentially determine the 2020 result. "They are a relatively small population but they are certainly enough to alter the outcome," says Chris Jackson, head of public polling at Ipsos.

For Trump, trailing by eight points on average in the most recent polls, these undecideds present both an opportunity and a risk. Should he stick with the bombastic, polarizing persona that keeps his base energized or moderate his policies and tone in an attempt to woo undecideds—and possibly alienate his most fervent supporters? "The president is a known commodity," says Thomas Gift, a political scientist and founding director of the Centre on U.S. Politics at University College London. "Making concessions at this late stage could seem, at best, disingenuous and, at worst, dampen enthusiasm among ardent supporters.

"For that reason," Gift adds, "Trump may think that his only plausible strategy is to stick to the tactics that got him to the White House in the first place—and hope the U.S. can turn a corner on both the coronavirus and the economy."

Right now, the number of voters still to firmly align with either of the main two-party candidates is falling. But the race remains open and even seasoned politicos are wary. "I don't think you're gonna hear anyone from the 2016 election say, 'Hey, you're gonna win, buddy,'" says Amanda Renteria, who was national political director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. Continuing controversy about voting methods and access, roiled by the pandemic, only increases the uncertainty about the 2020 electorate and the ultimate outcome of the race.

Undecided voters had a big hand in putting Trump in the White House four years ago. In August 2016 an estimated 20 percent of voters were undecided, compared to 10 percent now, and in key battleground states, more than half who chose in the final week of the campaign went for Trump. While things look bad for Trump at the moment, with surging COVID infections in red states like Florida and Arizona and the unemployment rate still above its Great Recession peak, he has plenty of time left to win over undecideds who—almost by definition—make their decisions late in the campaign cycle. A slowdown of infections, a vaccine breakthrough, a continuing strong stock market, an uptick in the job market, a foreign policy triumph, successful re-openings of businesses and schools: any number of factors could boost Trump's approval rating in the weeks right before the election and bring voters into his camp.

"People who are not as engaged, they get engaged late," says Renteria. "That's why it's important every step of the way to engage them."

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Illustration by Britt Spencer for Newsweek; Photopraph by SensorSpot/Getty

Who Are the Undecideds?

Exactly how many votes are still up for grabs in the 2020 presidential election is an open question.

According to Jackson at Ipsos, about 10 percent of voters probably haven't made up their minds yet between Trump or Biden. Using the 211 million Americans registered to vote in 2018 as a guide, that would suggest there are some 21 million voters who are still open to persuasion. If the number is more in line with the 138 million who cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, the undecided total would be closer to 14 million.

By either measure, those numbers are sizable enough to potentially have an impact. But not everyone lumped into the "undecided" group doesn't have a preference for president. Most sway one way or another, says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, who puts the percentage who are truly undecided at about three percent, or roughly six million potential voters based on the number who cast ballots in 2018. Similarly, of the 14 percent of registered voters classified as undecided in an Ipsos/Reuters survey from early August, only six percent were actually unsure. Another six percent supported a third-party candidate and two percent said they didn't plan to vote this year.

As a group, the undecideds tend to be younger (under 40), disproportionately Hispanic (though still more than half are white) and less likely to have a college degree than the typical registered voter, says Jackson of Ipsos. They also skew more female, but that may be less an indicator of voting behavior and more a reflection of survey-taking behavior. "Women may be being more honest versus men," Jackson says.

These potential voters are fairly evenly dispersed geographically and across party lines: Ipsos polling found half to be Independents and the rest roughly split between Republicans and Democrats. And the Independent half of the group may behave differently than their party-affiliated cousins, says Jacqueline Salit, president of IndependentVoting.org and the author of Independents Rising: Outsider Movements, Third Parties, and the Struggle for a Post-Partisan America. She points out that independent voters—a group Trump narrowly won in 2016—are not necessarily less engaged than other voters but rather see a need for reform in the political system that leads them not to align with the major parties.

"It's a statement of non-compliance with the system," Salit says. "They don't want to be forced to vote along party or ideological lines. They want to take responsibility for making their own decision."

That's quite different from the modus operandi of the typical undecided voter, who analysts generally view as less politically engaged. "Many 'undecided' voters are what political scientists somewhat patronizingly call 'low information' and 'low propensity' voters," says Richard Johnson, a lecturer in U.S. politics and international relations at Lancaster University. Adds Liz Hamel, director of public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, "They pay less attention to the news. Less strong feelings in general. More moderate."

Jackson agrees. "They're not following the 24-hour news cycle, they're getting political news second hand or seeing it somewhere else," he says. "They're people who are just living their lives and can't find the time to care strongly. The election and politics are just not a high priority."

The fact that these undecideds tend to get their information episodically and inconsistently could make them more open to persuasion than other voters, says Rich Thau, co-founder of the research firm Engagious and moderator of the Swing Voter Project, which conducts focus groups with voters who switched support from the Democratic to the Republican presidential candidate or vice versa between 2012 and 2016. Says Thau, "They could be swayed if they learn something new."

