Frank Luntz: The Myth of the Undecided Voter

8 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;
Luntz is a pollster and communication advisor. He is conducting focus groups for HBO and Vice News ahead of the 2018 elections.

America’s most coveted voting bloc: the infamous “undecided” voter. If you listen carefully to them—the 11% of America that still hasn’t made up their minds—you’ll hear a common theme and tone. They are a sea of tranquility amidst the raging storm of partisan politics. They’re proud of their independence from either candidate, and see themselves as above the political fray. They deeply dislike Donald Trump, and they deeply dislike Hillary Clinton.

In an ideal world, they serve as America’s referees. And we need that now more than ever, considering the blatant and rampant fouls both candidates commit every day.

But there are two types of undecided voters.

The first are useless. They simply don’t know or don’t care about the candidates and/or the political process. They’re the low-information voters that conservative talk radio hosts love to hate. They tell themselves that they’re fact-based arbiters. But really, they’ve applied only haphazard thought to forming a cogent worldview. And what they “know” is often wrong. But their mistaken assumptions are held with such stubborn passion they refuse to hear an alternative viewpoint. They’re every bit as angry as the more extreme elements on the Left or Right; they’re just hiding it, from themselves and from the world. To even attempt to persuade them is a deeply futile endeavor. They foment on the fly.

But the second? They will decide the election. They are the none-of-the-above voter. They know a lot about both candidates and don’t like either one. (Can’t blame them, really. Two fundamentally flawed candidates clamoring for votes in a fundamentally furious nation.) They cannot stomach the choice between “crude” and “corrupt” (their words, not mine). These voters are like children living through a bitter divorce; watching with a mixture of fear and disdain as their parents argue, knowing they will soon be forced to choose with whom to live—a decision with no good outcome.

At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer, I hosted four focus group sessions with 27 undecided voters, sponsored by Google. Their political backgrounds were remarkably balanced: one-third voted twice for President Obama, a third voted Republican both times, and the remainder switched sides, in both directions, between 2008 and 2012.

And at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, I heard (because they’re yelling in my face) from the Sanders crowd. They populated just about every street corner. In concert with their “Never Trump” cousins, they remain the most important voices in America. Sure, they refuse to pick sides, but they have deeply held opinions about what they want and expect from the next President.

While I won’t predict the outcome of this election, I can pinpoint eight core characteristics of the people who will determine America’s future.

1) They want a unifier—not a divider. What resonance can a message carry if the listener cannot see past the messenger? The simple truth is: what got Trump and Clinton to Cleveland and Philadelphia won’t get them across the finish line in November. Undecided voters are already fed up with the petulantly partisan appeals and obsessive negativity. And the true barrage of timelessly trite 30-second ads has yet to hit the airwaves. Undecideds are waiting impatiently to see, hear and feel the one candidate who can demonstrate the capacity to deftly work across the vast chasms that divide us. Yes, they want change (good for Trump). But they also want progress (good for Clinton).

2) ‘The system is rigged. The process is broken.’ The DNC e-mail debacle could not have come at a worse time for the Democrats. These voters agree with Bernie Sanders (and with Trump’s attacks on the Republican establishment as well): the system is rigged. Period. The candidate perceived to be most likely to blow up the political process—and the special interests who fund it—is the candidate most likely to earn their support.

3) They crave more choices. As an undecided voter in my Google session complained, “Don’t we deserve better than a choice between the lesser of two evils?” Consider the following: If given the chance to vote for Bernie Sanders, Mike Bloomberg or even Mitt Romney, these non-of-the-above voters would say yes, emphatically, to at least one of them—and sometimes all three. Heck, if Gary Johnson gets more media attention, he could become a factor in this race. But since he can’t, or won’t, the candidate that makes the most compelling appeal to a third way is saying precisely what the none-of-the-above voter wants to hear.

4) Character is more important than policy. Partisans prioritize ideology over personality—that’s what makes them partisan. The unaffiliated care much more about integrity and accountability. They seek leaders who “say what they mean and mean what they say” and who understand what it means to live in a constantly precarious paycheck-to-paycheck household. No small task, mind you, when you’ve got one candidate with his own personal helicopter and 757, and another who earned more per one-hour speech than most American families earn in a year. Nonetheless, claiming the mantle of the forgotten American means claiming the election.

5) Candor counts—a lot. Much of Donald Trump’s appeal, at least among conservatives and Republicans, stems from his willingness to say just about anything to just about anyone at just about any time. The fact that he quite literally has no communication filter is (mostly) a positive. Conversely, Hillary Clinton’s manically scripted presentation is a real turnoff to voters desperately searching for truth and authenticity. The lesson: leave the speeches and talking points on the tarmac. Undecided voters want to know what you truly think – on the fly. The problem with Trump is that he loves the limelight and doesn’t know when to say no. The problem with Clinton is that she shuns it and doesn’t know when to say yes.

6) They want to dream again. I’m often asked if the tone of the election is making voters so angry, or whether voter anger is driving the tone of the candidates. It’s both. None-of-the-above voters fundamentally believe America’s best days aren’t ahead of it, but behind it. Older voters blame Washington; their kids blame Wall Street. The media condemns them for engaging in temper tantrum politics.” That misses the point. These voters would still rather fight for the America they believe in than give up and go home. Winning them in November means not merely telling them what’s wrong with America, but how they will begin to make it right come January.

7) What will be done on Day One? Telling voters exactly what you will do moments after being sworn in is candid, clear and concise. It tells voters in no uncertain terms whether you sympathize and empathize with their own hopes, dreams and fears. Undecideds want their eventual presidential hopeful to deliver meaningful change, not meaningless sound bites. The first presidential priority matters even more to swing voters than principle and policy matters to partisans.

8) They are digital. When asked how campaign managers should spend $1 million to most effectively reach them in the run-up to November, online won. Resoundingly. Think about it: voters now spend twice as much time online as they do in front of the television—and they pay far more attention to what they read online than what they see on TV. Undecided voters reflexively reject TV ads and deeply rehearsed, stale network appearances. Online presents an accessible and appealing platform to show who they are when the cameras are ‘off.’ It also empowers them to compare, contrast and fact-check—with access to a diverse abundance of unbiased information on their terms—when they want it and how they want it. Advantage Clinton.

This campaign season has been as unpredictable as it is unprecedented. The one commonality is the oft infuriating whims of the proverbial and desperately coveted undecided voter. But pay close attention. As someone who has listened to them for a quarter-century now, the candidate that is most engaging and least offensive is the candidate who wins this essential bloc—and therefore the election. They’ll tell you, and tell themselves, that they’re voting for the candidate with the best ideas. But they’re really voting for the one who they believe is most “on their side.” In the end, subtlety will sway more undecided voters than the sledgehammer.


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