There are fewer undecided voters in 2020 than there were in 2016. It doesn’t mean they can’t make a difference.
Emily Stewart | October 23, 2020
Ruth, a middle-aged software trainer in Florida, has voted Republican her entire life — but the 2020 election has her tied up in knots. Over the past four years, her dislike for Donald Trump on a personal level has become pretty strong. “I just think as a human being, he’s not a good person,” Ruth tells me, asking me not to quote some of the tougher language she uses to refer to the president.
In February, she changed her registration to the Democratic Party, initially liking Rep. Tulsi Gabbard before turning to Sen. Amy Klobuchar in the party’s presidential primary. But now, she’s not sure about Joe Biden. “I know how important Florida is, and I really feel a heavy burden that my vote is really important,” Ruth, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons, said. “I think I’ve always wanted to vote, but this feels extra-heavy this time.”
For a lot of people, the idea of being an undecided voter is almost unfathomable. How could someone be unsure, given the stakes of the election and how late it is in the game? But undecided voters exist, and they can matter. For example, voters in Wisconsin who decided in the last week of the 2016 election broke for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 59 percent to 30 percent, according to one exit poll, handing him 10 pivotal Electoral College votes.
In short, undecided voters “are important where elections are close,” said Michael Frias, the CEO of Catalist, a Democratic data firm.
Not all undecided voters, however, are like Ruth. Yes, sometimes people have doubts about who to vote for; other times they’re not sure whether they want to vote at all. Some barely think about politics, while others aren’t really as undecided as they say.
“These undecided voters are like hunting for unicorns. You can find them, but you don’t know if they’re actually partisan or not,” Frias added.
“The issue is that it’s not always clear what these people are undecided about, and it’s not always clear that they’re going to vote. It’s not necessarily always clear that anything in a campaign could really sway them,” said Yanna Krupnikov, associate professor of political science at Stony Brook University.
I spoke with nearly a dozen voters who are undecided (or have reported themselves as such to pollsters) in the 2020 presidential election about what they’re thinking, what their hang-ups are, and what they’re paying attention to. I also talked to experts about how undecided voters fit into the political landscape, in both elections in general and this one in particular.
William, a 27-year-old father of two in Missouri, said he wants Biden to win in November, but he’s just not sure he wants to actually vote for him, especially in a state that’s reliably Republican. He preferred Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I can’t tell you a single one of [Biden’s] policy agendas other than he’s not going to say mean things on Twitter,” William said.
Some of the voters I talked to were paying a decent amount of attention to politics, but many others weren’t — it just wasn’t a big factor in their everyday lives. And some had told pollsters they weren’t sure who they were voting for, but then in follow-up conversations acknowledged that wasn’t true: Two women said they were decided for Trump.
As for Ruth, she’s given herself a “homework assignment” in the days ahead of the election to read the platforms of both parties to try to decide. “I’m going to try to see if I can remove the personalities from the decision and vote for the platform,” she said.
We’re looking at a lot less indecision this year than last time around
First things first: The number of undecided voters varies from election to election, and itlooks like there are fewer undecided voters in 2020 than in 2016.
“People probably have a better understanding of their options this time,” said John Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
According to an analysis of undecided voters by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver in the aftermath of the 2016 election, about 13 percent of voters on Election Day 2016 were undecided or had planned to vote for third-party candidates; early in the campaign season, that number was as high as 20 percent. That percentage is unusually large: In 2012, about 4 percent of voters were undecided between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney by the time voting came around.
The 2020 election is looking more like 2012 than 2016: According to the polls, the vast majority of voters say they’ve made up their minds and won’t change their decision.
“That reduces the potential for a big swing toward one candidate toward the end, or late volatility,” said Dave Wasserman, House editor at the Cook Political Report.
Voters from both parties are generally more unified this year. A lot of the never-Trumpers have fallen in line, and Biden is more popular among Democrats in 2020 compared to Clinton in 2016.
“I GET BOTHERED BY PEOPLE WHO SAY, JUST VOTE FOR JOE BIDEN BECAUSE WE NEED TO GET TRUMP OUT OF HERE”
This year, the undecided skew young and skew Hispanic, Wasserman said, and part of Trump’s campaigning — for example, running ads about Biden and the 1994 crime law — has been an effort to dissuade those voters from voting at all. The goal is to convince them there’s no real difference between the candidates.
Coleman said “the haters” — voters who have an unfavorable opinion of both candidates — are an important segment of potentially undecided voters. In 2016, that group broke for Trump. This time around, they’re leaning Biden. “It’s going to be more of a referendum on the president, and I think Biden can do a better job of consolidating the anti-Trump vote,” Coleman added.
Sam Evans, a 26-year Air Force veteran from Oregon, falls into “the haters” category. He deeply dislikes Trump but also said he’s “disgusted” by Democrats and doesn’t feel they fight hard enough for the issues he cares about. “I would have so much respect for the party if they would just fight in unison like the Republicans do,” Evans said. He wants Biden to win, but he’s doesn’t know if he’ll cast a vote for him: “I just don’t feel like he’s earned my vote. And I would never vote for Trump in a million years.”
It’s worth noting the difference between being undecided at the top of the ticket and being undecided in down-ballot races. As a general rule, indecision opens up a lot more as you get into congressional races, local races, and ballot measures.
“As you go down the ballot, where there’s less information and there’s more room for ambiguity, and people don’t have all the information and you don’t have the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on both sides animating each candidate and issue campaign, you do run into undecided voters,” Frias said.
