The Oglethorpe University library was packed this week with students and faculty who peppered Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson with questions about the presidential election. And standing near the back of the room, a 21-year-old student seemed particularly squeamish about his choices.
“I’m hesitant about the election. It’s a tough choice between two candidates I don’t necessarily agree with,” said Hasan Syed, who said he’s flirting with a third-party candidate. “It’s a difficult year for any informed voter.”
Every election cycle seems to generate stories of younger voters embracing an upstart from outside the two-party system. But this November’s contest, headlined by two presidential candidates with extraordinarily high unfavorable ratings, has laid bare the mounting frustrations of younger voters.
Many millennial voters have refused to embrace Democrat Hillary Clinton in recent national polls, a main reason why the national race between her and Republican Donald Trump is tightening. And an increasing number of millennials are leaning toward third-party candidates, challenging the Clinton campaign to keep them in the fold.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in August found that about one-quarter of Georgia voters under the age of 39 backed either Green Party candidate Jill Stein or Libertarian Gary Johnson. And a Monmouth University poll out this week showed Trump with a 3-point lead over Clinton in Georgia, partly because Johnson was pulling double-digit support from younger voters in the state.
“There has been some talk of Georgia becoming part of a demographic realignment in presidential politics,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “However, Clinton is not quite making the needed inroads among young white voters to take the lead here.”
Millennials have fled from Trump, too, but his campaign is built around a base of mostly older white voters. The leak of younger supporters is more damaging for Clinton, who is struggling to reforge the same youthful coalition that Barack Obama built in 2008 and 2012 to overwhelm her Republican opponent.
Some young voters have long been skeptical of Clinton, who for months was pounded by Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for her stance on free trade deals and coziness with Wall Street. She’s struggled to overcome that rift even as she incorporated key parts of his campaign into her platform.
And many of the younger supporters who would otherwise be likely Democrats have instead been drawn to the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, which both oppose the war on drugs, seek cuts in military spending and promote civil liberties.
“We are disgusted with our choices. And we’re open-minded and we believe in more options,” said Ron Chastain, a 19-year-old student and Johnson supporter. “It boils down to three things — foreign affairs, civil liberties and the national debt. And Hillary and Trump just don’t fit the mold for us.”
Sending a message
The support for third-party candidates tends to deflate as Election Day nears, and both Johnson and Stein have taken hits.
Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, has struggled to recover from his failure to identify Aleppo, the main city in war-torn Syria, and he fumbled again over the weekend when he said he was “just grateful that nobody got hurt” in two violent events that injured dozens in New York City and St. Cloud, Minn.
And some Democrats quietly celebrated when Stein failed to get the 7,500 verified signatures she needed to land on Georgia’s presidential ballot. Stein will instead be a write-in candidate, which will significantly dampen her support from Georgia voters.
But the younger supporters who are backing both seem just as intent on sending a message to Washington even if they know their pick is doomed. Alexandra Walls, a 27-year-old studying to be a veterinary technician in metro Atlanta, said she is uncomfortable with the idea of voting for either Clinton or Trump.
“I can’t, in good conscience, vote for either major-party candidate,” she said. “I can tell you that I seriously cannot decide if Donald Trump is crazy or if this is a ploy for money or attention. And I think Clinton is extremely corrupt, and I just can’t vote for her.”
In November, she said, she’s casting her ballot for Johnson.
A spate of recent national polls shows Clinton’s double-digit advantages over Trump among voters under 35 withered to single-digit leads. And a September survey conducted by the left-leaning Global Strategy Group found that she struggled to convince many she’s a better alternative to Trump than a third-party candidate, with 36 percent of millennial voters saying there’s no real difference between Clinton and Trump on their top issues.
“These millennial voters really don’t like Trump. They’re not enthusiastic about Hillary,” said Andrew Baumann, a pollster with the group. “So her goal is to keep voters from voting third-party or also from staying home.”
Kyle Weil, an 18-year-old college student from metro Atlanta, falls into that enthusiasm gap. If he votes, he said he’ll cast his ballot for Clinton — but he’s decidedly tepid about her presidency.
“I wouldn’t say I’m enthusiastic about either of the candidates, but compared to Trump, I think Hillary’s the better option,” he said. “But it’s really about picking between the better of the two worst options.”
Some of Clinton’s younger supporters are confident that time is on their side. Rose Fishman, a 19-year-old student at Kennesaw State University, nodded to a few dozen other millennials at a college roundup this week at Clinton’s downtown Atlanta campaign headquarters.
“I’m not worried about it. As sad as it is, millennials vote the least anyways,” Fishman said. “The people who care the most are most likely to vote. And that’s who we want.”
A campus crusade
Clinton and her allies have tried to target disenchanted voters. Priorities USA, a pro-Clinton super PAC, is behind a multimillion-dollar campaign warning how a “vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for Donald Trump.”
The campaign dispatched some of its biggest names to college campuses over the weekend, including appearances by Sanders and first lady Michelle Obama. And Clinton on Monday made her pitch to younger voters at Temple University in Philadelphia, emphasizing her plan for debt-free college education.
“I need you as partners, not just for winning this election, but for driving real change,” she said, adding: “Not voting is not an option. That just plays into Trump’s hands. It really does.”
Clinton has also reserved $30 million for digital advertising to be aimed at millennials, The Associated Press reported.
The youthful swerve toward third-party contenders has worried candidates further down the ticket.
Isakson, seeking a third term in November, has not embraced Trump but has tried to keep his backers in the fold by not attacking the candidate.
But the senator also appealed to Trump’s critics, telling the audience at Oglethorpe on Monday that he wouldn’t hesitate to defy Trump if he violates the U.S. Constitution.
Isakson’s campaign hopes the arm’s length approach attracts young Johnson voters who might be tempted to vote for Allen Buckley, his Libertarian opponent.
“When I was young, I flirted a lot, but I finally got married,” Isakson said. “I think by Nov. 8, there’s going to be a lot marriages, and hopefully they are going to be with Johnny Isakson’s campaign.”
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