All About That Base

For a candidate behind in the polls, as Donald Trump is now, that openness to new information could present a promising path to convert undecideds to supporters and add votes. And Trump has reason to believe in the opportunity this group holds, given the pivotal role they played in his 2016 win, particularly in states where he edged out Clinton by a narrow margin.

Data from the last election analyzed by the American Association of Public Opinion Research shows that in key battleground areas, most people who were unsure about who to vote for eventually went for Trump—many of them making up their minds in the final days of the campaign. In Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida, for instance, 11 to 15 percent of voters said that they decided in the last week and, according to exit polls, they broke for Trump by nearly 30 points in Wisconsin, 17 points in Pennsylvania and Florida and 11 points in Michigan.

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How undecided voters choose to cast their ballots this year, particularly in battleground states, could be critical to the outcome. Here, voting booths at a community center in New Hampshire during that state's primary on February 11, 2020. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty

So far this year, though, concerted outreach to undecided voters doesn't seem to be in the Trump playbook. Instead his focus looks to be largely on maintaining his grip on those who voted for him last time.

"The Trump campaign is seriously neglecting the moderate middle in America, and those voters are turning instead towards Biden," says David Andersen, assistant professor in U.S. politics at Durham University. "Incumbents typically can point to their established records as president to appeal to 'middle of the road' voters by showing that they are not extremists but instead are reliable problem solvers. Trump, though, has spent the last three and a half years in office catering specifically to his base and intensifying the partisan divide in the country."

If these were normal times, Trump's "relentlessly single-minded focus" on his base could work, says Gift. "That might have been a viable (if risky) re-election strategy before COVID-19: Trump could count on dyed-in-the wool Republicans to turn out to the polls, and also expect a healthy number of swing voters—even if they didn't back everything the president stood for—to grudgingly vote for him given a strong U.S. economy."

While Biden currently has a larger number of people saying they'll vote for him in November, they're nowhere near as fervent about their choice as the Trump supporters are. According to a Pew Research survey conducted from July 27 to August 2, two thirds of those backing Trump say they strongly favor their candidate (with 99 percent conviction), while only 46 percent of Biden supporters are as certain of their choice. One mitigating factor: Among those expressing moderate support, just 10 percent of Biden voters say there's a chance they'll change their minds vs. 17 percent of Trump voters.

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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, seen here speaking about reopening the country during a speech in Darby, Pennsylvania, in June, is currently leading in the polls but his supporters express less enthusiasm about their pick for president than Trump supporters do. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

The president is smart to concentrate on maintaining that enthusiasm, says Jacob Neiheisel, associate professor of political science at the University of Buffalo. "Campaigns that play to the middle where the bulk of the undecided or persuadable voters are located risk alienating loyal supporters in order to gain votes among a group that is less reliable when it comes to turnout," he says. "Campaigns can and do win just by mobilizing core supporters."

Then too, working actively to win over undecided voters probably was a tactic that had a far greater chance of success in the pre-pandemic era than it would now. "Trump has spent most of his presidency talking to people who already supported him," notes Larry Bartels, co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University. "If there was ever a strategy for expanding his base of support, it was predicated on peace and prosperity. Given current conditions, it's hard to see what positive argument would move 'undecided' voters to change their views of the president at this point."

Bartels does not believe, though, that Trump would turn off supporters if he did attempt to moderate his tone or policies in order to win over undecideds. "If people who've stuck with him so far get alienated in the next few months, I think it's much more likely to be due to the condition of the country and the president's response to it," he says.

Those who have yet to make up their minds may not be looking for different policies from the president in any case. Monmouth's Murray, for one, believes that undecided voters may be more motivated by emotion than logic."At this point, if you're undecided, it's not about a particular issue. It's more a gut feeling. They need to feel some sort of personal connection."

Accentuate the Negative

If a direct appeal to voters who haven't committed to a candidate isn't the right approach for Trump, what is? The answer may be one suits Trump especially well: Go negative.

Douglas Heye, former communications director for the Republican National Committee, believes this is the Trump campaign's clearest option as the pandemic continues to rage and the economy flails. "If you can't build yourself up, you have to tear down your opponent," he says.

Studies show that negative campaigning can be particularly effective with undecided voters, and could add the emotional element that analysts say can help win over this group. It's a strategy that uses Trump's combative personality and comfort with ad hominem attacks to his advantage, even without a formal effort to win the undecided vote.

Aradhna Krishna, a behavioral scientist and professor of marketing at the University of Michigan, has conducted research on how undecided voters eventually make their decisions. Her conclusion: Negative factors can be a more powerful influence than positive ones if people are not particularly happy with the idea of either outcome.

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How people will vote in the age of coronavirus and the impact on the presidential race is a great unknown. A sign of the times: Women wearing masks pose behind a voter registration table in New York City's Union Square in early August. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty

"Many [voters] are undecided because they don't like either candidate," Krishna says. "People can be described in desirable and undesirable attributes. When the set of options is considered unattractive, people focus more on the unattractive attributes. They will look at who is less bad on each attribute."

