How Clinton and Trump can win undecided voters
As hard as it may be for most of us to believe, after putting up with the ads and sound bites of the presidential race for more than a year, polls show almost 10 percent of voters still haven’t made up their minds.
That’s typical. I used to make fun of such voters. I thought they were pathologically indecisive, like people in a supermarket checkout line who go into paralysis when asked to choose paper or plastic.
But give them some respect. With national polls and some crucial battleground states tightening up into a virtual dead heat, the holdouts deserve new respect. There are more than enough of them to decide whether Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump will be our next president.
To get more insight into their frame of mind, I spent an evening with a roomful of undecided voters on the other side of a two-way mirror from me and about a dozen other journalists.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz recently organized the three-hour session for AARP in Alexandria, a pearl on the Potomac River in the important battleground state of Virginia.
The group consisted of 30 people, including 11 women by my count, a range of age brackets and a sprinkling of black, Hispanic and Asian-Americans. Ten said they voted for President Barack Obama twice, 15 voted against him twice, four said they had voted for him once.
The latter included at least one of the black men. He said he voted for Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008. That surprised me for a moment. Blacks who voted against Obama even once — and admit it —are almost as rare as unicorns. But getting past our stereotypes to find out how voters really feel is why we turn to focus groups.
This group of voters was fed up and they let us know it. They didn’t like either major party’s nominee.
When Luntz asked for one-word descriptions of Clinton, participants called out responses like “deceitful,” “slimy,” “liar,” “untrustworthy,” and “corruption.” Trump was described just grumpily as “crazy,” “unstable,” “unbalanced,” “arrogant,” a “bigot,” a “buffoon,” and “megalomaniac.”
A few said without enthusiasm that they might consider an alternative party’s candidate like Libertarian Gary Johnson or the Green Party’s Jill Stein, although neither was catching fire with this group.
The group was shown an array of attack ads and feel-good ads for both candidates and asked to rate each one, moment-to-moment with hand-held dials. A pattern emerged: The dial results didn’t move up very much.
They liked an ad in which Clinton promised to work with Republicans. But they also liked an anti-Clinton ad that featured a retired naval officer’s challenging question to Clinton about her emails and national security at a recent NBC forum.
“It’s on the spot,” one focus-group participant said of the ad. “It’s not staged. There’s no performance.”
At one point near the end, Luntz left the room briefly to talk to journalists in the observation room. “We have now reached the point,” he said, “when even the standard sound bites do not work.”
They’ve heard it all before, over and over again, Luntz said. The ad with the naval officer connected because it featured a real person earnestly asking a real question, not a professional announcer.
Judging by Luntz’s group, undecided voters are turned off by the fakery, attack ads, and attack sound bites. They’re looking for solutions. Trump’s ads offered more diagnoses than prescriptions. Clinton offered proposals but without a unifying or inspiring theme. For both, positive messages were welcomed more than negative ones — but were also more rare.
For both candidates, Luntz suggested, the election may well come down to who Americans would rather wake up to as their next president on the morning after Election Day. If so, Clinton’s best hope may be that undecided voters choose the flawed candidate whom they know over the flawed newcomer that they don’t.
Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.