Today's America is so deeply polarized that it can be hard to imagine there are people who are really not sure whether they want to vote for President Donald Trump or his Democratic rival.
But these "mythic," "quasi-talismanic," "unicorn" swing voters are very real, and there are enough of them to decide the next presidential election.
They are similar in holding ideologically inconsistent views, but they otherwise span all walks of life, based on an analysis of 569 respondents to recent New York Times Upshot/Siena College surveys in the six closest states carried by the president in the 2016 presidential election.
These voters represent 15% of the electorate in the battleground states, and they say there's a chance they'll vote for either Trump or the Democrat.
They don't neatly fit archetypes of swing voters like suburban soccer moms. In fact, men are likelier to be undecided than women. And they are not necessarily the white voters without a college degree, particularly in the Midwest, who decided the last election.
The poll adds a new mix of characters to the quadrennial cast of swing voters, like a somewhat conservative, college-educated suburban man who does not approve of the president's performance, but strongly opposes a single-payer health system. Or a young man, perhaps even black or Latino, who is not conservative on policy but resents his generation's stringent cultural norms and appreciates the president's defiant critique of political correctness.
For now, these persuadable voters in battleground states have a favorable view of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, but not of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, our polling shows.
Persuadable voters are so powerful because their votes effectively count twice: A voter who flips from one party to the other not only adds a vote to one side, but also subtracts one from the other side's tally. A wide array of evidence confirms their decisive role in recent elections.
In the last presidential election, millions of voters flipped from Barack Obama to Trump or from Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton. In the Midwestern battlegrounds, the flood of white, working-class defections to Trump overwhelmed the smaller stream of white, college-educated voters who defected from the Republicans.
There are places like Howard County, Iowa, population 9,000, where Trump improved over Romney by nearly 1,000 votes, while Republican turnout increased by only 22 votes and turnout among unaffiliated voters increased by 50 votes.
One might assume that places like Howard County will again be at the center of the contest. But there is no outsize mass of white working-class or rural voters who voted for Trump among the undecided in the Times/Siena polls.
Instead, the Times/Siena polling suggests that the electorate remains deeply divided along the lines of the 2016 election, with many groups contributing a sliver of undecided voters to the broader pool.
The size of that persuadable pool depends on how they are defined. Although there is reason to think some voters have more of a partisan lean than they realize, let's call the 15% who are still thinking of voting for Trump or a Democrat the potentially persuadable.
As a group they are 57% male and 72% white, and 35% have college degrees. Most, 69%, say they usually vote for a mix of both Democratic and Republican candidates. Among those who voted in 2016, 48% say they voted for Trump, 33% for Hillary Clinton, and 19% for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein or no one. Those who voted in the midterm election voted for the Republican congressional candidate by 1 point.
These potentially persuadable voters are divided on major issues like single-payer health care, immigration and taxes. But they are fairly clear about what they would like from a Democrat. They prefer, by 82% to 11%, one who promises to find common ground over one who promises to fight for a progressive agenda; and they prefer a moderate over a liberal, 75% to 19%.
Overall, 40% describe themselves as conservative, compared with 16% who say they're liberal. Forty percent are moderate.
Trump leads Warren, 49% to 27%, among this broadly defined group of persuadable voters, slightly improving on his margin over Clinton. He holds a narrow 43-37 edge over Biden, a slight improvement for the president over the Republican performance in the midterm election but far from matching his tallies in 2016.
What explains the group's Republican tilt? Some fairly likely Republican voters could be remaining open-minded to an unspecified Democratic nominee, but quickly returning to the president's side against a known challenger.
Democrats might prefer to focus on a more stringent way to define persuadable voters. Many of those who said they could go either way selected Trump against all of his Democratic rivals, or selected all three Democrats against Trump. They might be less persuadable than they let on. Excluding those voters leaves 9% of the electorate that showed no consistent partisanship - they can be called the truly persuadable.
These truly persuadable voters supported Democratic congressional candidates in 2018 by 8 points and have less developed views on the presidential race. They support Biden over the president, 38% to 27%, but prefer the president to Warren, 37% to 20%. Sanders is in between, with the president leading him, 34% to 32%. This group voted for Trump by a smaller margin in 2016, 37% to 30%, with the rest casting ballots for minor candidates.
Looking at the full pool of potential persuadables, it can be hard to glean any clear insights. But individual demographic groups present a clearer picture of voters pulled in different directions by their ideology, identity, self-interest or attitudes about the president.
The white college-educated persuadable voters, in either the broad or narrow definition, have something in common: They may not love the president, but they are not sold on progressives.
They oppose single-payer health care, 60% to 37%, and oppose free college, 55% to 41%.
They disapprove of the president, but only 32% disapprove of both his performance and his policies.
Steven Basart, 28, is getting his doctorate in computer science and describes himself as a Democrat. Yet he would consider voting for Trump, depending on the Democratic nominee.
If it were Warren, he'd vote Republican, he said: "I think she's going too far to the left, which would take our country in a bad direction."
Basart is not a fan of Trump's personality, but he says it's overshadowing some of his accomplishments.
"There are plenty of things not to like about Trump, because he says things that are not nice and potentially racist," said Basart, who is Latino. "I care somewhat about those things, but I mostly just care about policies, because at the end of the day, that's what affects people."
The relatively small number of persuadable women runs against the assumptions of most electoral analysts, who have long assumed that women are likelier to be up for grabs than men. Now, men are likelier to be undecided than women across all major age, race and educational groups. Like the white working-class voters who remain solid for the president, it seems many women, particularly nonwhite and college-educated women, remain anchored to the swing they already made in 2016.
Persuadable men and women generally hold similar views on the issues, including on the president. But they are deeply split over an assault weapons ban, with persuadable women supporting an assault weapons ban by a 26-point margin and persuadable men opposed by 18 points - including 42% of undecided men who say they are strongly opposed.
The undecided white working-class voters often seem as if they would be quite receptive to Democrats based on their views on the issues. They support single-payer health care, for instance.
But they approve of the president's performance by a comfortable 63-32 margin, and they are about as conservative as Republicans on the cultural issues that divide today's politics. By a margin of 84% to 9%, they say political correctness has gone too far. They say academics and journalists look down on people like them, and agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.
The persuadable nonwhite voters seem to be an unusual group. They are likeliest to be male - 64% are men - and 39% are younger than 35. They back single-payer by the widest margin, 54% to 40%. Those who voted say they voted for Clinton in 2016 and for Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
By a wide margin of 52-32, they prefer a Democratic nominee who would bring fundamental, systematic change to American society over one who would return politics back to normal in Washington.
Yet Trump's approval rating is positive among these nonwhite persuadable voters, with 50% saying they approve and 44% saying they disapprove. A majority opposes an assault weapons ban. They want a more moderate Democrat, 69-26, over a liberal, even as they demand fundamental change, and 35% self-identify as conservative.
Young nonwhite men have not traditionally been considered a key swing demographic. As a group, they overwhelmingly back Democrats. They are the sort of voters whom Democrats would ordinarily think of as a turnout target.
A disproportionate number of persuadable voters tend to be low-turnout voters as well: 28% didn't vote in both 2016 and 2018, compared with 17% of those who say there's no chance they'll vote for the other side.
There's a common view in politics that campaigns can make a choice between turnout, in which candidates play to their base and try to mobilize new voters, and persuasion, in which they reach out to swing voters.
It turns out that many of the low-turnout voters are also the persuadable ones. They don't have the clear, ideologically consistent views that make them a natural fit for either party, and so they are less likely to vote as well.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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