American voters who remain undecided about the upcoming presidential election are weighing their dislike of President Donald Trump against their concern about Democratic nominee Joe Biden‘s policies, longtime Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz told CNBC on Friday.
“They are nervous about Trump’s persona and they are nervous about Joe Biden’s policies, and that’s what is holding them back,” Luntz said on “Squawk Box.” “It’s not that they can’t see a difference between the two candidates. They see a tremendous difference.”
But with 18 days until the Nov. 3 election, Luntz said the task before voters is making up their mind about which of those differences is most important: “The fact they really don’t like Donald Trump as a person or they are really scared about what Joe Biden might do if he became president?”
Luntz’s comments Friday came after he held a 16-person focus group with undecided voters following Trump and Biden’s opposing town halls Thursday night. The events were in place of the presidential debate that was supposed to be held that night. The canceled debate was initially moved to a virtual format after Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis, but the president objected to that format. ABC News booked Biden for a town hall instead, and then NBC News later scheduled one with Trump to start at the same time on the same day.
Luntz, who thought the first cantankerous debate between Trump and Biden encouraged people not to vote, said Friday he did not believe the town halls helped deliver more clarity to undecided Americans. At this point in the race, he said that could spell bad news for Trump.
“Our history tells us, that in the end, if they haven’t decided to support the incumbent, that they end up 2-to-1 supporting the challenger,” said Luntz.
Trump’s economic message is critical, given it’s one issue where polling has routinely shown voters trust him more than Biden.
Indeed, one member of Luntz’s focus group who identified as a financial advisor specifically expressed concerns about Biden’s tax proposals Yet Luntz said the president failed to deliver a compelling economic case Thursday night. He said undecided voters are looking for more than vague platitudes about how well the economy will be again after it digs out of the coronavirus-induced hole.
“They remember the economy before Covid, and they give Trump a lot of credit for that but they want to know the details. How can he do it again under this current circumstance?” Luntz said. “They don’t want these generalities. They want to know exactly what he’s doing to do. They’re never going to endorse him in his persona.”
Michael Zezas, head of U.S. public policy research at Morgan Stanley, told CNBC it was encouraging that both candidates have begun to offer more clarity on their tax policies. However, he cautioned investors from putting too much emphasis on campaign pledges because the plans do not always translate to passed legislation.
“For investors, if you focus too much on what is the proposal of a presidential candidate versus what is likely to get through, you can sometimes miss the forest from the trees,” he said earlier on “Squawk Box.” “You have to take the taxes in conjunction with the spending proposals.”
Zezas believes there will be significant fiscal expansion if either party — Republican or Democrat — wins the White House and both the House and Senate.
“We’ve been telling investors don’t get wrapped around the axel too much just on the tax side of this,” he said. “It’s really about whether or not there’s going to be more fiscal expansion to support the economy in 2021 and continue to support the V-shaped recovery” from the damage cause by the pandemic.