As the presidential campaign moves into its final stretch, about 7 percent of voters (depending on which poll you read) say they’re still undecided between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — more than enough to swing the election either way.
After all the noise and drama of the last few months, what are these people waiting for?
They don’t much like either of the candidates. They’re struggling to decide which is the lesser of two evils. And they’re not finding it an easy choice.
That’s the lesson that bubbled up from a recent discussion with swing voters in Wisconsin conducted by pollster Peter D. Hart.
Hart convened a dozen swing voters, people who have voted for both Democrats and Republicans, in a Milwaukee suburb a few weeks ago. The pollster conducts these “focus groups” regularly as part of a project for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Four of the 12 said they leaned toward Trump. Four said they leaned toward Clinton. Four said they were completely undecided. Almost all said they were still open to persuasion by both candidates.
All said they’d been disappointed by the campaign; they said they wanted to hear about issues, not “mudslinging.” Asked to describe the contest with a smell, their answers included “garbage,” “manure,” “skunk” — and “skunk fart.” But when asked what more they wanted to learn about each candidate, their questions were mostly about character: What are they like behind closed doors? Can we trust them with life-or-death decisions?
Both candidates have serious flaws, said Sheri LaValley, a 51-year-old compliance analyst who voted for President Obama.
“Hillary with her emails, I just don’t trust her. Trump, the way he acts. Every day you turn on the TV, and I just shake my head,” she said.
She said she was leaning toward Trump — with a condition: “I think he would be an awesome candidate if he could get his personality under control.”
Several said they found the prospect of Trump as commander in chief worrisome. “He’s just such a wild cannon,” said Barbara Kass, 62, a retired airline employee who is completely undecided.
“I’d like to see Trump 2.0,” said David Locher, 34, a supervisor for the Milwaukee rapid transit system, also undecided. “If Trump doesn’t show something more coherent … I probably could go for Hillary, just for fear of things becoming a mess worldwide.”
Asked to describe the Republican nominee as a member of their family, the most popular title was “crazy uncle,” and, in one case, “drunk uncle.”
Clinton has a different problem — but one that appears just as serious.
Although most of the swing voters gave the Democratic nominee her high marks for experience and competence, they also described her as chilly, distant, untrustworthy and dishonest.
“She’s a smart woman with a lot of experience but … you can’t trust her,” said Beth Gramling, 50, a payroll analyst.
What did she mean by trust? “Integrity,” she said. “I don’t think she has that. And it’s a shame.”
Nevertheless, Gramling said, she was leaning toward Clinton.
It was clear that the controversy over Clinton’s private email system isn’t solely a media fixation; it’s resonated among ordinary voters, too. Eight of the 12 voters said they were unhappy about Clinton’s insistence that her emails did not contain classified material.
“It’s a lie,” said Dara Schneider, 47, a personnel recruiter.
Asked to describe the Democratic nominee as a member of their family, the most frequent choice was “stepmother” — a loveless relationship.
When Hart asked how the voters would finally make up their minds, he was met with mostly blank looks. “It’s going to have to be the debates,” said Locher.
What can Trump do to win their votes? “Tone it down,” said Schneider. Trump’s been getting that advice from his aides, but it’s not clear he’s taking it.
What can Clinton do? “Take down the mask and show she’s human,” said Gramling.
It’s obviously not easy to rebuild trust amid the noise of a campaign, but these voters said they were willing to give the candidate another chance if she makes an effort to be “more transparent” (their words) and to connect with ordinary people.
“A lot of voters know they do not want Donald Trump as president, but they need to know that they can live with Hillary Clinton for the next four years,” Hart wrote in a summary of the session for reporters. “The hurdle they face is to find reassurance that they can trust her and that she will identify with them and their day-to-day challenges.”
As the polls narrow, there’s still room for Trump to win — and room, as well, for Clinton to lose.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may email him at [email protected].