John Holland, 74, is proud to call himself a political independent, and he has always made a point of voting for the candidate he prefers, not a party to which he had sworn allegiance. In mid-October he told a New York Times/Siena College poll he wasn’t yet won over by either President Trump or Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Ultimately, Mr. Holland, a retired education-technology professional in Minnesota, did choose, and like many late-deciding voters, he said his choice emerged “from a values point of view.”
“I said, ‘Would I want President Trump to be the grandfather of any one of my grandchildren?’ And the answer was no,” he said this week, explaining that he had donned a mask and walked to an early polling site to cast a ballot for Mr. Biden.
Four years ago, voters like Mr. Holland — leery of both major-party candidates, undecided until the 11th hour and guided by their gut more than by policy — decided the election. This year, polling shows far fewer undecided voters remain, but in close battleground states they could still be pivotal.
And while voters who were negative on both major candidates in 2016 broke big for Mr. Trump as the “lesser of two evils,” particularly in the Midwest, they appear generally disinclined to do so again.
Among the most likely people to remain unconvinced of either major candidate are Latinos, Asian-Americans, young people and those with a history of voting for a third-party candidate. None of those groups have shown much warmth toward Mr. Trump over the past four years — but each of them has also given Mr. Biden trouble, from the primary campaign through today.
Combining data from Times/Siena polls of battlegrounds and the nation going back months, undecideds leaning toward Mr. Biden outweighed those leaning toward Mr. Trump, though not by an overwhelming margin. Perhaps more meaningfully, Mr. Biden had a slight advantage among voters who had not expressed a favorable view of either candidate.
The largest share of those voters — a little more than half — hadn’t settled on one to support, meaning there was room for movement.
The universe of such voters is small, but in states like Georgia or North Carolina, where the race could come down to one or two percentage points, “those volatile voters could make the difference,” said Patrick Murray, the director of polling at Monmouth University.
In a Times/Siena poll of the country released last week, 9 percent of likely voters said they were still torn or they planned to support a third-party candidate. When including voters who said they were supporting Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump but only when pushed, that climbed to 13 percent.
Mr. Murray prefers the term “volatile voters,” rather than undecided. In this group he includes those expressing no vote preference, those choosing a third-party candidate and those who lean toward Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden but could still change their minds.
When Mr. Trump faced Hillary Clinton four years ago, Mr. Murray said, around 20 percent of likely voters fell into the volatile category. This year, it has been consistently closer to half that share, and it is dropping.
Those who remain also tend to be more certain now than they were four years ago that they don’t like Mr. Trump: 54 percent of volatile voters in the most recent national Times/Siena poll expressed an unfavorable opinion of him, compared with just 28 percent favorable.
“The Trump unfavorables are basically etched in stone,” Mr. Murray said. “You’d need something ground-shaking about Biden to come out” for voters holding a negative view of Mr. Trump to vote for him.
Those without strong political views
Voters who remain ambivalent about their choices tend not to be particularly motivated by political issues, and they often don’t hold the sort of ideological convictions that would place either candidate off-limits.
The Democratic nominee still has work to do to bring anti-Trump undecideds into his camp; Mr. Biden was seen unfavorably by 47 percent of volatile voters in that Times/Siena poll.
In 2016, Mrs. Clinton’s loss was owed to voters who stayed home as much as to those who cast ballots against her. This lowered the sheer number of votes Mr. Trump needed to carry a closely contested state.
He won Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida without majority support in any of them, nudged across the finish line by last-minute deciders.
As Mr. Biden edges above 50-percent support in various national and swing-state polls, the chances of Mr. Trump winning in a similar fashion this year have diminished.
But Republicans are heartened by their success in some key states at driving up registration among target voters, particularly white people without college degrees, feeding their hopes that an Election Day surge in a state like Pennsylvania might be enough to turn back Mr. Biden’s advantage among early voters. That would be especially true if Republicans can keep enough negative-on-both voters away from the polls.
Steven Cameron and his wife, Amy, live just outside San Antonio in a state that could flip blue for the first time since 1976. Speaking by phone this week, the couple said they were still unsure of whom to support, mostly because they didn’t feel they could trust either Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump to tell the truth.
“I would rather a person tell me that they don’t know the answer than to say something that’s not true,” said Mr. Cameron, 58, who confessed that he and his wife were feeling overwhelmed and dispirited by all the campaign news.
Who tends to be undecided?
One core Democratic group that tends to be more frequently undecided is Latino voters, a demographic that Mr. Biden has struggled with all year. In all Times/Siena general election surveys this year through mid-October, close to a quarter of Hispanic respondents fell into the volatile-voter category. This was partly contributing to the weakness of Mr. Biden’s lead among Latino voters compared with Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 margins.
This year, Mr. Trump’s base of support has grown a little bit larger and much more reliable than it was four years ago — but so has his opposition. The president has remained widely disliked for four years, and national polls have tended to show him unable to match the 46 percent support he garnered nationwide in 2016, allowing him to pull off an Electoral College win.
While voters know where they stand on Mr. Trump, views of Mr. Biden have been more slippery. His favorability ratings have ticked up markedly, especially among young voters and liberals, but he still shows vulnerability among some key demographics, particularly Latinos.
Volatile voters generally don’t like either candidate, but they are more likely to say they would rather see Mr. Biden handling the coronavirus pandemic than Mr. Trump — in line with trends among the entire electorate. And 56 percent of these voters expected the pandemic to grow worse before it got better, while just 26 percent said they thought the worst was behind us, according to the latest Times/Siena poll. Sixty-three percent said they were worried that they or a family member might catch the virus, higher than the share among Trump supporters, but lower than for Biden supporters.
While Biden supporters tended to say that their financial situation has grown worse during the pandemic, Trump supporters actually said the opposite: 55 percent of them attested that their finances had grown better over the past eight months. For those not supporting either candidate, half said the pandemic had not made a difference to their finances either way, compared with only about one in three among major-candidate supporters. Fewer than one in five ambivalent voters said it had made a big impact.
Some don’t see the virus and politics being related. “It’s a health issue, and it’s something that our country has to deal with, I agree with that, but I’d rather hear about what the candidates are going to do for our country,” Mr. Cameron, a carpenter, said. “So I don’t think that that should be an election issue.”
The Camerons agreed that they often think of things in apolitical terms, and they don’t lean strongly toward either party. But with Texas and its 38 electoral votes in play this year, they fully intend to exercise their “freedom of choice” when Election Day comes, said Ms. Cameron, an office administrator.
“I feel that we have to pick somebody to run the country,” her husband added. “So we’re going to pick the one from our heart that we think would do the best job, even though we’re not 100 percent behind either.”