How Trump and Clinton Could Still Draw Undecideds off the Sidelines

The 2016 campaign season has been defined in part by a breakdown in longstanding party coalitions, leaving an unusually large percentage of the electorate either unsure of how to vote or determined to stay home.

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listen to a question during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, October 9, 2016.
Rick T. Wilking | Pool via AP

As the 2016 election cycle draws to a close, the biggest obstacle facing the two main candidates for the presidency is the American public’s continued indecision. As of September 24, the day of the first debate, nearly 20 percent of eligible voters remained either undecided or say they plan not to vote according to the Economist.

The first debate was watched by a record-breaking audience of 84 million, but that figure belies a deep challenge facing the two candidates — they’re the most deeply disliked major party candidates for the office in history. The depth of that burden must have become clear to Clinton last week. Despite a clear victory in the eyes of numerous media outlets, and the majority of Americans, and even a mounting advantage in the forecasts, Clinton’s lead over Trump in the polling averages has hardly moved at all according to the Real Clear Politics Poll Average.

First debates have historically been considered the most important. Al Gore’s performance in his first debate against George W. Bush, in which he used the phrase “locked box” seven times and repeatedly sighed and rolled his eyes while his opponent spoke, is widely pointed to as one of the causes for his subsequent defeat. “In any series, the first and last items tend to be over-weighted,” Eric Johnson, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, explains. That effect is likely to only be more acute in cases like the debates, where viewership tends to fall off sharply after the first.

Johnson, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, is, along with management professor Michael Morris, a member of a group known as the Consortium of Behavioral Scientists, an association of academics bringing insights from the field of behavioral science to the campaign trail. The group, dubbed an academic “dream team” by the New York Times, consulted on the Obama 2012 campaign and, according to an article last week in Playboy [PDF, SFW], has reconvened to assist the Clinton 2016 campaign — a fact they’ll neither confirm nor deny.

According to Morris, the second debate, a town hall to be held at Washington University in St. Louis, could present more of a challenge for Clinton. “The format of the first debate played to Hillary’s strengths,” he explained. “It’s very factual, very pointed. The town hall format requires more emotion and personality.”

While supporters applauded Clinton’s preparation, precise answers, and ability to marshal facts, these talents are unlikely to sway the remaining undecideds. “A lot of people are less concerned about evidence and more concerned about a worldview,” Morris explains. And that’s where Trump can be particularly effective — channeling the anxieties and malaise of a broad swath of the voting population into concise, easily understood narratives

The format isn’t without its risks for Trump, however. “He does incredibly well at his rallies,” Morris points out, “but this won’t just be his supporters. If someone asks a question he doesn’t like, he’ll have to honor that question.”

For both candidates, much depends on the identities and motivations of the remaining undecideds. As Lynne Vavreck, a professor of political science at UCLA pointed out in the New York Times last week, many of the remaining undecided voters voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. And that could spell trouble for Clinton.

“A big part of voting is economics, but another part of voting is an expression of identity. And through that lens, consistency becomes very important,” Eric Johnson explains. When making a decision people often seek to align their present decision with ones they’ve made in the past, a principle known as self-congruence in the field of behavioral science. For voters who have consistently voted Republican in the past, making the change to another party can raise difficult questions about their core beliefs and self-identity.

That’s not, however, to say it’s impossible, particularly in this election, where old coalitions are being tested and once-core constituencies seem to be up for grabs — a fact hinted at last Monday night by Trump’s blue tie and Clinton’s ruby-red pantsuit.

Morris points to the appearance of Sarah Silverman, formerly a prominent and vocal Bernie Sanders supporter, at the Democratic National Convention in support Clinton as one tactic the Clinton team might look to to draw in former Romney supporters. “We call it the ‘convert communicator tactic,’” Morris explains. By bringing forward a speaker who has already made the decision to change sides, the campaigns can make it easier for others to follow suit. With just over a month to go till election day then, we may soon be seeing far more of the Republicans who have come out in favor or Clinton.

Similarly, Johnson explains, the campaigns can attempt to reassure voters changing sides that the inconsistency is not their own, but rather that of the party or the candidate — “Trump isn’t a real Republican,” for example, or “Clinton is just too untrustworthy.” That may be the logic behind Trump’s statement last week that Bernie Sanders could have been a “legendary” political figure, if only he hadn’t sold out to Clinton. By painting Sanders as the apostate, Trump seems to be attempting to position himself as the one true heir to Sanders’ political movement.

Such a tactic by either campaign leaves open the possibility of individuals re-crossing party lines after this election — and making an effective pitch of it would require not attacking the opposing party too rigorously. But Johnson and Morris leave open the possibility that this may be a coalition-changing election, like the election of 1968, from which the present ideological bases and core constituencies of the US’s major parties were born.

With just over a month to go before the end of this contest between two of the most disliked candidates in history the biggest question facing the campaigns — and the country as a whole — isn’t just who the candidates might still win over, but who exactly will show up to the polls. And that remains anyone’s guess. “We’re in an age where we’re really looking at the moneyball of polling,” Johnson says. “The real question lies in the turn out models.”

About the researcher

Michael Morris

Michael Morris is a Chaired Professor in the Management Division at CBS and also serves as Professor in the Psychology Department of Columbia University...

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About the researcher

Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson is a faculty member at the Columbia Business School at Columbia University where he is the inaugural holder of the Norman Eig...

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