The Boltzes, who live in a rural area half an hour outside Pittsburgh, find themselves squarely between their children. Their son who lives next door is more conservative than they are and supports Trump. Their daughter in Seattle and their son in Chicago, whom they hope to see soon happily married to his male partner, are adamant that Trump be removed.
“It’s an interesting place to sit as parents,” said Marlin, 63 and recently retired after a long career at a machine manufacturing company. “We consider ourselves as moderate. Conservative on fiscal issues and liberal on gay marriage. There are no candidates that fit. If I had a spreadsheet, I’d be trying to fill it out to say: Who do I think can pull the country back together? I have never been this undecided this close to an election.”
When the first of three debates between Trump and Biden begins Tuesday evening, as many as 1 in 10 voters — enough to swing the election either way — will still be searching for the thing that finally seals their choice. National polls in recent days have reported that anywhere from 3 percent to 11 percent of voters are unsure or might yet switch sides.
These undecideds have heard the jokes and insults aimed at people who can’t see the differences between Trump and Biden, but that does nothing to ease their doubts. In interviews, these battleground-state voters spoke of feeling a civic duty to remain open to the candidates’ pitches on Tuesday night, and a desire to see how they perform under pressure.
Many have always liked Biden, but they worry about whether he’s lost a step or about whether he would stand up to the left wing of his own party.
“I’ll decide based on the debates,” said George Cottingham, a 25-year-old music production student in Racine, Wis. “I want to see a sense of purpose. I always can tell if someone’s competent by seeing how they present themselves.”
Cottingham will be casting his first vote in a presidential election, but he liked Trump in 2016 and is leaning toward him again this time.
He said he sees the coronavirus as a greater threat than Trump seems to, but he says the president’s skepticism about wearing masks is a reasonable ploy: “Honestly, everyone should be wearing a mask, but Trump says things against it to keep people from freaking out, and I get it that he’s trying to keep everything together.”
Some undecideds turn out to be people who’ve long felt alienated from the two big political parties, who voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein in 2016 and now think their vote may have greater impact if they can make their peace with Biden or Trump.
Roan Kirschbaum, 28, who studies sound design in Oshkosh, Wis., and is looking for work, has voted only for Green Party candidates in the past, but he’s open to either Trump or Biden this time and hopes they’ll use the debate to address how social media platforms are warping the country’s political discussion by feeding people evermore extreme views.
“It’s a vicious attack on human well-being and I don’t hear either candidate talking about it,” he said.
Kirschbaum said that although Trump “is better than Biden at listening to the American people, the problem is then he just doesn’t care about doing what’s right. Like on the virus, he wanted to keep people from panicking, but he won’t admit that it’s good to wear masks. Would it be any different under Democratic leadership? Biden is more pro-science, but I don’t know.”
Some undecided voters aren’t really voters at all. They belong to the faction that in most presidential elections is just as big as the Democrats or Republicans — non-voters.
Pete Jordan’s indecision is rooted in exhaustion. An independent who leans Democratic, he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and said he wanted her “to win real bad. It didn’t happen. I was punched in the throat.”
But Jordan’s distaste for Trump has diminished over time. He can’t stomach Fox News’s cheerleading for the president, but he also thinks CNN and MSNBC became “a joke” by railing against Trump no matter what.
“Everybody knows the guy’s an a------, but do I have to hear it 24/7/365?” asked Jordan, who lives in Becker County, Minn., near the North Dakota border and not far from where Trump held a rally last week.
Still, he said, “Donald Trump got elected and my 401(k) went up about 35 percent, so how can I hate the man for that? But his narcissistic brain won’t allow him to shut his piehole. He has to be the center of attention. Shut up and govern.”
Jordan’s view of the Democrats has soured over time: He thought Democratic senators grilled Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh too harshly over allegations of past sexual assault. And closer to home in Minnesota, the violence that followed Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police deepened his disillusionment.
Jordan, 57, plans to watch the debates hoping Biden will give him a reason to vote for him. But if the election were held tomorrow, he said, he would likely stay home.
“I’m so up in the air right now,” he said. “I just don’t have the patience for all this s--- anymore.”
After discounting leaners, third-party voters and non-voters, there remain a solid group of people who are simply stuck between Trump and Biden. Many, like Karen and Marlin Boltz, are social liberals and fiscal conservatives who find no echo of their beliefs in Washington politics.
The Boltzes, lifelong Republicans, want the debates to reveal what they say news coverage of the campaign has not: Who will address the cost of health care? Who will support protests for racial justice but stand firm against violence? Who can actually bring people together?
