Who's undecided? Donald Trump's toughest hurdle to pull off a win: Most minds are made up

WASHINGTON – Trying to claw into the lead in the race for president as time is running out, Donald Trump is so aware of the voters he needs – the ones he's struggling to win back – that he's calling them out by name.

"To my favorite people in the world,” the president said in a video last week fresh off returning to the White House after battling the coronavirus. “The seniors."

During a campaign stop Tuesday in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Trump turned to another demographic that could stand in the way of his reelection. "Do me a favor, suburban women, would you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?"

As Trump's support erodes among voters ages 65 and older, women and suburban voters, Democratic nominee Joe Biden has taken a double-digit lead in several national polls and widened margins in battleground states. 

Early voters line up to cast their ballots at the South Regional Library polling location in Durham, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

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The former vice president's position has brought back memories from 2016 when Democrat Hillary Clinton led in polls three weeks from Election Day, before Trump's victory. Trump faces a problem unlike four years ago: The majority of voters – 95% or higher in most polls – say they have already decided who they're backing and can't be persuaded.

Adding to the troubles for the president: More than 26 million people have voted early, and Democrats have a major advantage in mail-in voting.

"I think it's vitally important that the current president move out of the White House and on to his business practices," said Bob Lowe, 72, a retired superintendent from Le Center, Minnesota, who voted for Biden after backing Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in 2016.

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Lowe, a political independent, is "not enamored by either candidate" but called Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic "nothing short of abysmal" and said his "personality, actions and behaviors demean the office of the president of the United States." He said he made up his mind in August and doesn't have any friends or family members still undecided: "I think the lines have been drawn, perhaps for some time."

A server wears a face shield and face-covering as people sit to watch a broadcast of the first debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Biden polling above 50%, a mark Clinton rarely reached

There are fewer undecided voters in this year's election and not as many considering a third-party candidate. Biden has eclipsed an important mark. He  consistently wins support in polls from more than 50% of voters, while Clinton typically polled in the high- or mid-40s in October before the 2016 election.

Strong opinions about Trump after his four years in the White House have proved challenging for the president. Biden, lacking the high negative marks that Clinton did, turned into an elusive target for the Trump campaign. It has made for a remarkably stable race with little tightening in polls compared with past elections.

Trump has not led in the Real Clear Politics' average of national polls since Biden became the Democratic nominee in August. Biden's lowest mark has been 48.7%. Trump's highest has been 43.3%.

An NPR/Marist University poll released Thursday found Biden ahead of Trump 54%-43% among likely voters. Only 2% say they are unsure whom they will vote for, and 1% say they back a third-party candidate. Only 5% of voters say they could be persuaded to change their opinions. 

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"It's an incredibly low number," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. "President Trump's strategy from the time he took office was to keep the base hopping. Because of his personality, it ends up a referendum on him when he really needs to make it a choice, and he hasn't been able to do that."

Miringoff said, "There's very few people who are looking over the choices right now. That makes it very uphill for the president. It's a very steep incline for him. People are comparing it to 2016, but I think it's a very false comparison."

In the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, Biden held a 51.3%-42.3% lead over Trump among likely voters as of Saturday. Trump was at roughly that same position in 2016, 42.2%, but Clinton's polling average was lower than Biden's, at 47.7%.

The percentage of undecided voters in October polls four years ago generally ranged from 4% to 9%. The 2016 race was much more fluid. 

Clinton and Trump received sizable bounces after their party's conventions. Trump captured the lead in late July. In the last month of the race, Clinton got a boost after the release of Trump's "Access Hollywood" recording – in which he made vulgar comments about women – followed by a bounce for Trump after FBI Director James Comey announced an investigation into emails on Clinton's personal server.

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Fewer voters consider third-party candidates

In addition to more undecided voters in 2016, more voters were willing to vote for Johnson and another third-party candidate, Green Party nominee Jill Stein. Johnson finished with 3.3% of the vote and Stein 1.1%, enough to be a factor in several battleground states that Trump won by narrow margins.

In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken Oct. 8-10, 2016, Johnson polled at 9% and Stein at 2%. This year's third-party candidates – Libertarian Jo Jorgensen, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins and rapper Kanye West – barely register in most polls and Hawkins and West won't be on every state's ballot.

President Donald Trump on Oct. 17, 2020, in Norton Shores, Michigan.

"It runs counter to the idea that there's a hidden Trump vote," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. "Part of the reason in 2016 that some of the states tipped Trump was because of the presence of third-party candidates, both Libertarian and Green, and a higher undecided."

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Paleologos said 2020 hasn't mirrored 2016 because Biden has not become polarizing like Clinton and Trump. The Trump campaign has tried to bring down Biden's favorability ratings – painting him as a socialist, calling him mentally unfit and pushing corruption accusations about his son Hunter – but the attacks have largely fallen flat.

Paleologos said that four years ago, many voters disliked Clinton "with a higher intensity" than they disliked Trump.

"This time, you don't have that," Paleologos said. "You certainly have a negative on Trump, people who feel unfavorable to him, but it's not matched to an unfavorable for Biden. There's less interest in waffling. And there's less interest in voting for a third-party candidate."

Trump sticks to game plan

Four years after Democrats felt burned by polls, Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon sought to dispel any complacency and early celebrating among the left last week.

"There is still a long way to go in this campaign, and we think this race is far closer than folks on this website think," she wrote on Twitter. "Like a lot closer."

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Biden leads senior voters by about 20 percentage points in some battleground states. Despite seeing his support among seniors nosedive during the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has not altered his approach to try to persuade voters.

A combative Trump was on display during Thursday's town hall in Miami hosted by NBC News that featured uncommitted voters. Trump refused to denounce QAnon, falsely said 85% of people who wear masks get the coronavirus and said he couldn't remember whether he tested negative for coronavirus before the first presidential debate. "So cute," he said to moderator Savannah Guthrie as she pressed him on QAnon conspiracy theories.

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One voter at the town hall, Paulette Dale, a registered Republican who said she's leaning toward voting for Biden, told the president, "I have to say, you have a great smile. You're so handsome when you smile."

Yet even she's made her mind up. The Miami New Times reported Friday Dale is sticking with her plans to vote for Biden on Monday when early voting in Florida kicks off. "I wish he would smile more and talk less," Dale, a retired professor at Miami Dade College, told the newspaper. 

Trump won many late-breaking voters in 2016, but this year, he's struggled to keep his coalition intact. 

"Biden's doing better among white voters. He's made some inroads into people without college education," said Miringoff, who oversaw the NPR/Marist poll. "And he's made significant inroads into people who are over 65. It's really a different slice of the electorate."

Mike Loewenstein, 72, a self-described moderate conservative from Ocala, Florida – a retiree-heavy community where Trump campaigned Friday – voted for Trump four years ago. He has second thoughts about doing so this year, arguing Trump "blew his leadership role" addressing the pandemic. "A national emergency of that size, he blew it as a leader. He blew it politically."

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Loewenstein, a retired call center director, is not sold on Biden either and said he plans to review last week's dueling town halls to see whether "anybody actually said anything that makes sense to me."

"I'm looking at what they've actually accomplished versus what's said," Loewenstein said. "Once I make up my mind, I'll make up mind, and I'll just do it."

Gilbert Lightbourne, 66, an automotive consultant from Miami Gardens, Florida, decided months ago.

"(Trump's) very divisive. I don't think right now he's the person to run the country. Too much drama, let me put it that way," said Gilbert, a Democrat who plans to vote for Biden. "I'd just like to get this over and done and our country headed in the right direction."

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.