Bill Fleming, a 27-year-old from Atlanta, said he’s voting third-party in the presidential race because he doesn’t believe there’s much of a difference between Trump and Biden in terms of how they’d govern. But he’s not sure where he’s casting his vote in the Georgia Senate races, which could easily require a runoff — and potentially two — in January.
Undecided voters are often late deciders — and we won’t know how much they mattered until after the election
For many people, they decided long ago who they’re voting for this election cycle. But that’s not the case for everyone — there’s a subset of voters still trying to choose between the candidates, or just weighing whether to vote at all.
That’s the case for Kami, 28, from Texas. Though she doesn’t pay close attention to politics, she does care about health care and leans toward Biden — but that could change. “I kind of have a feeling Trump kind of has something up his sleeve,” Kami said.
In 2016, Trump won big among voters who decided late in the game. Will that happen again this time? It’s unlikely, but anything is possible: “Undecideds break for change, and now Biden is the candidate of change,” Wasserman said.
But as was the case four years ago, we won’t really know how much undecided voters did or didn’t matter until the election is over. A lot of early voting is happening this year, which could limit a last-minute shift, but not eliminate it.
“We don’t yet know how close the election’s going to be. To say that [undecided voters] are not going to matter, we’d have to know how exactly they’re distributed across states,” Stony Brook University’s Krupnikov said.
When it comes down to it, there is much that pollsters and the media don’t know about undecided voters, who are by no means a monolithic group. Sometimes voters will tell someone conducting a survey that they haven’t made up their minds because they either feel like the decision is private, they don’t want to have to talk too much, or they want to talk about both candidates.
Kim Roberts, a 54-year-old voter from Florida, told pollsters she was undecided. When I called to follow up with her, she initially said she was leaning toward Trump, but after a while made it clear there wasn’t really a question in her mind. “I don’t believe that Joe Biden is running by himself. He’s not running alone,” Roberts said. She voted Democrat in all presidential elections before 2016, when she voted for Trump, and said this year she’s “probably going to circle the red bubble in” — in other words, vote straight Republican.
It’s a phenomenon often observed among independents: Just because people aren’t registered for a political party doesn’t mean they’re not partisan.
Being an undecided voter doesn’t mean the person will actually vote, either. Kami, from Texas, said she believes she’s going to vote in 2020 and “thinks” she’s registered. She didn’t vote in 2016 and doesn’t think she ever has. “I didn’t really think it was a big deal,” she said.
“There’s no good in demeaning or belittling anyone in the political process”
There’s always disagreement in politics over what campaigns should focus on and whether they should prioritize turning out their base versus persuading other voters to support them. Some experts say parties should focus on energizing their supporters, while others say they should also look at swing voters and people they might be able to convince.
In 2019, Vox’s Matt Yglesias delved into how that argument was playing out on the left:
“The truth … is while mobilization is unquestionably important to winning elections, so is flipping swing voters. Activists who want to push Democrats to the left while still winning can do so by identifying popular progressive ideas to run on. But the notion that there’s some mobilization strategy that will eliminate the need to cater to the median voter is a fantasy.”
In other words, both turnout and persuasion may be crucial.
How can candidates and campaigns appeal to undecided people, if they can be appealed to at all? There aren’t a ton of easy answers. Many of the voters I spoke with said the anti-Trump message was loud and clear, but they felt like they weren’t really hearing a positive case for Biden — a sentiment backed up by a recent study that found specific pro-Biden messages were more effective in changing minds.
That was the case for Dwight Flakes, a 40-year-old Black man from Cleveland who said the Biden campaign’s overtures to Black voters felt superficial. “I get bothered by people who say, just vote for Joe Biden because we need to get Trump out of here,” he said. “Everybody is forgetting the type of stuff that got Trump into office in the first place. They’re forgetting stuff that’s happening on the ground.”
Flakes told me he thinks Trump talks like an “idiot” but that he isn’t going to vote for Biden just to oppose the president. “Joe Biden’s call is that he can work with people on the other side. When is he going to understand that they don’t give two shits about working with Joe Biden?” Flakes said.
He believes he could be persuaded to vote for Biden, though whether that’s a significant possibility is hard to say. He said he’s never voted at the top of the ticket.
For people who are tuned into politics and hyped up about the 2020 election, it’s easy to develop some animosity toward undecided voters — some people even claim they don’t exist, or they’re all lying for attention. And to some extent, those types of sentiments are understandable.
“I think that for people for whom the stakes are really high and who care about politics a lot, the level of anger with people who seem checked out is really natural,” Krupnikov said. “I think that for other people, life might be so difficult that they can’t follow politics.”
And sometimes, people do become overwhelmed by it, or just feel like whatever they do won’t make a difference. In a recent Vice News/Ipsos poll of voters ages 18 to 30, nearly three-quarters of respondents said they believe American democracy is “broken,” and two-thirds said political parties and politicians “don’t care about people like them.” Over 80 percent said they were still likely to vote, but it’s the type of sentiment that’s worth paying attention to, perhaps especially if you’re the type of person who cares about politics deeply.
“If someone’s worldview and set of experiences has led them to the place where they really think the system is broken and they really don’t see the difference, that also says something,” Frias said. “There’s no good in demeaning or belittling anyone in the political process.”
You never know what could ultimately make up someone’s mind, either. When I started reporting for this story, I came across Sarah, a Wisconsin woman in her 30s who had her ballot at home but wasn’t sure who to vote for. By the time I got her on the phone, she had decided and mailed it in. She had seen a Facebook post that helped her make up her mind, which read something like this: “A vote is not a valentine, you aren’t confessing your love for the candidate. It’s a chess move for the world you want to live in.”
She wouldn’t say which candidate she picked.