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'Unhinged,' 'Predictable': What Undecided Debate Watchers Thought Of Candidates

Undecided voters are typically the target of presidential debates, but it's unclear whether Tuesday night's back and forth helped distill anything for people who haven't backed a candidate yet.
Patrick Semansky
Undecided voters are typically the target of presidential debates, but it's unclear whether Tuesday night's back and forth helped distill anything for people who haven't backed a candidate yet.

"Puzzling," "arrogant," "unhinged," "bully," "classic Trump" — those were some of the words a focus group of undecided swing state voters used to describe President Trump's debate performance Tuesday night.

For Democratic nominee Joe Biden: "Politician," "predictable," "leader," "rehearsed," "nice guy," "compassion," "coherent," "evasive."

With just a month left before Election Day, most voters have already made up their minds about who they're going to vote for. Only 6% of voters in a recent NBC News poll said they were still undecided.

That small section of voters is typically the target audience of presidential debates, but it's unclear whether Tuesday night's back and forth helped distill anything for people who haven't backed a candidate yet.

"It moved it from maybe voting for one of them to definitely not voting for either," Benjamin Myles of Louisville, Ky., said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition.

Samantha Worrell of Burgaw, N.C., told NPR the debate didn't clarify her choice in any way.

"I'm definitely not going to vote for Trump, but I can't say that Biden has won my vote completely either," she said. "So I really just want to throw up thinking about voting for either of them."

Zoey Shisler, of Tacoma, Wash., told NPR she was hoping to hear more about how the candidates would address the economy.

"All Biden had to do was convince me that he has policies that are gonna replace Trump when he gets in office, and he hasn't convinced me of that," she said.

Jhevon McMillan, a law student in Montana, told NPR he didn't come away convinced by either candidate's message, but that the rhetoric from Trump during the debate did make him fearful about what's to come on Election Day.

"I think the biggest thing I took away was 'stand back and stand by' and 'watch the polls,' " McMillian said, referring to Trump telling the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by" and later encouraging his supporters to observe at polling places.

While most of the undecided voters sampled by NPR were not moved by Tuesday night's debate, there were some shifts in a virtual focus group, organized by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, where voters were asked to describe Trump and Biden's performance in one or two words.

The words used to describe Trump were universally negative. Biden's were more mixed, but mostly positive or neutral. After the debate, four participants said they would vote for Biden and two decided on Trump. Nine remained undecided.

Ruthie, from Pennsylvania, said she entered the night unsure, but came away ready to back Biden. (The Luntz focus group did not provide last names.)

"I don't think it's important if someone can stand up to Trump or not; it just doesn't matter," she told Luntz. "Anytime that Biden tried to answer, and give his views on anything, Trump just was babbling and ranting and yapping. ... Basically a person acts like that because they have nothing."

Joe, from North Carolina, said Biden exceeded low expectations set by the Trump campaign.

"I was surprised that he did as well as he did," he told the focus group. "I think some part of the narrative that Trump has spun so far that Biden may not be up to this task, it certainly did plant a seed of doubt in mind. So I feel like the performance was strong, but perhaps just not strong enough for me to make a decision."

Travis from Arizona said he didn't get a good sense of how Biden would govern. He said he's trying to decide between a known quantity in Trump and Biden — who dodged the question of whether he'd "pack" the Supreme Court after Trump hopes to get the Senate to confirm a justice in the weeks before the election.

"If he doesn't have an answer to it, how am I going to put him in charge for four years?" he said.

Travis, however, railed against the president for refusing to explicitly condemn white supremacy — a low point in the debate for nearly every participant in the focus group.

"I don't know why he misses these layups," said Nick, also from Arizona. " 'Why, why, why?' is what I kept saying after he didn't answer that question."

Luke from Wisconsin said he didn't like Trump's behavior either, but there are more important things he is considering when it comes down to casting his vote. He says the unrest in Kenosha, Wis., this summer is a big motivating factor for him.

"Him acting that way doesn't necessarily impact my bottom line," Luke said. "What I care about is the economy, and I care about law and order."

Joe, from Arizona, said he caresabout law and order, too. He's a lifelong Republican and said if Sen. Bernie Sanders was the nominee, his choice would be more difficult.

"Biden being the center left, and Trump being unhinged and frankly a poor leader, is what has directed my decision," he said.

Joe came away from the debate intent on voting for Biden.

"I don't think Trump defended his record very well on [law and order]," he told Luntz. "It's not just the words he speaks, acting the way he does at a debate, but he really inflames a lot of anger in this country, and I think he has grossly failed at that. On COVID-19, he couldn't defend his record on slow-walking his administration's response."

In Columbia, Tenn., Kim Patterson told NPR she is looking forward to the next debate, hoping a second go — on Oct. 15 — will help her make up her mind.

"I would be wrong to make a decision based on one performance and a couple of soundbites," she said. "I don't think that would be very fair. But they would have to do a lot at this point to change my mind."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.