The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a year of political anger, undecided voters inspire a special kind of scorn

in 2016, Ken Bone (red sweater) briefly became a sensation. Feelings toward undecided voters have cooled since then. (Jim Bourg/AFP/Getty Images)
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The humorist David Sedaris, considering the psychology of the undecided voter, once envisioned a scenario on an airplane. A flight attendant comes through the cabin offering passengers a choice of two meals: chicken, or a “platter of s--- with bits of broken glass in it.”

“To be undecided in this election,” he wrote, “is to pause​ for a moment and then ask how the chick​en is cooked.”

Sedaris was writing about the choice between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008 — a bitter election cycle that looks impossibly serene in retrospect. This year, many people see the choice as something like chicken (boiled, unseasoned) vs. flying the plane into a mountainside.

How could anyone not be able to make up their mind between that guy and that guy?

Yes, they are both elderly White men. But President Trump and Joe Biden have pitched voters on very different visions of America — different ideas about its history and its future, about justice and mercy, about the truth and how one figures it out, about how a president (or, really, a person) should behave.

Biden has been on Washington’s main stage for nearly half a century, and Trump’s lack of filter over the past five years has left little doubt about who he is and where he stands. What’s left to decide?

The Fix’s Natalie Jennings analyzes the separate town halls held by President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Oct. 15. (Video: The Washington Post)

“To be undecided in 2020, to me, you literally would have to be on an ice floe,” says Tom Nichols, a national security professor and senior adviser for the Lincoln Project. “If you’re just coming back from an Antarctic research station, I would understand.”

Undecided voters are the butt of jokes. But they also tend to be venerated — by media, by campaigns — as freethinkers, tough customers, keepers of a rarefied common sense that exists above the partisan tug-of-war. They are granted special audiences with candidates, who must persuade them personally while other Undecideds look on. They are, Nichols says, “the prized unicorn in the political menagerie.”

In 2020, they’re the “mentally impaired unicorns,” Stephen Colbert said on a recent episode of “The Late Show.”

With so much on the line, the Undecideds have become more mystifying — and frustrating — than ever.

Nobody believes they are real.

Oh, and everyone hates them.

"It's like you just want to shake them. What's wrong with you? Do you not see what's happening here?" says Trish Collins, a 54-year-old nurse and Biden voter from Unionville, Conn. "The size of the rock that you have to be living under to not know what's going on in this country right now. I mean, there are no rocks that big."

Brandon Straka, a Trump supporter and founder of #WalkAway, a group aimed at getting Democrats to vote Trump, attributes undecided voters’ ambivalence to the mainstream media. “If people actually knew the truth, there would be no question,” he says.

Tim Michaels, 50, a consultant in Portland, Ore., blames it on stubbornness — particularly among Bernie Sanders supporters who refuse to commit to Biden. “They’re trying to pretend as though they’re deliberative rather than idiots,” Michaels says.

Eden Dranger is a 33-year-old television writer and Biden voter in Los Angeles. “I feel that undecided voters are out of touch with what is at stake,” she says. She recently tweeted: “If you ever feel stupid, just remember that there’s still undecided voters.”

Was it always this way?

Not necessarily. You might recall Ken Bone, a mustached man in a red Izod sweater. The undecided Bone appeared at a town hall debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, asking a question about energy policy, and charmed viewers with his gentle, genial presence. He became an unlikely folk hero. People wrote him songs and dressed as him for Halloween. (One company put together a “Sexy Ken Bone” costume.) Bobby Moynihan played him on “Saturday Night Live.”

After Bone reemerged recently in a Newsweek article (undecided, once again!), Ryan Zaharako, a 42-year-old marketing copywriter and Biden supporter in Phoenix, tweeted that Bone and other undecideds are “a special kind of moron.” It got more than 11,000 likes. Zaharako told The Washington Post he feels a little bad about the mean tweet, but given the life-or-death stakes he sees in this election for many people — especially people of color and immigrants — he thinks a harsh tone is justified.

