RIVER FALLS, Wis. — As a tumultuous campaign nears an end, undecided voters across the country watched the final debate of the U.S. presidential race with a mix of skepticism and rapt attention Wednesday night.
They were searching for clarity, and some found it. But others remained painfully undecided just a few weeks before the election, saying neither candidate won them over.
“I heard a lot of the same rhetoric spewed over and over again,” said 41-year-old Damon Holter, who makes barbecue sauces and marinades in western Wisconsin. “I know I need to make a decision. I just don’t know how to get there.”
Here’s what else Holter and others had to say:
‘LIKE A LITTLE KID’
Watching the start of the debate at Bo’s ‘N Mine bar and grill in River Falls, Holter took note when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump again did not shake hands.
“He’s just like a little kid,” he said when Trump began speaking.
Still, the GOP candidate did a better job than in the first two debates, taking charge while Clinton stumbled, Holter said.
“She’s no longer acting presidential” when she’s interrupting Trump, he said.
But when Trump talked about the U.S. border with Mexico, Holter scoffed: “The whole notion of a wall is pretty ridiculous.”
Overall, he said, nothing either candidate said swayed him.
THE VERDICT: Holter remains undecided.
A HOUSE DIVIDED
Chadd Bunker, 50, a union truck driver in Sparks, Nevada, who considers himself largely politically apathetic, said after the debate he’s still not sure if he will end up voting, but he doesn’t think he’ll cast his ballot for Trump.
The longtime LA Dodgers fan kept an eye on his laptop streaming the National League championship against the Cubs while watching the debate in his living room with his wife Karen, a staunch Democrat.
“I think Hillary kicked his butt. And that’s my unbiased opinion, because I don’t really care,” said Chadd Bunker, an avid outdoorsman and gun owner. “She may be crooked. She may have done stuff, but she seems the most logical.”
Bunker cast his first presidential vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984, voted for Obama in 2008 and sat out the 2012 election. He said he is pro-abortion rights and didn’t learn until Wednesday night that Trump is not.
He doesn’t think his life will change much regardless of who wins. He likes Trump’s experience in the business world and believes Clinton would be better at handling foreign affairs.
“Neither one of them is going to come to my house and take my guns,” Chadd Bunker said.
THE VERDICT: “I don’t know if I decided one way or the other. But if I did have to vote, I would probably vote for Hillary Clinton. I would not vote for Trump,” Chadd Bunker said.
Taylor Botwinis of Clinton Township, Michigan, is 26, but this will be the first time she casts a ballot in a presidential election.
Clinton is a no-go for the homeschooling mother of three. For Botwinis, the debate was an opportunity to hear more from Trump and decide whether to support the Republican or vote for a third-party candidate.
She filled a page with handwritten notes early in the debate but put down her pen when the discussion slid into finger-pointing over ethics, morals and fitness for office.
“The first four issues — Supreme Court, Second Amendment, abortion, immigration — I could side with Trump,” she said. “Now they’re nitpicking. They’re just like kids.”
Botwinis noted Trump didn’t directly answer when asked about U.S. troops possibly going to Syria under his presidency. She liked his pledge to improve the economy, saying too many college graduates aren’t working in their field of study.
Botwinis cringed when Trump called Clinton a “nasty woman.”
“Even if he’s thinking that — have a filter,” she said.
THE VERDICT: Botwinis said she’ll likely vote for Trump because of his “stances, not his personality.”
Hussien Kazwini, a community college student in Toledo, Ohio, says this debate was more substantive, but there were no big moments that changed the race.
“Hillary was on the defensive, but I don’t think Trump made a big splash to change or damage Hillary’s momentum.”
Kazwini, whose parents were born in Lebanon before coming to the United States 30 years ago, will vote in his first election. He says Trump’s stand on immigration and threats to deport people “isn’t morally right” but he also doesn’t believe there should be open borders.
Kazwini noted Trump kept his temper in check until he called Clinton a “nasty woman” near the end of the debate.
“He can’t help himself,” Kazwini said.
THE VERDICT: He’s still undecided but leaning toward Clinton. He says Trump’s comments about women and his demeanor are not huge issues. However, “I want to hold a president to higher standards.”
Matt Alsaeedi, 26, felt refreshed by Clinton’s authenticity during much of the debate, saying an overall mistrust in government “hurts her as much as it helps her” as a candidate.
The Charlotte School of Law student originally from Sandy Run, South Carolina, who said he leans to the left politically, was listening for discussion of foreign policy issues.
“I liked Secretary Clinton’s specificity as to what she wanted to do, her knowledge of the issues,” Alsaeedi said. “I did not get that impression from Donald Trump, but then again, I expect him to delegate most of those duties anyway.”
The biggest disappointment to Alsaeedi was a lack of discussion of veterans’ issues.
“There’s a crisis with mental health issues,” he said. “There’s an epidemic, and it wasn’t even mentioned, and it bothers me. … I would have expected Secretary Clinton to at least have dropped the ‘V’ word, and it was not.”
THE VERDICT: Alsaeedi remains undecided, saying he was turned off by Clinton’s polished-politician persona.
