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Politics

Voters are fascinated and repelled by their presidential campaign choices

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
Only 66 more days to go until Nov. 8.
(EPA / Associated Press)

Fascinated and repelled, deeply engaged but dismayed over their choices, American voters are closely following the 2016 presidential campaign at record levels.

And while they’re dissatisfied with the candidates, voters nonetheless have been making up their minds about which one to back. Four months before the election, the share of voters calling themselves undecided is unusually low; so is the share who say they might change their minds.

They’ve settled on candidates even though fewer than half in either party said they were even fairly satisfied with their options. Four in 10 said they found the choice difficult because they didn’t think either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would be a good president – a view most widely shared among Trump’s fellow Republicans. Many in both parties said their vote would be cast against the other candidate more than in favor of the one they back. 

Those are key findings of a new poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, which paints a detailed picture of an electorate convinced that this election matters more than most and seemingly determined to make the best of an unhappy choice.

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As a two-term presidency draws to a close – a time when voters typically look for a shift in direction – Trump has clearly captured voters’ desire for change. Some three-quarters said they believed he would bring change to Washington; a majority, including her own supporters, did not think Hillary Clinton would.

The problem for voters is that most who see Trump changing things believe it would be for the worse. Only about one-third of voters said they believed Trump would change things for the better.

The survey was taken before FBI Director James Comey sharply criticized Clinton’s handling of classified information in emails while she was secretary of State, but announced that no criminal charges would be recommended against her. Whether those events will significantly affect voter opinions won’t be clear for days.

The survey found widespread doubts among voters about whether Clinton is honest and truthful. That’s especially true among Republicans, but also among Democrats who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primaries.

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But while voters were skeptical on that score, Clinton held a lopsided advantage on other key candidate traits: By 56%-30%, voters said the phrase “personally qualified to be president” applied more to Clinton than Trump. By 53%-36% they said the same about the words “would use good judgment in a crisis.”

Those assessments help explain why Clinton has held a sizable lead in most nonpartisan polls for weeks. The Pew survey found her with a nine-point advantage over Trump, 45%-36%. When Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was added to the mix, he took 11% of the vote, drawing equally from the other two. 

Very few voters said there was even a chance they would change their minds: Among Clinton voters, only 6% said they would consider backing Trump, and among Trump voters, only 8% said they would consider Clinton.

That’s a far smaller share than in the last four elections. In 2000 and 2008, the last two elections without an incumbent, 20% to 25% of voters at this stage of the campaign said they might change their decision.

In addition to voters’ judgments of the candidates’ personal characteristics, the election is also being driven by the coalitions that have formed behind each of them.

As he showed throughout the primaries, Trump appeals strongly to a large group of white voters, particularly older whites and those who did not graduate from college.

Clinton has built strong majorities among the groups that twice elected President Obama, including blacks and Latinos, young people and unmarried women.

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Despite her well-documented struggles with young voters during the primaries, Clinton now leads Trump by 2-1 among voters younger than 30, racking up a bigger advantage with them than Obama had at this point in 2008.

That’s true even though only about a quarter of young people said they were satisfied with their choices – a drastic drop from the nearly seven in 10 who expressed satisfaction during Obama’s first run for president in 2008.

Clinton also leads, 52%-40%, among college-educated white voters. If that holds, she would be the first Democrat to win a majority of college-educated whites since pollsters started asking such questions during Harry Truman’s presidency.

As she heads toward becoming the first woman to be the presidential nominee of a major party, Clinton has built a sizable lead among women of her generation – doing significantly better than Obama did among women 50 and older. She also has a whopping 37-point lead among unmarried women, a core group for Democrats.

Those demographic breakdowns matter not just because voters feel the tug of tribal loyalties, but because people from different racial or ethnic groups and of different levels of education and income have distinct priorities among issues.

Across the board, most voters care about the economy and terrorism. But voters of the millennial generation also put a high priority on the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities and of gays and lesbians. Clinton held a wide lead over Trump as the candidate best able to handle those issues.

Trump’s voters put a higher priority on immigration than do most of Clinton’s voters. The chief exception on her side are Latino voters, who ranked immigration among their top issues and heavily favored her. As a result, although immigration is one of the driving forces behind Trump’s support, it’s an issue on which voters as a whole gave the edge to Clinton.

On another issue that Trump has emphasized – trade policy –the two so far have fought to a draw, the poll indicated.

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By a small but significant margin, Clinton continues to draw more support among her fellow Democrats than Trump does among Republicans.

More than half of Republicans said they don’t expect their party will unite this year; only 38% said it would. On the Democratic side, about three-quarters of voters expect the party to unify, and about 85% of those who voted for Sanders in the primaries said they now back Clinton.

On the Republican side, two issues in particular appeared to trouble voters who have doubts about Trump: his stands on immigration and foreign policy. Among Republicans who backed someone other than Trump in the primaries, almost three in 10 said Clinton would do a better job than him on making wise foreign policy decisions.

Roughly three-quarters of voters said the outcome of the current election “really matters.” That’s the highest level since Pew began asking in 2000.

Eight in 10 voters say they have given the election a lot of thought – again the highest level in 24 years, the survey found. And the share who find the campaign “interesting” – 77% – is the largest in two decades although a similarly large majority said the campaign was too negative.

The Pew survey was conducted by telephone, both landlines and cellphones, from June 15-26, among 2,245 American adults, including 1,655 registered voters. It has a margin of error for the registered voter sample of 2.7 percentage points in either direction.

David.Lauter@latimes.com

For more on Politics and Policy, follow me @DavidLauter

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