WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Four years ago, United States President Donald Trump rode a wave of late-deciding voters to a shocking election victory. But those voters are unlikely to rescue him again, new Reuters/Ipsos polling shows.
With less than three weeks to go until the Nov 3 vote, and Republican Trump trailing his Democratic rival Joe Biden nationally and in battleground states, his campaign is counting on a surge of last-minute votes to reverse the tide and give him a second term.
But Reuters/Ipsos polling conducted between Oct 9 and 13 shows there are far fewer undecided voters this year, and they are just as likely to pick Mr Biden as they are Mr Trump.
The polling also shows Mr Biden holding a 10 percentage point lead nationally, with a tighter margin in the battleground states that will help to decide the election.
"The candidate who is behind - Trump - needs to win undecideds at a disproportionate rate to catch up. So, if that isn't happening, he's not really cutting into Biden's lead," said Mr Kyle Kondik, an election analyst at the Centre for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Compounding Mr Trump's challenge has been a record rush of early voting that far outpaces the rate in 2016 - more people want to avoid Election Day crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Almost 15 million Americans have already voted, according to the US Elections Project at the University of Florida. That compares with about 1.4 million early votes by Oct 16 in the 2016 election.
But the opinion polls suggest more voters have settled on their choice, reducing the opportunity for large, late swings.
The Reuters/Ipsos national poll found that only about 8 per cent of likely voters appear to be undecided, saying either that they do not know whom to support or that they are thinking about backing a third-party candidate.
Four years ago at this stage of the campaign, more than twice as many people were similarly wavering between Mr Trump and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, injecting a volatile element late into a race that Mrs Clinton had been expected to win.
Among those voters who made up their minds in the final week of the 2016 campaign, 55 per cent picked Mr Trump while 36 per cent picked Mrs Clinton, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll of voters on Election Day.
They were critical for Mr Trump's success: A majority of late deciders in the battleground states of Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania backed him over Mrs Clinton that year, tipping those tight races in his favour on election night.
Mr Trump won Michigan and Pennsylvania by less than one percentage point and he won Florida by less than two points.
One of the big questions hanging over the 2020 election has been whether there will be a repeat of 2016's 11th hour surge of support for Mr Trump.
The new Reuters/Ipsos poll indicates that is unlikely to happen - when forced to choose, undecided voters broke evenly for Mr Trump and Mr Biden, with each getting 4 per cent support.
The poll also found that nine out of 10 likely Biden voters and nine out of 10 likely Trump voters say they have locked in their decision and will not change their mind.
Still, the Trump campaign said it remains confident that undecided voters will ultimately break its way.
"Our campaign is confident in the big tent, diverse coalition of support we've built over the last six years," said Mr Ken Farnaso, a Trump spokesman.
WORK TO DO
Mr Trump not only needs to convert more undecided voters to his side, but also persuade some Biden supporters to come back to him.
Mr Trump's campaign schedule and rhetoric, however, suggest he's more concerned with mobilising his conservative base in the final weeks of the election rather than try to reach undecided voters.
This week, he is visiting regions where his support is likely to be strongest: rural and semi-rural patches of Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
He has avoided suburban areas where swing voters are more likely to reside.
Mr Trump is playing down the threat of the virus, even after his own bout of infection, and opinion polls showing a majority of the public, including many in the key voting bloc of older Americans, remain deeply concerned about becoming infected.
"Donald Trump has never learnt how to talk to anybody but his base," said Ms Sarah Longwell, a Republican pollster.
Mr Biden, by contrast, this week has campaigned in the cities of Cincinnati and Toledo in Ohio and outside populous Fort Lauderdale in Florida. Both Ohio and Florida are battleground states.
In particular, the President has had problems with independent and suburban women voters, many of whom gave him a chance in 2016 and who have been troubled by his Covid-19 response and his caustic, divisive language.
At a rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Mr Trump seemed confounded by his unpopularity with that voting bloc.
"Do me a favour, suburban women," he implored. "Would you please like me?"