WASHINGTON – It’s 50 days until voters cast their ballots for president, and Americans are on edge.
It’s not just that they have been cooped up at home to avoid a deadly contagion. Or that some downtown areas have been wracked with unrest fueled by protests over police violence and racism. Or that Americans are facing financial hardships because of the pandemic.
Many voters view the White House race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden as crucial to America’s future. But while the president’s supporters are more enthusiastic than Biden’s, many voters grappling with multiple crises are unimpressed and uninspired by the choice they will face on Nov. 3.
“They’re anxious, fearful, angry, and frustrated,” Rich Thau, who runs the Swing Voter Project, told USA TODAY when asked to describe voter sentiment.
Thau’s group has held focus groups since March 2019 with dozens of “change voters” in seven battleground states – Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – who supported former President Barack Obama in 2012 and switched to Trump in 2016.
He said the moods of these voters shifted six months ago when COVID-19 upended the lives of millions.
“It caused people who thought things were generally going pretty well to think they were not going as well,” Thau said. “And those emotions I just listed are new feelings about how their own lives are going.”
Acting like ‘spoiled teenagers’
The Republican president and Biden, his Democratic rival, have two main tasks: to motivate supporters to cast ballots and to win over the dwindling pocket of undecided voters.
Yes, there are still hundreds of thousands of Americans unsure whom they’ll support – or even if they’re going to vote. Given how narrowly Trump won four years ago in battleground states, those on-the-fence voters are likely to decide who sits in the White House next year.
Democrat Cari Mercer, 42, a professional photographer who lives in Mechanicsburg, a small borough of fewer than 9,000 in central Pennsylvania, voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton four years ago. She said she won’t vote for Trump this year, but the retired Air Force veteran isn’t sure if she’ll pull the lever for Biden.
“The problem that I’m having is that I feel like both parties right now are being spoiled teenagers,” Mercer said. “And it’s very hard for me to vote with a conscience for either side when it doesn’t feel like they’re working for the people.”
Polls show Biden maintaining a roughly 7-point lead nationally over Trump, according to the Real Clear Politics average. But the lead has narrowed, even more so in the swing states including Pennsylvania that are expected to decide the presidency. That means both campaigns have a lot riding on voters like Mercer who have yet to make up their minds.
Like several undecided voters USA TODAY interviewed, Mercer said she wants to see the upcoming debates – three presidential and one vice presidential – before making up her mind.
Republican Vincent Ballantoni, 58, lives in Clearwater, Florida, and voted for Obama in 2012. But he went for Trump four years ago because he viewed the real estate mogul as someone who represented “new blood” and who would fight for Americans still struggling economically.
“I figured, ‘Oh he’ll come in and shake it up a little bit and turn the world upside down’ because if you watch ‘The Apprentice’ that’s what he has the tendency to do,” Ballantoni said. “He doesn’t take slack from anybody. Unfortunately, I wish he’d get off Twitter.”
After four years of Trump’s presidency, Ballantoni said he remains undecided about this election and is torn between his distaste for the president’s bombastic style and anxiety about the rising voices on the Democratic side, such as liberal firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
“I think Biden has his heart is in the right spot but he’s too soft and is going to get pushed,” he said. “I think Trump has his heart in the right spot, but he needs to realize he needs to tone down this stuff and don’t just go off to the right and spout off stuff that isn’t true.”
Annie Thieman, 36, an independent from the Pittsburgh suburb of South Fayette, is also uncertain. The catering manager backed Trump in 2016, after voting for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
She likes Trump’s policies on the economy, prescription drug pricing and tax cuts but is bothered by the president’s personality and penchant for diving into unnecessary fights.
Thieman calls the president “arrogant,” “conceited,” and “selfish” but Biden’s nearly 50 years in public office has her worried he might not be willing to embrace a new approach to tackle the country’s long-term problems. Most of all, she can’t stand the bickering.
“I’m frustrated that we’re not getting true answers,” Thieman said. “As a voter, I pride myself on trying to make educated decisions as much as I can. And I can’t with good conscience say that I have an educated enough decision to vote either way. You constantly have to filter through the fighting to hear what they’re actually trying to say.”
‘Here we go again’
“Lesser of two evils” is a phrase used by many voters, especially the shrinking band of undecided ones.
Democrat Heather Maluke, 41, a cleaner from Mogadore, Ohio, near Akron supported progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the primary. Now, she’s holding her nose – again.
Trump makes her “angry” whereas Biden comes off as “creepy,” she said. In 2016, she wrote in Sanders’ name because neither Trump nor Clinton inspired her. She’s considering doing that again.
