Clinton struggles to win back young voters from third parties

JEREMY W. PETERS and YAMICHE ALCINDOR, New York Times News Service

With just six weeks to go until Election Day, younger voters are shunning the two major political parties on a scale not seen since Ross Perot’s third-party bid for the presidency in 1992, a striking swing in public opinion that is slicing into Hillary Clinton’s thin margin for error.

Though young people are notoriously fickle about showing up at the polls, they are a growing and potentially pivotal bloc of voters. Millennials now outnumber baby boomers as the country’s largest generation. And while they may be more predisposed than other groups to vote Democratic, they are not moving toward the party and its nominee as quickly and predictably as they have in past elections.

The Clinton campaign held several events on Wednesday aimed at millennials, underscoring the urgency with which she and her team are working to lock down the group: about 75 million Americans. Clinton traveled to New Hampshire with her former primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, for a rally with college students. The first lady, Michelle Obama, spent the day visiting campuses in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Though Clinton is riding high after a strong debate performance on Monday, during which she explicitly mentioned issues, like climate change, that appeal to the young, she has a lot of ground to make up.

Factors: Several factors are complicating the immense task of registering and turning out millennials, the 18- to 34-year-olds who are already hard to reach because their media consumption habits do not lend themselves to traditional television-focused campaigns.

They tend not to be motivated by any single, unifying issue, making the job of messaging harder. They are declaring themselves unaffiliated with either party at a rate faster than any other generation. They say the political process and the two-party system are unresponsive to their concerns.

And, in what is one of the most difficult barriers for Clinton to break through, young people often display little understanding of how a protest vote for a third-party candidate, or not voting at all, can alter the outcome of a close election. The vast majority of millennials were not old enough to vote in 2000, when Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party nominee and, with the strong backing of young voters, helped cost Vice President Al Gore the presidency.

“Ralph who?” said David Frasier, a junior at Charleston Southern University.

“Didn’t he kind of come in at the last minute and kind of alter the votes or something?” Frasier, 26, asked, his memory barely jogged. “I was too young to remember.”

FILE-- Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) cheer during a campaign event with Hillary Clinton at Portsmouth High School in Portsmouth, N.H., July 12, 2016. Just six weeks until Election Day, younger voters are shunning the two major political parties on a scale not seen since Ross PerotÕs third-party bid for the presidency in 1992, a striking swing in public opinion that is slicing into ClintonÕs thin margin for error. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The Clinton campaign’s biggest problem with young voters could be summed up by Frasier. He is liberal-minded and voted for Sanders in the South Carolina primary. But he is not likely to vote for either Clinton or Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, both of whom he called “pawns and puppets.”

Echoing sentiments that seem to be driving many young people away from politics, Frasier said he felt powerless to bring about change through voting. “I don’t feel like we have control,” he said. “I kind of feel like this whole election is just playing the American people.”

Third parties: Clinton’s weakness with young voters is almost entirely because of the draw that third-party candidates have. Trump’s support among the young has hovered around 25 percent in recent polls.

More than a third of voters 18 to 29 said in the latest New York Times/CBS News poll that they would vote for either Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, or Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate: Johnson had the support of 26 percent of those voters, and Stein had 10 percent.

Given the choice of just Clinton and Trump, 10 percent said they would not vote at all — double that of any other age group. An ABC News/Washington Post poll this month found a similar level of support for third-party candidates: 20 percent for Johnson and 6 percent for Stein among registered voters ages 18 to 39.

The stubborn popularity of the third-party candidates has become a concern to Clinton and her allies. So far, the support for them has not softened, as it often does in the fall.

“Historically, that’s what has happened,” said Jefrey Pollock, who is advising the “super PAC” working on Clinton’s behalf, Priorities USA. “But history isn’t repeating itself right now, which is one common theme of this election cycle.”

Courting: Some of Clinton’s advisers believe that the absence of Johnson and Stein from the debate stage on Monday — both failed to meet the 15 percent polling threshold to qualify — will help bring down their numbers. In the meantime, the Clinton campaign has accelerated its aggressive courting of young voters.

That effort involves enlisting Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, two figures popular with young people, to make the case that Clinton cannot make for herself.

“I suspect that I know about as much about third-party politics as anybody in Congress,” Sanders, an independent himself until he decided to run for president as a Democrat last year, said in an interview. “And I want anybody who’s thinking about voting against Hillary Clinton, and casting a protest vote because she is not all they would like her to be, to understand what the consequences for the country and the world will be.”

FILE-- Ralph Nader at the University of Michigan-Dearborn on Oct. 31, 2000. Votes for Nader contributed to the loss of the Democratic candidate, Al Gore. With just six weeks to go until 2016Õs Election Day, younger voters are shunning the two major political parties on a scale not seen since Ross PerotÕs third-party bid for the presidency in 1992, a striking swing in public opinion that is slicing into Hillary ClintonÕs thin margin for error. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

As interviews with young voters show, it is a hard sell.

Nick Chanko, 20, is a student at McGill University in Montreal who plans to vote in his home state, New York. A registered Democrat, he said he would either vote for Stein or not vote at all.

“I feel like a lot of the stuff Hillary does, you can see when she is trying to like earn the youth vote, and it just doesn’t work,” Chanko said. “It’s just kind of cringeworthy. She just doesn’t seem genuine.”

Chanko said he did remember Nader’s candidacy but thought it was unfair to blame protest votes for spoiling an election.

The debate over the merits of a casting a third-party ballot can seem endlessly circular.

“I understand the frustration, but channel that frustration into making government work, not into throwing away your vote,” Warren said in an interview. “They should not trust the system,” she added. “But the answer is to seize the system and make it work for the people, not to just turn it over to the bigots and billionaires.”

The possibility of young voters’ staying away from voting booths in droves come November is very real. Turnout rates among Americans ages 18 to 24 dropped significantly in 2012, to 41 percent from 49 percent in 2008.

This is both a frustration and a paradox to people who try to get them to the polls. This huge pool of potential voters has been the animating force behind the largest new social movements on the left, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter. Yet many do not equate voting with social change.

“They’ve shown they have the civic muscle to get things done,” said Allegra Chapman, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, a nonpartisan civic engagement group. “The question becomes, how do we translate this civic muscle into the kind that shows up and has a presence at the ballot box?”

Repairing the mistrust millennials have of institutions and the political system is not easy.

Nathan Mowery, a 26-year-old federal contractor who lives in Gainesville, Virginia, said that as a Muslim, he would find it hard to vote for Trump. But he said that he found Clinton uninspiring and that he planned to vote instead for a third-party candidate. He was unapologetic about his choice.

“I’m casting a protest vote because it makes it visible to major parties that there are people who are motivated to vote but are unwilling to vote for either of them,” he said. “I hope that whoever runs in 2020 will get their act together and one of the parties will put somebody up that younger voters can align themselves with.”

Asked if he remembered Nader, Mowery captured the essence of the Clinton campaign’s fears about young voters.

He said he was vaguely familiar with Nader as another third-party candidate. “Other than that,” he said, “I don’t know much.”