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‘Both candidates stink’: Nov. 8 may boil down to who is hated the least

Donald Trump (left) and Hillary Clinton.AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — For the waffling voters of 2016, it’s not a choice between ideologies, or issues, or even competency. Instead, in interviews and polls, the undecided voters say they’re torn by their intense dislike for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

In the end, by Nov. 8, they may end up voting for whom they hate least, or someone else altogether.

“Both candidates stink. I can’t believe this is the best we could come up with,” said Sarah Hilman, 69, a retired home daycare provider from Wakefield, New Hampshire, a key swing-state where four electoral college votes are in play.

Ambivalence about the major-party candidates for president is so high that pollsters are comparing the 2016 campaign to 2000, when Ralph Nader’s presence on the ballot helped tip the election against Democrat Al Gore, and 1992, when Ross Perot’s disruptive force helped upend the sitting president, Republican George H.W. Bush.

The stew of American voters in this election who either remain undecided or are considering one of two alternative-party candidates, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, adds up to about 12 to 18 percent of the electorate, depending on the poll.

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And the debate had little effect on that pot of voters, according to some national and swing-state polls.

For instance, CBS News found in a national poll released Monday night that third-party support and undecideds amounted to 13 percent — exactly the same as September, before the debate. A shift of that pool toward Trump in the late stages of the race could easily engulf Clinton’s lead, which was 4 percent in that poll.

That means the unpredictability factor of the contest is likely to remain at peak levels throughout October, specialists said.

“It’s volatile with a big ‘V’ this time around,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, which shows 10 percent of voters nationally backing third-party candidates on top of 4 percent who are undecided.

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Hilman, the undecided New Hampshire voter, said the first presidential debate last Monday did not help her make up her mind.

“That was 90 minutes of my life I’ll never get back,” she said. “What a joke. These are supposedly two adults running for the presidency of the United States, and they were just going ‘Nanny nanny boo boo!’”

She’s thought about staying home on Nov. 8, but then said “I don’t think I’ll be able to with a clear conscience.”

Nineteen percent of Granite State voters said earlier in September they were still trying to decide, according to a poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Among that group, 5 percent were truly undecided and 14 percent were considering voting for a third-party candidate, said Andrew Smith, the center’s director.

“Why do we only have just two teams? Why can’t we have a third party as a strong contender?” said Jennifer Croot, a 50-year-old stay at home mother in Durham, New Hampshire.

Croot, a registered Republican who served 10 years in the Coast Guard, said she finds it hard to back Trump after his comments early in the campaign questioning Senator John McCain’s war hero status. Then Trump over the summer insulted the parents of a slain Muslim American soldier.

But Clinton’s candidacy offers Croot little solace. “If I did what she did when I was in the military, I’d still be in prison,” said Croot, referring to Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server for sensitive State Department business while she was secretary of state.

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And yet, Croot is hesitant to waste her vote on a third-party candidate with no chance of winning.

All she knows for sure is that she will vote. “It’s my duty and my privilege,” she said. “I’m going to wait until just before I go into the poll and then make up my mind.”

Many voters abandon fringe candidates in the home stretch, which adds to the uncertainty.

“When it becomes inevitable that people realize these third-party candidates can’t win, their votes could be game changers,” Malloy said.

An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in September before the first debate found that nearly 7 in 10 third-party supporters could still change their minds.

Other voters may stick with their third-party choices in protest, raising the specters of Nader and Perot.

Nader had won enough votes in New Hampshire and Florida as the Green Party’s nominee in 2000 that he was cast as a spoiler and blamed for Democrat Al Gore’s loss to Republican George W. Bush.

Perot, who ran as an independent in 1992, drew 19 percent of the popular vote, appealing to disaffected voters from both parties.

“The presence of Johnson as a spoiler is greater than Ralph Nader’s was but less than Ross Perot’s,” Malloy said.

In recent election cycles, roughly 5 percent of the electorate wait until the very end to decide who to pick as president, according to polling data. What exactly are they waiting for — 35 days away from the election?

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“I was kind of waiting for the debate, but that just confirmed that I don’t like either one of them,” said Cindy Buckels, a 65-year-old retired school librarian from Brentwood, New Hampshire who is a registered Republican but has voted for both Democrats and Republicans for president.

Charles Martin, a 45-year-old electrical engineer from Merrimack, New Hampshire, said there is “no way” he would vote for either Trump or Clinton. “That’s just not going to happen,” he said.

Martin, who has voted for the Republican presidential candidate his entire adult life, left the GOP after casting his ballot for Senator Ted Cruz in the New Hampshire primary. Now he remains undecided between Johnson or writing in Evan McMullin, a former CIA operative and House Republican policy director, or perhaps even Cruz.

Richard Hopf, a 70-year-old retired insurance broker from Goffstown, New Hampshire, has never missed an election, local or federal, since he became eligible to vote in the early 1960s. As an immigrant from Germany, he said he takes his right to vote very seriously, and has always voted Republican.

But it bothers him that Trump has not released his tax returns. “If he has nothing to hide, just whip it out there and let the experts take a look at it,” he said.

Hopf, who said he spent two tours in Vietnam when he served in the Navy, also can’t see Trump — nor Clinton, for that matter — as commander in chief. “Trump and his boys have never been in the service,” he said.

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So that leaves him with choosing the lesser of two evils, he said — or voting third party.

“I’ll just go into the voting booth and look at all the names and put the pencil down,” Hopf said. “Wherever it lands is who I will vote for.”


Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.