Frank Luntz thinks undecided voters are just convenient scapegoats, especially for nervous liberals looking for someplace to put their overflowing vitriol toward the president. Luntz, a Republican political consultant, knows the Undecideds better than anyone. He runs focus groups with undecided voters, soliciting their reactions after presidential debates.

And, like a passenger on Sedaris’s proverbial plane, “All I get is s---,” he says.

From critics, that is, who think his panelists are full of it. Luntz thinks that’s an unfortunate sign of the times.

“One of the problems in America is that we used to celebrate those who weigh all the issues, who weigh all the attributes, and make a careful and informed decision,” he says. Now, “we condemn them because they haven’t joined us in our declaration of who we support.”

Is that what the Undecideds have been doing? Carefully weighing the issues, all the way down to the wire? Greg Shugar, 47, of Boca Raton, Fla., says the undecided people he knows think of themselves as apolitical. They're not waiting on answers to policy questions. "If you are curious about what's going on," Shugar says, "you are not undecided."

As for the Undecideds he sees at the televised town halls, Shugar doesn’t believe they’re actually undecided. And it’s true that some undecided voters are more decided than they let on. The conservative Washington Free Beacon reported last week that an audience of supposed Undecideds at an NBC town hall had previously declared support for Biden on MSNBC. And Luntz himself recently called out a member of his focus group who seemed heavily pro-Trump.

“I don’t believe that it’s possible that you could vote for Joe Biden, even though you said it in the screener,” Luntz told her during the Zoom session. “I’m going to challenge you right now. I don’t think you were honest in your application to come into this focus group. . . . You’ve got to be honest because it makes people like me look bad, and it makes the polling profession look bad.”

According to the polling profession, undecided voters constitute 2 to 8 percent of the electorate this year, depending on who’s doing the polling. That’s much less than in 2016, when the Undecideds were 13 percent of the voting public by November.

So yes, they do exist. And some think Decideds should consider being a bit more diplomatic.

“The more attacking I feel from one side, it pushes me away from that candidate,” says Samantha Thomas, 32, of Cape May, N.J. “Sway me, and do it kindly. You catch more flies with honey.”

Kurt Malz, 61, says people “cannot believe that I’m undecided, and it pisses me off.” A boat salesman in Tampa, Malz voted for Trump in 2016 but has been turned off by his temperament over the past four years. But he distrusts Biden, “a career politician.” He consumes media on the left and right, has voted for Democrats and Republicans — he even voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, in Florida (no regrets). “I believe that I’m intelligent enough,” he says. “I’m asking a lot of questions. There’s a lot of things I don’t like. And I’ve not gotten that aha moment, you know?”

Jon, a 38-year-old from North Carolina in Luntz’s focus group, requested that only his first name be used, because he runs a company with his family name in it and feared harassment. He works in a conservative industry but has liberal friends. He has experienced such animosity from both sides that he avoids telling people he is undecided.

“At least if you pick one side, you’re with roughly half the population,” he says. “But if you sit in the middle, then everybody’s mad.”

“It is like needing to go to the bathroom and your choices are the men’s bathroom or the women’s,” Jon says. “You can’t just stand there and go in your pants.”

Indeed, decisions will be made. But Undecideds might not be the decisive factor.

When there are fewer undecided voters, it can reduce the chance of a last-minute surprise. When campaigns have fewer people to persuade, they can focus on their base instead. The winning side might not be the one that sways more Undecideds butthe one that gets their Decideds to the polls, says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.

“There’s a greater incentive for campaigns to just move on and find other groups of people who are already supportive of them,” Miringoff says.

In any case, Undecideds still have a couple more weeks. America’s most famous undecided voter has made his decision: Bone has announced he will be voting for Libertarian Party candidate Jo Jorgensen, making him the most hated kind of voter of all: a third-party voter.