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Michigan's undecided voters slowly, painfully, make up their minds

About 13% of Michiganders are undecided – enough to possibly make a difference this year
User: Keith Ivey
About 13% of Michiganders are undecided – enough to possibly make a difference this year ";

The vast majority of reputable polls show Hillary Clinton winning Michigan by pretty comfortable margins – single digits, maybe, but still comfortable.

But on Friday, Donald Trump’s campaign said its own internal polling show a “dead heat” in the state. That’s more believable now that the Republican nominee made two last-minute stops in Michigan on Monday, just one day after vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine held a rally here.

In a Detroit Free Press poll taken last week, the Democratic nominee had 41% of the vote, with Trump at 34%. “Undecided” came in at third place, with 13%, beating out Libertarian Gary Johnson’s 9%. (That poll was, of course, taken before FBI Director James Comey told Congress about new “investigative steps” in the Clinton email probe. It’s unclear whether, or how, that will affect the race.)

It’s a very, very long shot that all those undecideds would decide to go for Trump. But if they did, it could put the state in his column. And with so many more undecided voters this late in the election than this time four years ago, we wanted to hear from a couple people who are slowly, painfully, starting to make up their minds.

And where better than Michigan’s 7th Congressional District, in the south-central part of the state, since it’s nearly a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans?

An undecided dad, and his very certain 8-year-old son 

Mark McGee and his wife, Krysta, were high school sweethearts here in Eaton Rapids. Long story short, they opened up a hot dog stand, won a Food Network contest, and now have a cozy little downtown café called Mark’s Place. They renovated the whole place themselves. Krysta hand-painted delicate stencils to make the walls look like they’re covered with old fashioned wallpaper, and you can sometimes catch Mark’s mom helping customers behind the counter (their pour-over coffee is very, very good.)

They've got an eight-year-old son, Christian, who has firmly made up his own mind this election.  

"It was a little difficult on Saturday, we were at a birthday party,” Mark McGee says, “And [our son Christian] walks by us and he told a little kid, 'Trump put his hands up a girl's skirt.' And he was like, 'I don't like that!' And we were like, 'Oooh, what do we do,' you know? I mean, it’s on the news! We took him aside and said, ‘Look, it’s great that you know these things, but it’s maybe not something that should be brought up with a seven or six-year-old.’”

But ask McGee, with his dark beard and Tigers cap, who he's voting for? He cringes.

"I have no idea!” he says. “Like I really – that's the thing, I mean, I see – and this is the hard part in my life, all the time, because I see the good in everybody. And like, I can see the bad, too, but I’m just a glass half-full kind of a guy. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Yes, you heard the man: McGee is perhaps the only guy in America who is torn because he sees the good in both candidates.  

“When [Donald Trump] was starting to run, I was like, this is great!” McGee says. “This guy is a small business owner, even though he owns millions of dollars of stuff. And he’s grown, he’s definitely had his failures … that’s life and that’s business. So I thought it was a great idea when he decided to run. But the thing is, I don’t see it. I don’t see him as our leader, I guess. I don’t feel like the decisions he makes are the greatest, or for the best interest of the American people.”

When it comes to Hillary Clinton, he’s still on the fence.

“If Trump wins, I feel like there will be some major changes. But with Hillary, I feel like it’d be more of the same. I mean, it’s just like having Obama for another four years. Which, I mean, I haven’t had any issues. Obama came in in 2008 during in the recession, and I started my business in the recession. And I’ve been doing well, I mean, I can’t complain at all.”  

Ultimately, he says, if the election were today and he absolutely had to decide?

"Oh man,” he says, taking a deep breath. “I feel like I'd go democratic. Just cause I'd like more of the same. And Trump just scares me, man. And I'm really nervous."

The kitchen manager who wishes we could just start this whole thing over

Just down a few blocks down the street from Mark's Place, Tammy Holt is taking a smoke break with her friends outside the laundromat. She says she’s the kitchen manager at the new craft beer place in town, the mom of three kids (ages 6, 7, and 8) and went to college, but didn’t finish her degree. “Life happens,” she says. “I had kids, I got married. You know, you grow up and you have to make a life for yourself.”

Holt is deeply underwhelmed by her choices this election.

"Me personally, I really don't like either one of them,” she sights. “I wish we could just have a scratch election and start over."

She doesn’t think Donald Trump is “on the up and up,” and feels his statements about Muslims and immigrants are wildly unfair.

“Our country is built on immigration, we need to be open to those people,” she says. “Don’t ban a whole people, or discriminate against a whole people, because of some people’s actions…. I don’t want my kids to feel that they have to pick and choose who they’re friends with, because what if their parents are immigrants? And then, you know, it becomes a thing where they’re having to be deported.

“And it’s like, that’s not fair. You’re hurting their friends, their families, their coworkers. And I know a lot of immigrants who’ve come here, and they work harder than most Americans I know. And it’s an unfair thing, they’re getting paid three times less than we are.”

But Holt doesn’t believe it’s racism that’s motivating Trump.

“I don’t think it’s a race thing,” she says. “It’s a lack of information. He hasn’t done his homework enough to know what’s really going on. He’s a rich man, he grew up as a very rich man. You can’t talk about poor people or immigrants or being raised in a certain environment.”  

Still, she’s not sure she really believe the women who’ve come forward about Trump’s sexual harassment.

"You know, it’s hard, but I think a lot of it is just women saying what they want to say, because he is in the eye of the public now. Because if it was such an issue and you felt so violated, you shouldn't wait 10, 15 years from the time it happened. But now he’s running for president, and they’re all coming out of the woodwork."

And honesty, Holt says, is the most important thing for her in this election. It's why she says she cannot vote for Hillary Clinton:

"It's just her dishonesty. I mean, you know, the email situation,” she says. “Your email should have been secured. That's national security.  And not even just that, but like, favoritism. We saw the emails [that] came through about her taking celebrities’ comments, and saying, ‘Hey we want to see this happen because we know this person.’

“And you just can’t do that, because then you’re putting yourself in this light where it’s like you’re not doing your job for everyone, you’re picking and choosing who you’re doing it for.”

Holt wishes she didn't have to vote for either candidate, but at this point, she’s leaning toward Trump.

"If I had to decide today, I would vote for Trump. I mean, I may not agree with his ideas and things like that. But in the overall picture of things, he's wanting structure and overall … revitalization of America, I guess you could say."

So which way will the rest of the undecided voters go? Out of the 13% of Michiganders still making up their minds, it’s likely that some will opt for a third-party candidate, or just stay home.

But this election, there are enough of them to make a difference.

Are you an undecided voter? The elusive magical unicorn of the general election? Tell us which way you’re leaning – and what’s keeping you on the fence @MichiganRadio or on our Facebook page. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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