Four years ago, the couple watched the debates and liked Trump’s outsider stance but worried that he made outrageous slurs against immigrants.
“They have made it impossible for anyone to come here,” Karen said. “Why would you do that?”
“I thought Trump was saying all this stuff about the wall but once he gets advisers, they will pull him back,” Marlin said. “But that didn’t happen. And I didn’t see the tweets coming. I don’t like it. It’s not very presidential-like.”
The Boltzes pray before dinner, attend church every Sunday and believe America should be proud to be a destination for people who live under repressive regimes around the world.
“This ‘America First’ thing doesn’t sit well with me,” Marlin said. “The GOP promotes a view of the world of scarcity. As if there is not enough to go around. And I don’t see that. There’s plenty to go around.”
Karen avoids watching cable news because it seems like wall-to-wall Trump denunciation or adulation, depending on the channel. She listens to NPR every morning because the reporting seems more factual. But she’ll watch the debates to try to see for herself whether Trump “might be crazier and more wild in the next four years” or if Biden can avoid a huge expansion of the public sector.
“We don’t want the government to be our mum,” Karen said.
A thousand miles west, in rural Minnesota, where Erin Tollefsrud teaches refugee children and is a single mother of her own son, that same wish for a president who is openhearted yet tightfisted hangs over her anticipation of the debate.
Tollefsrud, 35, thought early this year that she’d finally found a candidate who reflects her concerns about climate change, education and racial justice. She liked Andrew Yang in the Democratic primary race, but now she’s torn. She’s suspicious of Democrats like Biden who she sees as unfamiliar with and unsympathetic to rural residents and gun owners.
But she’s appalled by Trump’s Twitter persona and coarse rhetoric at rallies. And she’s worried that “there’s no fiscal conservative in this race.”
Still, she likes the attention Trump pays to rural America and she thinks of him as someone who doesn’t flip-flop, who tells it like it is.
“Neither candidate represents me,” she said. “Both are old, white, male and rich.”
Tollefsrud is a classic swing voter, casting ballots for George W. Bush and Barack Obama before going with a third-party candidate in 2016. On Tuesday, she wants to hear whether Biden can hold his own against Trump’s insults.
“His age is concerning,” she said. “If you look at pictures of presidents after their term, they look older, stressed, harried.”
Biden’s age and acuity — he would be the oldest president in U.S. history, three years older than Trump — and Trump’s lack of an agenda or principles has Paul Jass stuck in a too familiar place: undecided, with the debates standing as his primary hope for finding clarity.
Jass, a chemist who lives near Milwaukee, defines himself as a social liberal, especially on climate and natural resources issues, and fiscal conservative who used to be comfortable in the Republican Party. But not in recent years: In 2016, he voted for Gary Johnson, the ex-governor of New Mexico who served as a Republican but made his White House run as a Libertarian. Before that, he voted for Republican John McCain in 2008 and Democrat Obama in 2012.
In the debate, Jass wants to hear a science-based plan for restraining spread of the virus and a coherent approach to restarting the economy. He’s not holding his breath.
Jass has been perplexed by Trump’s refusal to take the advice of scientists. “He tried to put too much of a false front on to make the virus situation not look so bad,” he said. “He thinks he knows it all. As a person, I really don’t like him. And he’s not a Republican at all.”
But Trump has done some things Jass likes, including closing tax loopholes, evening the playing field for U.S. manufacturers, and brokering peace between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors.
Biden’s campaign has left Jass flat so far. “His message is scattered for me other than ‘I don’t like Trump,’ ” he said. “I want to hear a clear philosophy of government. But I really think Biden’s going to win and win handily.”
While many undecideds eagerly await the debates as a way to clarify their choice, others hold little hope that the TV spectacles will help — or that their vote will do any good.
Scott Williams has never voted before but is already somewhat apathetic about his first presidential election.
“I can’t blink without something telling me I need to go register to vote,” said Williams, 21, a junior at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minn. “They’re really, really hellbent on getting youth to vote right now.”
Williams plans to watch the debate with his girlfriend. He’s curious about how Trump and Biden will interact with one another. And after losing his restaurant job at the start of the pandemic and then finding part-time work at another eatery, he’s especially interested in hearing how the candidates would curb the coronavirus “so we don’t have to worry or practice social distancing.”
But he’s underwhelmed by both candidates. He sees Trump as simply unqualified to serve. And Biden is “another old guy.”
Unless one of them inspires him, Williams might just sit this one out.