Can Undecideds Help Trump Win the Election?

Can Undecideds Help Trump Win the Election?
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Going into September, Hillary Clinton has a sizable advantage over Donald Trump: five percentage points in the RealClearPolitics’ polling average. The Upshot, the New York Times’ polling blog, gives Clinton a 90 percent chance of winning the presidency, while British Sky Bet gives Clinton four times as good a chance as Trump.

Contemporary wisdom holds that by late August and early September there are too few undecided voters to turn Trump’s disadvantage around. UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck tracked 44,000 undecided voters in 2012 and concluded that they represented less than 4 percent of the U.S. electorate. “Saturday Night Live” has even done skits making fun of the notion of these voters.

Given all this, is it over? A Clinton win for sure? Well, hold on a moment—let’s dig a little deeper.

This month, YouGov polled 1,500 Americans in regard to the election, with special emphasis on undecided and won’t-participate voters, and we discovered a surprisingly high number of voters who say they are undecided or won’t vote.

When asked how they intended to vote, 14 percent said they weren’t sure—and another 14 percent said they would not vote. Breaking this down by party shows that among Democrats, 10 percent said they weren’t sure while 9 percent said they wouldn’t vote, with 6 percent voting for third party candidates. Republicans showed 8 percent voting for third party candidates, 12 percent not sure, and 5 percent saying they would not vote. Independents were 16 percent not sure, 18 percent will not vote, and 14 percent will vote for third parties.

These numbers are historically high. In 2012, third party candidates were at less than 2 percent, while today they are at 8. Undecided voters and professed non-voters are at 29 percent, seven times higher than in 2012. If these people were to break one way or the other before Election Day, they could reverse Clinton’s lead and put Trump in the White House.

In an attempt to decide which way these voters would go, we followed up the vote-intention question with this one: “Is there any chance you would vote for Donald Trump?” and, in a separate question, “Is there any chance you would vote for Hillary Clinton?”

Voters who stated an intention to vote for a candidate were committed; of those saying they intended to vote for Hillary Clinton, only 6 percent said that they were still considering Donald Trump, while only 4 percent of Trump intenders were considering Clinton. This makes sense in the current political environment, especially considering each candidate’s deeply personal attacks on the other. Decided voters of both parties, and Independents who have declared themselves, are simply unlikely to reconsider their votes for Trump and Clinton.

But what about those who say they are voting for a third party, those committed not to vote, and those who are undecided? Can Trump gain among these cohorts? We specifically asked these voters, over one-third of the respondents, “If you had to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who would you rather have as president?” The overall results were Hillary Clinton 32 percent, Donald Trump 28 percent, with 40 percent not sure.

Respondents who said they are voting for a third party favored Clinton over Trump by a narrow margin of 31 percent to 29 percent and voters who are undecided narrowly go for Clinton, 31 percent to 30 percent, while non-voters, if forced, choose Clinton, 33 percent to 27 percent.  The 40 percent who still do not choose to vote or don’t have a preference represent some 10 percent of the potential electorate. When asked whether they liked Clinton or Trump “even a little,” only 22 answered affirmatively for Clinton and 19 percent for Trump.

When asked to name what they didn’t like about the candidates, the primary criticisms of Clinton were that she’s untrustworthy and a liar. For Trump the descriptions included “narcissistic” and “a bully.”

Among the respondents whose impressions were not as negative, 40 percent said they liked Clinton “somewhat” and 35 percent said they liked Trump “somewhat.”

In summary, among respondents who are undecided, say they won’t vote, or are voting for third party candidates, Hillary Clinton is doing slightly better than Donald Trump. Some 10 percent of Americans refuse to choose between them and are characterized by their extreme dislike of both candidates.

So while technically “up for grabs,” they do not seem likely to change their views of the candidates. In other words, although there are enough voters for Donald Trump to make up the ground in the last 10 weeks of this campaign, there may not be enough goodwill toward him to launch such a tide.

Douglas Rivers is chief scientist at YouGov, a professor of political science at Stanford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. 

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