By Geoff Colvin and Ryan Derousseau
July 29, 2016

The election is 102 days from today. Despite the insane length of the U.S. election process, unknown anywhere else in the world, the candidates spend only a small portion of the total making their cases to this large country as official nominees. With the intense news coverage, chin-stroking punditry, and partisan bloviating of the past 13 months about to get turbo-charged, we could all use a couple of thoughts to hang on to, helping us judge what’s happening from day to crazy day. So here’s a suggestion, not my own, which I suspect will prove useful.

It comes from consultant Frank Luntz, who has possibly listened to more focus groups than anyone else in the country. He gained fame in the 1990s as a pollster and language analyst for political candidates, mostly Republicans, plus others around the world. In 2014 he sold a majority stake in his polling business but has recently conducted research for non-political clients such as Google and Snapchat. His view of what will decide this election is at the website of our sister publication, Time.

The short answer is that the critical factor will indeed be undecided voters, as many analysts have said, but those voters aren’t who most people think. Some of them are “useless,” he says. They don’t know or care about the candidates or the process, and their opinions are passionate but unstable. Trying to win them over is pointless. The other group of undecideds “know a lot about both candidates and don’t like either one.” Those voters, he says, will decide the election.

Luntz describes in detail what these voters want and don’t want in a candidate, and his analysis is worth reading. But if you can’t get to it right know, just remember this insight: “The candidate that is most engaging and least offensive is the candidate who wins this essential bloc—and therefore the election. They’ll tell you, and tell themselves, that they’re voting for the candidate with the best ideas. But they’re really voting for the one who they believe is most ‘on their side.’ In the end, subtlety will sway more undecided voters than the sledgehammer.”


I’m about to take two weeks off, but I leave you in the best of hands. Next week you’ll hear from Fortune editor, writer, and leadership expert Jennifer Reingold. The following week, the week of August 8, our Washington authority Tory Newmyer will share his deeply informed perspective. Ryan Derousseau will continue to assemble the links and summaries that appear below. I can’t wait to read what they create. I’ll be back with you on August 15.

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