Op-Ed: Frank Luntz: The 2016 presidential election will be determined by the ‘none of the above’ voters

A woman steps on a piñata version of presidential candidate Donald Trump as she and a group of anti-Trump protesters march through downtown San Diego on May 27.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

If prior elections were decided by soccer moms, security moms, NASCAR dads, or even “the economy, stupid,” the 2016 presidential election will be determined by the NAs — the none of the above voters who have so far refused to support either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. For them, the election isn’t about mere dissatisfaction. It’s about rejection.

Comprising about 11% of the electorate in the critical swing states, the NAs are unwilling or unable to distinguish between our two wildly different candidates — arguably the most different of any presumptive nominees in modern history. These voters are loud, aggressive, and they give me a headache.

But, as a language and communications consultant, I’m listening to them very carefully, because they have become a distinct, determinative force in politics. I’ve heard them out in two dozen televised focus groups for CBS and Fox News, and in surveys for Fortune 500 companies. Anger doesn’t begin to describe their personal outlook. Betrayal does.


They straddle both sides of the ideological spectrum. For them, daily life is about “no”: no economic security, no faith in the future, no trust in their elected officials, and no love, like or even tolerance for either of the presidential candidates thrust upon them.

They’re pessimistic. Only 36% of NAs believe America’s best days are ahead of us, compared with 51% of the country overall. Almost two-thirds (64%) think life in America will get worse over the next five years, compared with 44% overall. And 59% expect their kids to be worse off than them, compared with 45% of all voters.

This is not just a pre-election funk. This is deep depression, seared into their subconscious. After 10 years of failures by Washington, Wall Street and the parties they used to (somewhat) trust. For them, life is about survival, nothing more and nothing less.

They’re not the “low information” voters that conservative talk radio scorns. What they are is dark. They see a stormy future for themselves, they blame America’s biggest institutions for the American peoples’ troubles, and they trust almost no one. Especially not the parties’ prospective nominees.

Moreover, these are not conventional “swing voters” shifting from side to side depending on the latest headlines. Many have voted solidly Democratic or Republican all their lives. But this time, with these two candidates, they’re finally saying no.

Two-thirds of the NA voters are women and more than a quarter are under age 30, compared with 18% of the electorate. Moreover, nearly two-thirds say they “live paycheck to paycheck, working really hard just to get by.” These are struggling working class voters, the staple of the Democratic Party.

If elections were strictly about demographics, Clinton should be winning them. But she’s not.

Politically, they look more favorably on the Republicans. Just under half (49%) voted for Romney in 2012, while only 36% supported Obama — and they embrace conservatism over liberalism by better than 2 to 1 (45% to 21%).

If elections were strictly about party loyalty or ideology, Trump should be winning them. But he’s not.

How do you “rebuild” from popularity deficits of -76 and -70 among uncommitted voters?

Some NAs will break with tradition and not vote in November. Those who do will pick a side based on their answer to a simple yet profound question: “Whom do I distrust the least?”

That’s because they are not focused on policy or even principle, they are focused on personal candidate attributes, with honesty and integrity at the very top of their lists. And on these essential qualities, both candidates are in trouble.

In a survey I conducted last month, participants were given nine common criticisms of Clinton and asked to choose three that they were personally most concerned about. The top answer for NAs, by far: “she’s not trustworthy,” followed by a “lack of accountability.” They respect her experience, but being credentialed is different than being credible. The latter is far more important to the American people in general and the NA voter in particular.

Trump did no better. The top concerns among NAs from a list of 10 criticisms of Trump were hardly surprising: “Has an offensive and abrasive personality that reflects badly on America,” followed by “doesn’t have deep, core principles, so you’d never know where he stands or what he would do.”

Paul Manafort, Trump’s strategically brilliant senior advisor, has repeatedly asserted that Trump’s style won’t change. But if that’s the case, it will be tough to change the NA voter. They (especially women) need to see there’s something beyond insults before they will commit to spending the next four years with him.

As for Clinton, attempting to rationalize the State Department’s stinging condemnation of her private email policy by claiming that everyone else did it only solidifies the impression that she lives under a different set of rules than everyone else.

But do not mistake the NA’s antipathy for Clinton and Trump as angst towards all politicians. In America, It is still possible to be respected and elected.

Bernie Sanders, for example, sports a very healthy +21 net favorability (51% favorable, 30% unfavorable) among NAs. By comparison, Trump’s net favorability is -76 among the group and Clinton’s is -70. So what if Sanders is an avowed Socialist? These voters find him to be genuine, and that matters more than anything.

It is highly unlikely either side will make much headway with NAs until the debates — if ever. Trump’s scorched-earth messaging and Clinton’s habitual inauthenticity got them through some serious primary challenges, but they burned their bridges to a meaningful segment of the American electorate.

In most normal elections, whichever candidate built those bridges back fastest would be the next American president. But this is not a normal election. How do you “rebuild” from popularity deficits of -76 and -70 among uncommitted voters? That hasn’t happened before.

And both candidates will likely conclude it can’t happen now. So they’ll keep tearing down, even if it means breaking the NA voters’ hearts once again.

Frank Luntz is an on-air contributor and analyst for CBS News and the Fox News Channel.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinionand Facebook