Undecided Voters Are Particularly Unpredictable This Year, Experts Say

What happens when you've got two historically unpopular candidates.

ByMEGHAN KENEALLY and ADAM KELSEY
September 09, 2016, 4:30 AM

— -- The election is just two months away, but a question mark looms over the campaigns of both candidates: the role that undecided voters will play.

The unfavorable figures for both major party candidates have reached historic highs, making the actions of undecideds slightly less predictable, experts say.

"The race will likely tighten, but I don't think we can predict very well the direction," said Hans Noel, a Georgetown University associate professor.

"We expect people's party identification to draw them back home, but it's an open question how well that will work for Trump, who is openly opposed by so many Republican leaders," he told ABC News today.

The undecided gap may be tightening already, however, as the latest nationwide poll, from CNN/ORC, had only 1 percent of voters saying they would not vote for any of the four candidates — the lowest percentage on that issue in the organization's polls since mid-June.

Undecideds are "more likely" in all election cycles to be independents, as opposed to those registered with one of the two major parties, according to James Campbell, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo in New York.

"One way to think of this is that early deciders see the vote as an easy decision, undecideds [late deciders] see it as a difficult decision," Campbell said.

That's the case for Jerrom Ragan, a 37-year-old Nebraska resident who is not registered with any party and thinks that "none of [the candidates] are making me feel like they represent me."

"I'm not really interested in either one of them, to be honest, or any of them," Ragan told ABC News about this year's candidates.

He says he isn't sure about whether he will vote.

"It really depends," he said. "I live in a red state, so really, the presidential vote wouldn't matter for me anyways, because it's going to go for Trump."

John Whitehead, a 36-year-old Baltimore, resident also feels that his vote — if he casts one — will matter less because of his state.

He said that while he has "major disagreements with both political parties," he feels that his vote would have little impact, because "I don't live in a swing state."

"I don't think I'll actually sit it out," he said, adding that he plans to write in candidates all the way down the ballot.

This year's presidential election has been unusual in more ways than one, such as how these candidates affect the actions of undecided voters.

"Both parties have nominated comparatively unpopular candidates, with Trump in particular alienating a lot of the people in his own party," Noel said. "That might lead to some people just staying home, disillusioned. On the other hand, this is a highly covered election. I suspect more people are more engaged with it than in recent elections."

Campbell said that while there will likely be a fair number of undecideds on the Republican side who may "hold their noses and vote for [Trump]" or vote but skip the presidential question, there could be a similar situation on the Democratic side.

Campbell said that he could see that playing out among "young Democrats who had supported Bernie [Sanders]. Some will hold their noses and vote for Clinton, but some of these potential voters may also opt out."

Overall, the number of Americans casting ballots rose slightly in recent presidential elections. A four-decade high was reached in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected president, with 58 percent of the electorate voting, before declining slightly in 2012 to 55 percent, according to the Federal Election Commission.

In 1996, when Bill Clinton was elected to a second term, it was the first time since 1924 that less than 50 percent of the electorate — 49 percent — went to the polls.

"Turnout has been increasing in recent decades, I think in large part because of the increasing role of politics as entertainment," Noel said. "And this is the pinnacle of that. That suggests larger turnout. I sincerely don't know which force will be larger."

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