- Debate on Monday a chance to reach and sway the uncommitted
- Neither candidate thrills in Columbus and Philadelphia suburbs
Craig Bell isn’t much thrilled with having to choose between Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
When the 55-year-old software engineer from Columbus, Ohio, tunes in to Monday night’s debate between the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, what he sees will be as important as what he hears.
“I don’t know how to say this nicely, but I just want to see which one can act more presidential and more trustworthy,’’ Bell said as he ate lunch at a table outside North Market in downtown Columbus.
Bell is part of a small slice of the electorate -- from 3 to 10 percent in polls -- still undecided about the Nov. 8 presidential election. Who those voters are and what will move them to cast a ballot are crucial to Clinton and Trump, who are scratching for every percentage point advantage in a close race.
Interviews conducted in key precincts of Ohio and Pennsylvania as well as other battleground states found voters who said they’ve ruled out either Clinton or Trump but aren’t yet comfortable with the alternative. Some are considering a third party contender, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson or not voting at all for president. While they care about the issues, most say they’ve heard where the candidates stand and aren’t expecting any new ground to be broken when they meet Monday night at Hofstra University in New York for the first of three scheduled debates.
What they say they are looking for is how the candidates conduct themselves and handle the debate to provide a reason to support the one they dislike the least.
Margot McKee, a widowed real estate agency from West Chester, Pennsylvania, who is registered as a Republican, voted for Trump in the state’s primary in April. Now, she’s not sure. Trump can redeem himself “until he shoots himself in the foot,’’ she said.
“I guess I’ll be looking to see whether Donald can be a thoughtful debater,’’ McKee said. “So far, there’s been no real debate. They’ve just kind of been talking past each other.’’
West Chester is one of the suburbs ringing Philadelphia that is wealthier and more educated than the rest of Pennsylvania, which is emerging as Clinton’s electoral firewall. The region, where one in four of the state’s voters live, also is growing into a Democratic Party stronghold in national elections. But in the greater Philadelphia area, six percent of voters are undecided in a head-to-head match-up between Trump and Clinton, according to the Muhlenberg College polling institute.
That cohort of voters gives Trump, who is counting on compiling majorities in more rural parts of the state, an opening if he can prove to them that he can deliver on changes in the gridlocked political system that they want, said Christopher Borick, who teaches political science at the school in Allentown and is director of the poll.
“He’s got to give people greater confidence in a place like suburban Philly that he’s not going to drive this thing off the rails,’’ Borick said. “He’s got to convince people that he might indeed shake things up but not to the point of destroying it.’’
Doubts about Clinton and Trump and high unfavorability ratings of both are distinguishing features of voter attitudes in national and state polls. In Ohio, a bellwether state that has backed the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1964, a Bloomberg Politics poll released Sept. 14 found that 57 percent of likely voters viewed Clinton unfavorably and 52 percent said the same of Trump. Nine percent of those surveyed in a head-to-head match-up said they were unsure who they will vote for or aren’t voting.
In the Ohio capital of Columbus, a city used by companies as a test market because it so closely mirrors the rest of the nation, Nick Sadler said he leans Republican but isn’t sold on Trump because he doesn’t trust that the billionaire means what he says. There’s also the question of temperament. If Trump can avoid emotional reactions and making the fight with Clinton personal during the debate, that would help, said Sadler, who does product development for a software technology company.
“He would impress me if he did that,’’ Sadler, 30, said. “I can’t say that it would be enough to get me to vote for him, but it would definitely help.’’
Impressions of Candidates
Trump has made grand statements without a lot of “meat and potatoes’’ to back them up, said Ebony Holt of suburban Columbus, 40, who works in human resources and calls herself an independent. She said her problem with Clinton is less about policy and more about character and a sense that the former first lady and secretary of state feels entitled to the presidency.
“I need to see more of who she is as a person, more of her character, and less of the what I feel is her expectation or grandstanding,’’ Holt said.
Some undecided voters said they will be watching for clues during the debate for what kind of leader the candidates will be.
Reece Pavlovich of Columbus, 23, who works in sales for the Columbus Blue Jackets, said whether the candidates try to answer questions directly or dodge them will help him decide.
“It’s a small tell-tale sign, if you can’t answer this one simple question that was asked of you without diverting or trying to blame it on someone else,’’ he said. “I don’t think that you’re fit to make massive world decisions or political decisions that can impact millions or billions of people.’’
Undecided voters in other battleground states had similar views.
Judy Thacker of Palmetto, Florida, 58, a laid-off cook who considers herself an independent, doesn’t like either Clinton or Trump. She wants to see how they interact with each other as a cue for how they would handle themselves on the international stage.
“If you watch them speak with each other, that’s how they would speak with a foreign leader if they were in a tight situation and they were trying to work something out and things were getting really hot and heavy like they will be at the debate,’’ Thacker said.
Stephanie Frederick-Weber, 38, who lives near Reno, Nevada, doesn’t think either candidate has articulated a broader vision for the U.S. beyond standard rhetoric and hopes the debate will be an opportunity to get more than prepared speeches and talking points.
“The debates are kind of integral because they kind of catch them off guard a little bit,’’ she said.
Some undecided voters are so fed up with the race and their choices, they doubt the debate will matter or don’t plan to watch it.
“I think it’ll be a clown show, more than I’ll get a good bombshell out of it,’’ said Ryan Porter of Columbus, 29, a financial adviser.