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Undecided voters in North Carolina: struggling but hopeful

Understanding each other

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the media all come in for rough treatment by 12 undecided voters in a major battleground state. But some see a resilient nation. 

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    Voters wait in a line at a polling station open into the evening as early voting for the 2016 general elections begins in Durham, N.C., on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016.
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Does anybody like both main presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart puts the question to a table of 12 undecided voters in Charlotte, N.C.

No hands go up.

Does anybody like even one of the candidates?

Crickets.

OK, then. How about this: “I don’t like either candidate.”

All hands go up.

At this late stage in the 2016 campaign, watching a focus group of undecided voters can be painful. Some participants liken the campaign to a prize fight (Ali vs. Frazier or “Rocky”), or even the Vietnam War – “no good outcome either way.” These Americans want to believe in someone, anyone, but they’re stuck in a loop. They’ve nervous about this one, they don’t trust that one, and around and around it goes.

When asked for short descriptions of Mr. Trump’s behavior during the campaign, they answer easily: “spoiled brat,” “child having a tantrum,” “rich kid,” “bully.” Mrs. Clinton doesn’t fare much better: “robotic,” “liar, liar pants on fire,” “privileged,” “cool operator.”

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“It’s embarrassing,” says Jennifer, a 40-something homemaker. “I have a 12-year-old son and he listens to this stuff.... It’s hard to explain why adults are acting this way.”

Nevertheless, Jennifer and the others – who gathered on Tuesday evening, and were viewed by reporters via live-stream – are determined to vote. In North Carolina, one of the nation’s top battlegrounds, a slate of tossup races makes each vote especially important – not only for the state’s 15 presidential electoral votes but also in the races for governor and US Senate.

But Gary, a banking consultant in his 60s, says he may not decide until he gets into the voting booth.

“I’ve been on both sides, and I’m really having a tough time,” he says. “Trump scares me. He’s thin-skinned. I’m worried he might start a war.”

“On the other hand, Clinton scares me with what the Supreme Court could do,” Gary adds, referring to the president’s power to nominate justices and shape jurisprudence for decades to come. “So it truly is the lesser of two evils.

“Will you vote for one of the two?” asks Mr. Hart, who moderates “Voice of the Voters” focus groups on behalf of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.  

“I have to,” Gary says. “If I don’t, I can’t complain.”

Another conflicted voter has devised her own system for making a decision. She’s boiled her choice down to the Republican Trump and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, and is comparing her views to the positions of their parties.

“I’ve decided to dispel personalities, and look at the platforms,” says Tracy, a 50-something writer of romance novels and a self-described moderate. “There’s checks and balances, and while Trump scares me, he doesn’t have the power to make things happen.”

In Tracy’s scoring system, Trump came in ahead of Mr. Johnson by three points. “But I’m waiting to see what happens in the next week or two,” she says.

Then Matt chimes in. He, too, is considering Johnson. “Hillary, to me, embodies a lot of what we’ve talked about in terms of partisanship,” he says.

But when he thinks about his presidential vote, he thinks about leadership – and “in some ways, Hillary’s actually demonstrated phenomenal leadership,” in the way that she orchestrated her path to the Democratic nomination.

Still, “that’s only leadership with her supporters,” says Matt, who is in jewelry sales. “I don’t think she’s got the ability to reach out beyond that.”

Trump the outsider is “a wild card, in the sense of, can he bring people to the table to form consensus to pass legislation that’s going to be effective,” he says. “That’s what I don’t know.”

Other participants said they needed to do more research before making a decision – and in the process, revealed another casualty of this election, trust in the news media. It was already declining, but is now at record lows.

“I try to stay away from the media,” and instead “do research on facts,” says Katie, a 30-year-old financial planner.

She seems to include social media in her definition of "the media," blaming voters for following social media, and not doing any “critical thinking.” She and others also mention social media's negative impact on children, in particular, as well as its larger impact on the country.

Denise, who has an e-commerce business, blames social media for the nation’s celebrity-obsessed culture. “Who are the heroes now?” she asks. “Nobody with morals – movie stars, music people, rich people.”

But when Hart asks the voters whether they believe the election might be “rigged,” as Trump has said, it becomes clear that old-fashioned news media are right in the bull’s eye.

Matt, the jewelry salesman, says he needs to dig deeper into the question of a potentially “rigged election” – beyond the assertions of the major news outlets. Then he refers to an email revealed by Wikileaks, in which a few dozen high-profile reporters were invited by the Clinton campaign for cocktails before she announced her latest presidential bid. For Matt, that email created a sense that the media are “in the tank for one candidate,” creating “an inherent bias in their reporting.”

Ultimately, though, at least some in the group felt a sense of optimism about the future of the country – and that something positive can come out of this most divisive of elections.

“I think we’re a good country,” says Donna, a retired finance director. “9/11 brought us down, but my feeling is we did regroup, we came back together. And I think we as a country will take whatever candidate becomes president and work it.”

“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” chimes in Denise. “I think we’re a hardy bunch, and we will recover, and I think we’ll be great.”

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