How are there still undecided voters this late in the race?

Mike Bebernes
·Editor
·5 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

With just two weeks until Election Day, most voters have made up their minds about whether they’ll support Donald Trump or Joe Biden. In fact, there’s ample evidence that the majority locked in their decision quite a while ago. Despite a flurry of events over the past few months, polls of the presidential race have remained remarkably static, with Biden maintaining a consistent advantage. The steadiness of the race makes sense: Trump has been president for four years and Biden has been on the political scene for decades, meaning voters have had plenty of time to decide how they feel about them.

Yet despite all that — and despite the major differences between the candidates’ visions for the country — some voters are still on the fence. Recent polls show that anywhere between 2 percent and 8 percent of the electorate say they’re undecided. The share of undecided voters this year is about half what it was at this point in 2016, when a late shift among that group helped put Trump over the top. But it’s still a large enough segment to tip this year’s race if it broke en masse in one direction.

Because of their potential to swing the outcome of elections, undecided voters get an outsized share of attention from campaigns and political media. Their opinions are sought out in news stories, in televised focus groups and at debates with the goal of finding out what, if anything, might sway their decision.

Undecided voters are also the subject of equal parts fascination and derision from some members of the public who find it inexplicable that anyone could still be on the fence this late into a race with such starkly different candidates. “To be undecided in 2020, to me, you literally would have to be on an ice floe,” one political analyst said. Late night host Stephen Colbert called such people “mentally impaired unicorns.”

Why there’s debate

Because of undecided voters’ importance in deciding elections, political analysts have spent years trying to understand who they are and what they think. Demographically, they skew younger than the average voter, are disproportionately Hispanic and are less likely to have a college degree. Unsurprisingly, they often describe themselves as moderate politically.

While individual reasons vary significantly, the most common reason people are undecided this late in the race is dissatisfaction with both major-party candidates. A large share of undecided voters in this year’s election are moderate conservatives who dislike Trump personally but are wary of Biden’s policy agenda, experts say. Another group of undecideds likely consists of voters who would typically support a third-party candidate but may fear “wasting” their vote in an election with such high stakes.

The challenge for many undecided voters, some argue, is less about choosing between the candidates than about deciding whether to vote at all. Voters who are undecided at this moment in the race tend to be less politically engaged than the general public and often feel that none of the options on offer represent their interests. Others say that most undecided voters aren’t really undecided at all and that they are merely putting on an act before backing the candidate they’ve preferred all along.

What’s next

Based on current polling, Trump likely needs an overwhelming share of remaining undecided voters to swing in his direction if he hopes to cut into Biden’s advantage. A recent analysis suggests, however, that uncommitted voters are likely to split evenly between the two candidates.

Perspectives

Many are dissatisfied with both candidates

“Many … are longtime Republicans wrestling with what they see as a choice between two lousy candidates: a Democrat whose policies they cannot stomach and a Republican incumbent whose personality revolts them.” — Jill Colvin and Aamer Madhani, Associated Press

The real choice is whether to vote at all

“Very few [undecided voters] actually say that there’s a chance that they would vote for the other party’s candidate. More realistically, it’s that these voters may not be motivated to vote at all in the 2020 election.” — Public opinion researcher Ashley Kirzinger to Marketplace

Many are third-party voters searching for the best choice among major-party nominees

“Some undecideds turn out to be people who’ve long felt alienated from the two big political parties, who voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein in 2016 and now think their vote may have greater impact if they can make their peace with Biden or Trump.” — Marc Fisher, Christine Spolar and Amy B Wang, Washington Post

They’re torn between personality and policy

“They are nervous about Trump’s persona and they are nervous about Joe Biden’s policies, and that’s what is holding them back. It’s not that they can’t see a difference between the two candidates. They see a tremendous difference.” — Republican pollster Frank Luntz to CNBC

Undecided voters are less politically engaged

“They’re not following the 24-hour news cycle, they’re getting political news second hand or seeing it somewhere else. 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.” — Public opinion researcher Chris Jackson to Newsweek

Their political opinions don’t follow the same logic as those of typical voters

“One common trait: at this stage of the game, the undecided voter doesn’t fit into an easy political profile but rather possess a more idiosyncratic worldview.” — Victoria McGrane, Boston Globe

Whatever their motivation, undecided voters get far too much attention

“There is a group of people in America, a very small group, who are likely the least informed, yet are receiving more attention from the media than any other group of people in the country right now. They are the undecided voter. And our obsession with them is a dangerous distraction during a critical time.” — Kathleen Davis, Fast Company

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