Looking back to 2016, when chants about Clinton such as "lock her up" were a feature of Trump's campaign, Krishna said: "Focusing on the negatives made sense because they were both disliked. I don't know if it was a brilliant move or if it was just his behavior." So far, Trump's attacks on "Sleepy Joe" and "Creepy Joe" don't seem to have gotten traction, but continued Biden-baiting could prove effective, cumulatively.

For now, though, the negatives associated with Trump seem more powerful for undecided voters than any bad feelings they may harbor about Biden. Case in point: In a poll last month from Reuters/Ipsos, 68 percent of undecided voters said they believed the country was currently on the wrong track and 67 percent said they disapproved of Trump. It's not especially shocking then that, when asked if they had to choose between the two candidates, two-thirds picked the former vice president.

The lean toward Biden, though, is soft, as polls have shown. And that lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic candidate is a weakness the incumbent may seek to exploit.

"The Trump campaign's aim will, I suspect, be to bolster those reservations, encouraging people to stay home or even to support Trump as the lesser of two evils—not to change anyone's mind about Trump himself," Bartels said.

But some political analysts do not think an apparent lack of excitement over Biden's candidacy will necessarily be a major hindrance to the Democrat or deter people from casting their ballots for him come November. "The enthusiasm gap is misunderstood and overstated," says David Brockington, a lecturer in politics and social science at the University of Plymouth, "While there's evidence that Biden supporters are less enamored of their guy, they are really strongly motivated by their desire to vote against Trump."

Adds Brockington, "The real enthusiasm mobilizer is a negative: Dislike for the incumbent will drive a lot of Biden's supporters to the polls. And it doesn't really matter what motivates a vote for Biden, as a vote's a vote."

In other words, both sides will play the negative game.

Look for an October Surprise

Since undecideds often delay making their choice until the last week or two before an election, unexpected events, positive or negative, can have greater impact on who they ultimately vote for.

"Undecided voters can be swayed by late developments in a campaign, in part because they have low levels of engagement to begin with," says Donna Hoffman, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. "That is why there is so much attention given to the 'October surprise' narrative."

In 2016, in fact, there was a lot of news in October with the potential to affect the election. These events included but were not limited to the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump discussed groping women; the WikiLeaks release of emails hacked from the Clinton campaign; multiple women accusing Trump of touching them inappropriately; the announcement that Obamacare premiums would rise 25 percent; and most damaging of all, the announcement by FBI Director James Comey of a review of new evidence in the Clinton email probe.

What could happen this time? "Improvement in the economy or some other factor for which Trump could plausibly claim credit could help him make at least some undecided voters vote for him," says Hoffman. "The question is whether there would be enough to add to his base and propel him to re-election."

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In the past presidential election, many undecided voters made up their minds late—in favor of Trump, seen here addressing supporters in Akron, Ohio four years ago. Angelo Merendino/Getty

Richard Johnson, a lecturer in U.S. politics and international relations at Lancaster University, also thinks more people could shift towards the president—particularly if increased attacks on Biden are effective. "There is a possibility that the undecided voters could disproportionately 'break' for Trump as we get nearer election day," he says.

Those undecided votes could really make a difference, like last time, in critical battleground areas. "Remember, he only 'won' in 2016 by 77,000 votes scattered across three states and lost the popular vote by over two points," says Brockington. "He got lucky on the day, he got lucky with the Comey letter, and he got lucky that he was facing a candidate with as much negative baggage as he had."

In the end, though, the single most important issue for undecided voters, as for the rest of the electorate, is likely to be Trump himself. "An election with an incumbent is often seen as a referendum on the incumbent," says Daniel Birdsong, a lecturer in political science at the University of Dayton. Adds Salit of IndependentVoting.org, "This election is a yes or no on President Trump."

"What the Biden people are banking on is more people hate Trump than love him," says Thau of the Swing Voter Project.

In the final month of summer, that's looking like a pretty good bet, but that was true in 2016 too and look what happened that fall. Michael Biundo, a senior adviser to the 2016 Trump campaign, thinks 2020 could be a repeat, if the current re-election team plays it smart in the home stretch. "Got to convince the voters who came out in 2016 to come out again [and] litigate a case against Joe Biden," he says. "I think there's plenty of time."

American University professor Allan Lichtman, author of Predicting the Next President, who correctly said Trump would win in 2016, disagrees. He has predicted a victory for Biden in 2020, and believes neither late-breaking developments nor a last-minute surge of undecideds breaking for Trump will change the outcome. "I've been doing this for almost 40 years, and nothing that's happened close to the election has ever changed my prediction," he says.

For Team Biden, the best approach to undecided voters may simply be to leave well enough alone, says Joel Benenson, chief strategist for Clinton in 2016 and a former adviser to Barack Obama. "When your opponent keeps shooting himself in the foot, you don't get in the way," he says. "[Trump] won the [last] election losing the popular vote by the biggest margin in history. I don't think he can thread that needle again."

Note: The Trump and Biden campaigns were each contacted for comment. Neither responded to this request or provided representatives for interview in time for publication.

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Illustration by Britt Spencer for Newsweek; Photopraph by SensorSpot/Getty
Undecided Voters Were Key to Trump's Win in 2016. Will They Deliver Again?