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Yes, there really are undecided voters in 2020

A voter waited in line during early voting on Monday at the Franklin County Board of Elections Early Voting Center in Columbus, Ohio.
A voter waited in line during early voting on Monday at the Franklin County Board of Elections Early Voting Center in Columbus, Ohio.Joshua A. Bickel/Associated Press

Their existence in 2020, this most polarized and insane of election years, seems improbable if not downright fanciful. Can there really be voters out there — likely voters even — who have not yet decided whether they plan to vote for President Trump or his Democratic opponent, former vice president Joe Biden?

Yes, Dear Reader, there really are undecided voters, even in 2020.

You can find them in any poll, that small proportion of voters who say they’re “not sure” which presidential candidate to support. Their presence, 2 percent or 5 percent, intrude like a speck in the vision of most Americans, who, regardless of politics, view this presidential race in stark terms. They prompt questions like “how?” and “really?” and “who are these people?”

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Well, they are people like Laura Fairbrother of Bridgton, Maine. Asked in a recent interview why she remains undecided in the presidential election, the 53-year-old certified residential medication aide made it clear she isn’t impressed with the options: “It don’t matter who we choose, we’re pretty much screwed either way.”

Fairbrother, who considers herself a political independent, said she’s leaning toward voting for Biden but doesn’t know if she can trust what he says. As for President Trump, she laughed. “He shouldn’t even be the president. This is not a TV show.”

Fairbrother is one of a dozen voters across four battleground states who previously participated in Suffolk University state polls and identified themselves as undecided. The Globe interviewed them in an attempt to understand what goes into not having made up one’s mind this presidential election.

One common trait: at this stage of the game, the undecided voter doesn’t fit into an easy political profile but rather possess a more idiosyncratic worldview.

“Look, at this point, the people who are undecided are a little bit different from everybody else,” said Jeff Horwitt, senior vice president with Hart Research Associates, a Democratic polling firm.

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Overall, the universe of undecided voters is small, pollsters say. In the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this month, only 5 percent said they were undecided, said Horwitt, whose firm partners with the GOP pollster Public Opinion Strategies on the regular survey.

When you include voters who indicate they’re open to switching their votes from their current pick, the “up for grabs" group grows a bit bigger, to about 11 percent, he said.

Other common traits among the undecided voters the Globe spoke with include skepticism of politicians generally, and mistrust of the information they’re seeing about the candidates on social media, the news, or from the candidates themselves.

And almost every single one exhibited what GOP pollster Brad Todd called the key to understanding the existence of undecided voters in such a polarizing election: “They view both candidates unfavorably, typically.”

Martha Desilets, a 56-year-old accountant in Tucson, Ariz., declared that she is “decidedly against every option that is presented to me at this point. I’m trying really hard to find the lesser of these evils."

Michael Loewenstein, a still-undecided voter in central Florida, echoed that sentiment: “I am so disappointed that [in] a country as great as this . . . those are the two best choices for president that we could come up with."

Both Desilets in Arizona and Loewenstein in Florida saw things to like about Trump. But also lots to dislike.

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“I believe President Trump really does care about American business,” said Desilets, who in 2016 voted for a third-party candidate whose name she’s forgotten. “And about growing the American economy. My main problem with him, is he’s stuck on himself. . . . He has no filter, and in some worlds, that’s a good thing, but in a world where mistrust has been fanned to the extent that it has in this country, that can be a dangerous thing. To not stop and listen to what your words are actually saying is dangerous," she said.

In Florida, Loewenstein — a 71-year-old conservative — voted for Trump in 2016 but believes the president did not handle the coronavirus pandemic as he should have, and that has undercut all the good the president has done elsewhere.

“Leadership-wise, I believe it was a missed opportunity," said Loewenstein, who suffers from lung disease and sees mask-wearing as a sign of respect for others.

Neither of these undecided voters had much good to say about Biden, or Senator Kamala Harris of California, his running mate. Desilets called her “toxic.”

Loewenstein said he didn’t like how Biden picked a No. 2, announcing ahead of time he would choose a Black woman. (Actually, Biden just announced he would pick a woman.) “Rather than saying, ‘I’ve searched for the best possible person, here she is,'” Loewenstein said, adding he believes that Biden “is a racist.”

“Then again,” he continued, "I believe most people are, they just don’t realize it.”

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Nick Gawlik has lived in North Carolina for five years but still considers himself a New England Republican. The 30-year-old registered Libertarian found himself leaning toward — but not yet 100 percent convinced about — supporting Biden because of how Trump and Republicans more broadly have handled the coronavirus pandemic.

“Trump just had the coronavirus. Had it humbled him a little bit, I may have been swayed," said Gawlik, a university administrator who praised Trump’s record on China and the economy.

For Danielle Salo of Jacksonville, Fla., Trump’s reaction to getting coronavirus himself pushed her off the fence to Biden.

If Trump had come away from the experience admitting he benefited from treatments and protocols that differ from what most Americans would get, “instead of standing there and ripping off his mask in a show of defiance, I would have gone with him,” said the 45-year-old registered Republican who is retired from the military.

While she believes the media has been “horrible” to Trump and failed to give him credit for good things he’s done, “things like that I just can’t stomach,” said Salo.

As for Biden, she said she isn’t a fan of Harris, whose politics Salo sees as too far left for her more moderate preferences.

“But between the two choices, I think that we need someone who’s going to handle this entire situation,” she said of the pandemic.

In some cases, voters who look undecided on paper turn out to be something else altogether.

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T.J. Morgan, an industrial psychologist in South Florida, said she thought for maybe a “micro-minute” she should consider voting for Biden. But when she recently told a pollster she was undecided, it was more hesitancy to admit she planned to vote for Trump.

Like other voters, Morgan expressed dislike of both candidates. Biden is a career politician who has failed on numerous fronts. Morgan said those missteps include her belief that Biden disagreed with the decision to go forward with the mission in which Osama bin Laden was killed.

She doesn’t think Trump is great, either — “Trump is concerned with Trump,” she said — but does believe he’s done well on the economy.

Herman Colvin, 64, of Apex, N.C., made up his mind long ago he would vote for Biden but didn’t want the polls to dissuade the former vice president from courting voters in his swing state.

“I was never undecided about Donald Trump. Never, ever,” said Colvin.




Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.