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Opinion Biden and Trump search for the (possibly imaginary) undecided voters

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a NBC News town hall in Miami on Monday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Life is full of difficult choices. But for anyone who pays even a modicum of attention to the news, this presidential election — perhaps more than any other in memory — shouldn’t be one of them. After four years, is there really anyone left who can’t decide whether they’d like to see Donald Trump remain in the White House?

Yet such people exist — or at least it’s widely assumed that they do. And with just four weeks left in the campaign, both President Trump and Joe Biden are attempting to win them over. But they have very different ideas of who those people might be and what might get them off the fence.

To begin, we should understand that the pool of undecided voters may be smaller than it has ever been at this point in a presidential campaign. One has to compare polls carefully given that they ask about presidential preference in different ways. But to take a couple of recent examples, this new CNN poll shows only 3 percent of voters unable to choose between Biden and Trump, while this new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll puts the number at 6 percent.

It’s hard to say what the true number is, because when polls cite the “undecided,” they sometimes lump together those who truly haven’t made up their minds, those who are supporting third-party candidates and those who say they have no preference because they just aren’t going to vote. Third-party candidates often aren’t mentioned to poll respondents at all, even though they’ll pick up a few million votes (even if it’s less than the 6 percent of the total they won in 2016).

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Yet somehow, the television networks manage to find enough undecided voters trying to pick between Trump and Biden to bring groups of them together, as NBC did Monday night for a town hall with Joe Biden. Faced with those voters asking him questions, Biden was apologetic about being too personally critical of Trump; speaking about their debate last week, he said, “I should have said, this is a clownish undertaking, instead of calling him a clown.”

Asked about police reform, Biden talked about bringing everyone together in the White House to hash out solutions. White-supremacist violence? “We have to make sure that we equip every agency, federal, state and local agency, with the tools that are going to be bringing people together," he said.

Biden talked about how as a young senator he learned to question his colleagues’ judgment but not their motives. And he said, “We’ve got to just start talking to each other like we respect each other, which we have to.”

None of this is unfamiliar coming from Biden. But it shows that he believes it’s what undecided voters want to hear: civility, unity, cooperation.

It’s hard to tell whether Trump, on the other hand, believes there are undecided voters at all. But if he does, he clearly thinks they will move toward him only when he becomes even more himself.

The fact that he is now infected with the novel coronavirus could have been an opportunity to demonstrate some new empathy or a broadened perspective, to appeal to voters who disapprove of his handling of the pandemic but might still be open to voting for him. No such luck.

Instead, Trump put on a display of alleged manliness and vigor that only drew attention to its own phoniness. It was as though he thinks there are wavering voters out there who are waiting to see if he is strong and confident enough, and will vote for him if he preens with sufficient enthusiasm.

That proposition is, to put it kindly, highly questionable. You don’t have to think undecided voters are yearning for us all to join hands and sing “Kumbaya” to know that if what they want is Trump being what Trump has always been, they’d probably be Trump voters by now.

In fact, most analysts I’ve spoken to about this question are skeptical that the number of undecided voters is meaningful at all. “I can’t believe there are any truly undecided voters,” Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg told me via email on Tuesday. “I think people who are saying they are undecided are probably not going to vote.”

Most experts are predicting that turnout could reach 150 million voters this year, which would represent almost 65 percent of the eligible population. That would be higher than anything we’ve seen in more than half a century, but it would still mean a third of American adults not voting. And while most of them are probably uninterested in answering a poll, at least some will show up in the data and fall into that “undecided” category.

Even if the number of people who are currently undecided but will make up their minds and cast a vote for Trump or Biden is tiny, it doesn’t have to be large; just a few thousand votes could make the difference in a swing state.

Biden and Trump each have a theory about what might persuade them; it’s possible they’re both wrong and the undecideds will just fall randomly, and equally, to both candidates. But even that outcome would be just fine with Biden, since he has a healthy lead in the polls.

Trump, on the other hand, needs nearly all the undecideds to swing his way. Maybe he’s right that declaring victory over the pandemic despite the facts will be what persuades them. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Watch Opinions videos:

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) argues that the Democratic Party needs to present policies that appeal to nonvoters who do not feel either party represents them. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jose Sanchez / AP/The Washington Post)

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