The elections podcast by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight team contained this rather interesting moment near its end on Monday:
NATE SILVER: Neither of these candidates has really won that many people over. Clinton is still at only about 42 percent in the [national] polls, down from about 44 or 45 percent right after the convention. 42 percent is not that good. It’s better than being at 39 percent, which is what Trump is at, but some of the marginal Clinton voters now have gone to [Libertarian candidate Gary] Johnson and [Green candidate Jill] Stein. How could Clinton potential lose this election if her favorables are slightly less bad than Trump’s? If more of her voters go to Johnson and Stein. I think she needs a plan for dealing with that. If you assume that third party vote will fade… well, maybe… […] but you certainly can’t count on that. I’ve never seen an election before where the number of decideds like goes up as the election goes on. [Laughter]
In this of all election cycles, maybe we should consider this before laughing.
This is an election cycle where, unlike in the last one, significant swings have proven possible and suggest exactly those unthinkable reversals. A lot of the restrictions I talked about in the last presidential cycle seem to continue to ensnare presidential contenders – most notably that Trump is trying what Romney wouldn’t, to say he’s at once in favor of two diametrically opposed immigration policies. But woven in between first Obama’s and now Clinton’s inability to effectively harness the news cycles and first Romney’s and now Trump’s need to hold two positions at once, there’s an almost supernatural destabilizing element: the decided voter who un-decides.
To fully credit them, there’s most likely no singular bloc of voters who fit that description. Even from the same part of the political spectrum, the motivation for a particular de-decider will vary, and as a result their undeciding can arrive at any number of times. While this seemingly new phenomenon is in some ways a reflection of this race – between two major candidates with net negative popularity, and maybe popular to get buyer’s remorse from – it’s also a manifestation of alienation from the two parties themselves.
That dislike for the two major parties doesn’t precisely fall evenly, and so neither do the un-decided. Amid recent allegations of corruption and other non-ideological criticisms, Hillary Clinton is perhaps more vulnerable to losing support for appearing to embody some of the greatest flaws in the system more generally. For Trump, similar allegations might limit or even undo his support, but the perception of him as an electoral outsider might also soften the blow.
Perhaps more coherently than any other recent presidential election, this one has been predicated on ideas of candidates’ relative flaws. With both major candidates facing limited enthusiasm and low popularity, running against their opponent has played a much bigger and more universal role this year than previously.
One of the problems that strategy poses, however, is that some of your support won’t kick in until it looks like you might lose. On the level of this that we have reached this year, what’s more, some of your supporters won’t necessarily stick around once it looks like you will safely carry the election. Conscientious voting has been raised as an issue in both primaries and into the general election, priming voters to ask themselves that if they don’t absolutely need to make a lesser-of-two-evils choice, then why bother.
(The Princeton Election Consortium’s national meta-margin and FiveThirtyEight’s national polling averages, both showing the “sine wave” fluctuations Nate Silver mentioned earlier in the same podcast.)
For Clinton, someone absorbing support from her left and her right on the basis of her not being Trump, this creates boom-bust cycles of her support, or as Nate Silver put it – sine waves across the electoral polling. Like last year, the two major parties have pretty much played each other into a Democratic-leaning stalemate on the national level.
What seems to be new this year is that the sea is choppy, not that we’re in a different boat. The real proof of this dynamic, of course, will be born out in whether Clinton recovers some of these supporters now that the race is tightening again. Until then, as Silver said, we haven’t yet seen a race where the number of undecided voters goes up… but there’s always a first time.