The presidential race in Ohio remains a volatile contest that could break either way depending on how undecided voters and those supporting third-party candidates make their final decisions, a new survey shows.
Democrat Hillary Clinton leads by 3 percentage points over Republican Donald Trump in the poll, which the University of Akron conducted for this and other Ohio news organizations.
Clinton’s lead is hardly safe: More than one in five Ohio voters — 21 percent — say they are undecided or plan to vote for either Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The outcome in Ohio hinges largely on how those voters make their final decisions.
“Stein appears to be taking away Clinton voters, but Johnson seems to be hurting both candidates,” said John C. Green, director of the Bliss C. Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
The poll included more than 1,000 interviews conducted between Sept. 21 and Oct. 13 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent. In the poll — the third the consortium has done measuring Ohioans’ attitudes on a variety of topics, including negative ads and voter frustration — Clinton has 41 percent of likely voters in Ohio followed by Trump with 38 percent, Johnson with 6 percent and Stein with 1 percent.
The results come as Clinton and Trump head to Wednesday’s third and final debate, another high-stakes showdown that could sway undecided Ohio voters.
“The third debate is important to both candidates because it is the last time to influence a large number of voters directly,” Green said. “Because Trump is running behind in many states, it is especially important for him to make a good impression.”
The poll shows the Ohio electorate has been anything but static during these final weeks before the election.
Because the poll was conducted over three weeks and encompassed three debates and major developments in the campaigns, it reflects opinions over time rather than at any given moment, as in traditional horse-race polls. However, over those weeks, fluctuations were evident for Trump, who lost ground after both of his debate performances. Both Ohio and national polling showed Trump numbers taking a dive after his second debate and the Access Hollywood videotape that caught him boasting about sexual assault and the allegations from a number of women who say he kissed or groped them without their permission —allegations he has denied.
Only after his vice presidential running-mate Mike Pence delivered a strong debate performance was there a rebound for Trump.
‘It just felt like a show’
Poll respondents interviewed about the debates say they’ve had an impact, but also highlighted some of their frustrations about the tone taken by the two campaigns.
“I think she took it seriously. He didn’t,” Vincent Chandler, a truck driver from Akron said about the debate performance of the two candidates.”It just felt like a show to me. It felt more like a reality TV show than an actual policy debate. And I think a lot of people are more interested in policy than old scandals and everything else that comes up.”
Linda Hampton, 56, a legal secretary in the Columbus area, agreed. “The campaign has been far too negative, far too personal,” she said.
Although Hampton said she plans to vote for Clinton, she isn’t happy about the way either campaign has been conducted. “I think it goes the same for Hillary, unfortunately, because neither are explaining enough about how they will make these things happen,” she said. “They are spending too much time attacking each others’ character.”
Green said the perceived weaknesses of the candidates is a big factor in the closeness of the race: 55.1 percent view Clinton in somewhat or very unfavorable terms, while 61 percent view Trump that way, according to the poll.
No one on either side seems too happy about what they are hearing from the candidates.
Jeannie Mercer of Wooster is a Trump supporter who said she believes he is a strong leader who will “look at everything with a fresh eye.”
But Mercer, who is 61, said the campaigns have taken the country “down the gutter.
“I hate to see that,” she said. “At 18 I had a lot of hope that this country would be improving. And at this point, I think it’s at the lowest point since I was 18.”
Mercer says she believes the race is closer than many people believe. “The pundits want to say that Hillary Clinton is going to win, but I don’t know that they are paying attention to people like me,” she said.
Too close to call
Despite small shifts, the race in Ohio has been close throughout the election cycle. University of Akron pollsters surveyed the same group of Ohio voters on important topics and concerns over several months. The data provides more of a film strip than just a snapshot in time. Over the past few weeks, Clinton and Trump have traded the lead back and forth but the race is essentially too close to call.
“Ohio is a very diverse state politically, reflecting social and political divisions across the country,” said Green. “And because of this diversity, both the Democrats and Republicans have been lavishing attention on Ohio. A new factor is the unpopularity of both candidates.”
This much is clear: Clinton supporters can’t stand Trump and Trump supporters can’t stand Clinton. A little more than 95 percent of Trump supporters hold an unfavorable view of Clinton. A little more than 94 percent of Clinton voters have an unfavorable view of Trump, according to the poll.
Amber Rhinehart, an administrative assistant who lives in Dayton, reflects the level of animosity many feel toward one or both of the candidates. Rhinehart says she’ll vote for Trump — not because she likes him but she can’t stand her.
“The biggest thing for me is the lying about the emails,” she said.
The negativity toward Clinton has mostly obscured the historic and groundbreaking nature of her campaign: She is the first woman nominated for president by a major party.
But she is also a candidate with a 30-year history in the public eye and baggage that seems to get heavier with each passing year. Already bruised by her use of a private email server while she served as U.S. Secretary of State, Clinton now faces almost daily disclosures of hacked political emails and paid speeches made to Wall Street high rollers.
Huge numbers of Americans say they don’t trust her.
Trump, too, is a vilified figure. While Clinton’s secret speech transcripts and leaked emails from her campaign and the Democratic National Committee have captured media attention, they have been nearly drowned out by bombshells landing on the Trump side of the race.
The New York Times published a story Oct. 1 showing that Trump took nearly a $1 billion business loss in 1995, which would allow him to avoid paying federal income taxes for 18 years. Six days later, audio leaked of Trump talking to ‘Access Hollywood’ host Billy Bush 11 years ago, when Trump said in crude terms that his celebrity status allows him to kiss and grope women against their will.
The tape, made when Trump was a 59-year-old man on his third marriage, triggered national outrage and debate over sexual harassment and assault.
Some Ohioans are so turned off by both candidates they say they won’t vote for either of them.
Sue Henry, 69, a retired school teacher who lives in Bexley, said she was leaning toward Trump and then changed her mind because of his “prejudicial statements against various groups.”
But Henry doesn’t like Clinton’s history — starting with her time as an attorney in Arkansas to her service as Secretary of State and “her continuous lying” — and says she will vote for Johnson instead.
“Gary Johnson, he may not be the brightest bulb in the pack, but he does not seem — at least at this point in time, to my knowledge — to have the immense number of scandals that both of these two have in their past,” Henry said. “Could we at least have someone who professes to have a moral character be president?”
Paul Boocher, a Wright State University student and Marine Corps veteran who lives in West Carrollton, also said he supports Johnson.
“The first thing is he’s not either of them,” he said. “He’s not perfect but he just seems to be like the more well rounded candidate.”
While many American voters are unhappy with the choices, as the election nears the excitement for some is increasing.
Hampton, the legal secretary in the Columbus area, said she has backed Clinton since before Trump entered the race and nothing is stopping her from voting.
“I’m even driving my 85-year-old mother to the polls,” she said. “We’re voting.”
Doug Livingston of the Akron Beacon Journal, Nadia Pflaum of WEWS, Tom Troy of The (Toledo) Blade contributed to this report.