WASHINGTON – Amanda Jaronowski is torn. The lifelong Republican from suburban Cleveland supports President Donald Trump's policies and fears her business could be gutted if Democrat Joe Biden is elected.
But she abhors Trump personally, leaving her on the fence about who will get her vote.
It's a “moral dilemma," Jaronowski said as she paced her home one recent evening after pouring a glass of sauvignon blanc. “It would be so easy for him to win my vote if he could just be a decent human being," she had said earlier during a focus group session.
Jaronowski is part of a small but potentially significant group of voters who say they remain truly undecided less than three weeks before the Nov. 3 election. They have been derided as uninformed or lying by those who cannot fathom still being undecided, but conversations with a sampling of these voters reveal a complicated tug of war.
Many, like Jaronowski, are longtime Republicans wrestling with what they see as a choice between two lousy candidates: a Democrat whose policies they cannot stomach and a Republican incumbent whose personality revolts them. Some voted for third-party candidates in 2016 because they were so repelled by their choices — Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton — and may do so again.
While polls show there are far fewer on-the-fence voters this year than the unusually high number in 2016, the Trump and Biden campaigns each believes it still can win over numbers that matter.
Among those people is John Welton, 40, a Presbyterian minister from Winfield, Kansas, who has spent much of his career moving from parish to parish. His political views, he said, have been shaped in part by watching how trade deals have hurt once-vibrant manufacturing communities and his congregants’ livelihoods, as well as by his own “pro-Second Amendment” views.
Welton said he is turned off by Biden’s support for tighter gun restrictions. But he is also put off by Trump's bullying and demeaning of opponents on Twitter and his divisive rhetoric.
On the other hand, Welton has been pleasantly surprised that Trump has made good on his campaign pledge to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, though thousands still remain.
In 2016, Welton ended up voting for Clinton, but barely. He circled the block at his polling place before making a decision. This year, he's hoping a second debate will offer him some clarity.
“I remain pretty swayable,” he said.
Cathy Badalamenti, 69, an independent from Lombard, Illinois, is also struggling with her vote once again. In 2016, she voted for a third-party candidate after twice supporting Democrat Barack Obama.
“I’m not happy with anybody," she said of her choices this time. That's especially hard in a family of ardent Trump supporters who have balked at her indecision.
“Believe me, my son, my kids are looking at me and thinking, ‘How can you not like Trump?!’" she said, describing difficult Sunday night dinners where she tries to redirect the conversation from politics to the Cubs.
Badalamenti credits Trump for a booming economy before the pandemic but she's turned off by his knee-jerk reactions, worried about his interactions with world leaders, and feels he should think more before he speaks and tweets.
Biden worries her, too: “I think he’s trying to make a good effort but at the same time he doesn't know what’s — he’s only being told what’s going on.”
Longtime Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who has been running focus groups with undecided voters throughout the election, including one Thursday night that included Jaronowski, sees a common refrain among many of the undecideds.
“They’re judging on two completely different attributes and they can’t decide which is more important to them,” he said. “They don’t like Trump as a person, but they don’t feel badly about his administration or his policies. They really like Joe Biden as a person, but they are so nervous about what he’s going to do if he were elected. And so they can’t figure out which is more important to them.”
With two historically unpopular candidates, the 2016 race produced unusually large numbers of voters — double digits on the eve of the election — who told pollsters they were either undecided or planned to vote for third-party candidates. Many of those voters rallied around Trump in the final weeks of the campaign, helping to hand him his unexpected victory.
Polls suggest there are far fewer on-the-fence voters this time around, but both campaigns believe they have the edge in an election where every vote could count.
“Frankly, I like our chances with them because President Trump has delivered results,” said Nick Trainer, Trump’s director of battleground strategy. He said that just like in 2016, those who identify as undecided tend to be right-leaning and support conservative policies such as lower taxes and a strong military.
Biden’s campaign, which is ahead in polls nationally and a number of battleground states, voices similar optimism and argues those who are undecided historically break for the challenger.
Having so few undecided voters to move “is problematic if your candidate is not leading,” said Becca Siegel, the campaign’s chief analytics officer. She adds that the campaign’s focus on unity and bringing the country together is “extremely persuasive to this group.”
The Biden campaign has hope of winning over people like Jaronowski, a guidance counselor who comes from a family of lifelong Republicans.
Jaronowski, 37, who lives in Independence, Ohio, said she ended up supporting Clinton. Jaronowski said she was repulsed by Trump, whom she said she hates “with the fire of a thousand suns.” But it was hard nonetheless.
This year, though she opposes Democratic policies, she has deep respect for Biden, whom she calls “a very good man.”
But she and her husband own a consumer debt-buying company and fear that a President Biden could cancel that debt, which amounts to tens of millions of dollars.
“Voting in Biden, that’s a very scary thing personally,” she said, adding that the decision would be far easier if she didn't think he was such a good person.
Others are making their own calculations.
Sam Hillyer, 35, who lives in Fayetteville in northwest Arkansas, voted for third-party candidate Gary Johnson in 2016.
This time, he said, "it's down to either Donald Trump, Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian candidate, or possibly not voting in the presidential and voting for the other candidates." Hillyer, a dispatcher for a trucking company, has written off Biden, convinced the Democrat would raise taxes and take a more interventionist approach to foreign policy and, he said, it “doesn’t help with all the new kind of shady scandals popping up."
Hillyer said he closely aligns with Jorgensen on most issues, but rejects the candidate's support for abortion rights.
Living in a strongly Republican state, he said, gives him more freedom than if he lived in a battleground state whose electoral votes are up for grabs, in which case he would vote for Trump without hesitation to try to stop Biden.
For now, he said, “I go back and forth maybe a couple times a day."
Tracye Stewart, 49, of Richmond, Virginia, is certain a Biden victory would lead to more government restrictions in the fight against the coronavirus and exact unnecessary economic pain.
Stewart, a faithful Republican voter, said that while Trump “hasn’t done anything spectacular” in his first term, he also has not “made the country worse.”
But Stewart’s ballot remains on her desk at home unfilled.
Her sometimes tearful conversations with a friend she’s known since 3rd grade have given her pause.
Her friend raises concerns about Trump’s embrace of QAnon, an unfounded conspiracy theory, and argues that white supremacy is on the rise under the president.
Stewart, who works for a helicopter charter management company, said: “If I voted for Biden it wouldn’t be for myself, it would be for my friend."
Madhani reported from Chicago.