“Here we go again. So this time, I’m going to pencil in Mickey Mouse or something,” Maluke said with a chuckle.
Just 8% of registered voters agreed with the statement that their choice for president this fall will be difficult “because either one would make a good president,” according to an August poll by the Pew Research Center.
That is the lowest response to that question the organization has received since it first began asking back in 2000. About 11% said the same thing during the matchup between Clinton and Trump, which polls identified as the two most unpopular presidential nominees in history.
And voters have fewer legitimate choices this time compared to four years ago.
Former GOP New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson’s run as a libertarian and physician Jill Stein’s bid under the Green Party banner in 2016 gave reluctant voters an alternative. Johnson, for instance, polled as high as 10% before finishing Election Day with nearly 4.5 million votes, or about 3.3% of the national vote, the best showing for a third-party candidate since Ross Perot in 1996.
Hip-hop mogul Kanye West has applied to be on several ballots this year but does not qualify for enough state ballots to receive the needed 270 electoral votes. Libertarians and Greens have nominated candidates as well but neither is well known or have registered much in polling.
Voter motivation 101
Persuading a voter to support you is one step. Convincing them to actually cast a ballot – in person or by mail – remains a challenge in a country where about 61% of the voting-age population turns out to vote in a typical election without a pandemic.
Melissa Michelson, a political scientist at Menlo College and co-author of the 2012 book, “Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate Through Get-out-the-Vote Campaigns,” said undecided voters often respond to a more subtle or specific type of messaging on topics they care about.
She said research shows political campaigns have learned to approach those voters by emphasizing an issue or group they care about such as gun rights or immigration.
“You might think of yourself as undecided, but maybe you’re very concerned about health care and then they’re going to reach out to you with information on where the candidates stand on the health care,” Michelson said. “They want to guide you toward deciding for yourself that you support one or the other candidates based on what they’ve done on that issue.”
Michelson said undecided voters are especially resistant to campaign messaging that feels like persuasion. She said that’s why the parties and presidential campaigns have learned to come at those voters sideways.
“People are very resistant at being told what to think or what to do, and they don’t like to feel like they’re being used,” she said. “But they do like to express their support for their community or for people they feel an attachment with.”
Ballantoni said one thing he worries about besides the coronavirus and its impact on the economy, is how Trump’s behavior is changing U.S. institutions.
Trump “talks too much from the hip sometimes,” he said. “And can we live another four years with that?”
But Thau, the swing voter analyst, said many Trump voters who don’t always like his rhetoric are sticking by him because they believe he will fight for them.
“You buy a Rottweiler for a reason. And even though it snaps a lot and might take your hand off if you’re not careful, it’s defending your domain,” he said. “They would prefer that Trump didn’t tweet so much. I hear endlessly they don’t like the way Trump comports himself. But they wanted a fighter and they got a fighter.”
Fewer people left to persuade
Four years ago, Trump ran as an outsider vowing to shake up Washington and push his “America First” agenda on trade and immigration.
The message resonated strongly with white working-class voters. And many voters – including several million Obama voters – disliked Clinton.
USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll:More Americans predict Trump will win the presidential debates than Biden
Political analysts predict that the number of voters unable to make up their minds until the last minute will be smaller in 2020 than four years ago. In 2016, the historic unpopularity of Trump and Clinton had many hemming and hawing up to the end. Ultimately, that group swung heavily for Trump.
In a Monmouth University poll in early September, 81% of voters nationally said they had made a choice in the presidential race and were certain about it. Another 11% have picked a candidate but could still change their mind. And 8% were undecided.
Four years ago in late August, the survey found that 66% were sure about who they were backing, 16% were leaning toward a candidate but not locked in, and 18% were undecided.
Doubting the results
There’s also widespread anxiety about whether to trust the election results.
A Monmouth University poll released Thursday found that about 4 in 10 voters are not confident that the election will be conducted “fairly and accurately.”
The poll also finds that most voters – 52% – thought the Trump campaign would try to cheat if necessary to win in November while 39% say the same about the Biden campaign.
Trump’s frequent but unsubstantiated claim that mail-in voting is riddled with fraud and can’t be trusted has fed into voter concerns.
“We have voters on both sides who are becoming more inclined to distrust a result they won’t agree with,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Meanwhile, undecided swing-state voters like Ballantoni from Florida and Thieman from Pennsylvania hope the debates will quell the anxiety of the election a bit and offer some guidance.
“Hopefully, we’ll hear more about what they actually plan on doing,” she said. “And less about how much they hate each other.”