“I was on board with her until she opened the can in the conclusion,” he said. “It felt like she just spewed this message. I’m undecided still out of a lack of trust in Secretary Clinton, unfortunately.”
LESSER OF TWO EVILS
Alanna Conti, a 25-year-old graphic designer from rural Sweet Valley, Pennsylvania, changed her party registration from independent to Democrat so she could vote for Bernie Sanders.
After he lost the primary, she thought about casting her ballot for Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein. But Conti doesn’t want to throw away her vote so she’s considering backing Trump or Clinton, even though “I dislike both of them very much.”
Conti favors universal health care and free public college, but she’s also open to middle-class tax cuts and even a corporate tax cut, if it would bring jobs back from overseas.
As she watched the debate at her home, Conti drew two columns on a pad — one labeled Clinton, the other Trump — and quietly took notes.
Afterward, Conti said Clinton won on policy, as Clinton’s views on guns, college and abortion more closely align with hers.
“It’s a lesser of two evils election, I think, unless you’re like a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter or Trump supporter, Anyone who’s in the middle is not happy at all with the choices we have,” she said.
THE VERDICT: Conti says she’ll probably vote for Clinton. “I still don’t like her. But if she does half the things she says she wants to do, I’ll be pretty happy.”
DETERMINED TO VOTE
Erin Ross, a 36-year-old certified nurse midwife, has always voted Republican. But after the debate, she’s still looking for a GOP candidate.
Trump could have won her vote, “but he blew it,” said Ross, who has four college and post-graduate degrees and whose top issues are immigration, health care and character.
Ross is determined to cast a presidential ballot. But she doesn’t know for whom, yet, “and that is painful,” she said after watching the debate at her suburban Denver home with her husband, Mike, also a Republican.
Neither Trump nor Clinton is a role model, and the country needs that in a president, Ross said.
“One person says outrageous things, is racist, sexist and full of himself, and the other engages in criminal behavior but escapes responsibility with the right connections,” Ross said of Trump and Clinton, respectively.
Both talked too little about the future Wednesday night, Ross said — about health care, immigration, refugees and entitlement programs.
On the election rigging exchange — in which Trump said Clinton’s running post-email scandal was criminal, and Clinton called his positions dangerous for peaceful transfers of power — Ross had to agree with both candidates.
“I want facts, not whining that it’s rigged,” she said of Trump. But Clinton, she said, “owes a lot of people a lot of favors.”
THE VERDICT: Ross remains undecided.
Dave Hart, 39, of Phoenix, is a Democrat torn between voting for Clinton and a third-party candidate.
A software support specialist who works from home, Hart watched the debate with a friend at Chambers On First pub in downtown Phoenix.
Hart started out as a Sanders supporter and never warmed up to Clinton. It has nothing to do with her email issues, he said. It’s her history as “somebody that plays the game to get what she wants rather than do what’s right.”
Hart has put off filling out his early ballot, which arrived last week. He saw the final debate as Clinton’s last chance to sway him.
Hart has been adamantly opposed to Trump, and the debate only cemented his opinion. Hart laughed several times, especially when Trump said he would run the country the way he runs his company.
“Look how many times he’s gone bankrupt or ripped off little people — little businesses,” Hart said.
As Trump continued to talk over moderator Chris Wallace and Clinton, Hart joked there was one way Clinton could get his vote.
“If she just walked over right now and punched him in the face, I would go home and fill out my ballot,” Hart said.
THE VERDICT: Hart is still not 100 percent behind Clinton, and did appreciate some of her comments about helping families, women and children. He wants to do more research but might half-heartedly join Team Hillary.
“Honestly, if I can’t think of a reason not to vote for her, I will,” Hart said.
READY TO TAKE A CHANCE
For Justin Harris, both candidates had their moments in the debate, but neither really stood out. The 43-year-old father of three said he had hoped to hear more about foreign policy and economic issues and was frustrated when the candidates instead used their time to launch personal attacks. He scoffed and laughed toward the end of the debate when Clinton and Trump were talking over one another.
“I felt like I was in 8th grade or something,” said Harris, who watched the debate at Big Al’s bar in suburban Richmond while the other patrons continued watching sports.
Harris, who works as a telecommunication-broadband consultant, said he didn’t like how Trump interrupted the moderator, Chris Wallace. But he also said he didn’t think Clinton did a good job of actually answering the questions.
THE VERDICT: Harris says that after tonight’s debate, he’s leaning toward Trump. He’s afraid that if he votes for Clinton, she will maintain the status quo, which for him and the country isn’t a good thing, he said.
“All I know is the status quo right now, I’m not happy with and I don’t want my kids and my grandkids to keep doing the status quo because it ain’t working. Sometimes you got to take a chance, take a gamble,” he said. He added that Trump “can only do so much damage, because Congress controls everything.”
Sonner reported from Sparks, Nevada. Also contributing to this report were James Anderson in Denver; Meg Kinnard in Charlotte, North Carolina; Terry Tang in Phoenix; Ed White in Clinton Township, Michigan; John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio; Michael Rubinkam in Sweet Valley, Pennsylvania; and Alanna Durkin Richer in Richmond, Virginia.