BOULDER, Colo. – In this battleground state, young voters can be the key to a candidate’s success. In 2012 and 2008, they turned out in droves and Barack Obama carried the state that had gone red in the three prior elections; in 2012, the voting rate for 18- to 21-year-old voters was 1.5 times the national average. But this year, many appear to be undecided and even disgusted by the choice they will face Nov. 8.
A CBS News/YouGov poll of Coloradans in late September found nearly 40 percent of 18- to 29-year-old voters said they would “never consider” voting for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, while nearly two-thirds said the same for Republican nominee Donald Trump. In fact, Clinton is more likely to be battling Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson – or her own image — than Trump for the millennial vote.
The lack of support for either major party candidate won’t necessarily translate into a drop in youth voter turnout, according to Lizzy Stephan, executive director for New Era Colorado, an organization that works to engage young people in the political process. According to an Oct. 26 Magellan Strategies report, early voting among 18- to 34-year-old Coloradans is up 1.5 percent from the same time in 2012.
“What we see on the ground is that young people are still incredibly excited to vote, [though] it may not be the presidential race that is motivating them,” Stephan said. “Colorado has issues like the minimum wage on the ballot… Something that a lot of young people we talk to are really, really excited about.”
That issues-based excitement may make a big difference at the polls: Stephan said her group has registered 50,000 new voters compared with 30,000 during the 2012 campaign.
Students at universities scattered across the eastern portion of the state said they remained largely unsure of whom they would support on Election Day. And in a state where 20- to 29-year-olds are the largest subgroup of the population, this matters. Most said they wished the major party candidates would spend less time attacking each other and more time discussing issues that mattered to them, such as student debt and climate change.
Those who had chosen a candidate were not very enthusiastic about their decision.
Andrew Carter, a junior at University of Colorado–Colorado Springs, said he would likely vote for Clinton as a “cop-out.” He supported Bernie Sanders in the state Democratic caucus, a race the Vermont senator won by nearly 20 points.
“I kind of support her,” Carter said. “She may not be the same thing [as Sanders], but she’s kind of along similar lines.”
Johnson, the Libertarian candidate who strongly advocates for marijuana legalization, carried 18 percent of the youth vote in a new Harvard Institute of Politics poll. Johnson appeals to many disillusioned Colorado youth as the more “mature” option. His party was founded in Colorado in 1971, and FiveThirtyEight has him taking roughly 8 percent of the state’s overall vote as of Oct. 25.
Chad Lewis, a freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that Johnson isn’t an ideal candidate, but he’s the best one available.
“He does have some crazy ideas, I know that,” Lewis, 19, said. “But Trump just has all the social issues that makes me stay away from him, and Hillary Clinton has all the government stuff that makes me stay away from her. Gary Johnson, I think, has that middle ground.”
While Lewis and others mentioned Johnson’s marijuana policy and his A+ rating from the Marijuana Policy Project as part of the reason for his popularity in Colorado, where recreational weed was legalized in 2012, he’s not the only thing standing between Clinton and the youth vote. After the third presidential debate Oct. 19, Colorado voters are still struggling to reconcile with what they perceive as a lack of “authenticity” from the Democratic candidate.
“I strayed away from Hillary in the primary … There’s all this talk of all the things she’s done wrong. [Bernie] just seemed better,” said Mike Moening, 25, a junior at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Manuel Quintanilla was also a Sanders supporter. But the UCCS senior, 23, will be among a small number of students who do not plan on voting at all Nov. 8.
“I guess to generalize it, I just don’t trust Hillary’s ‘experience,'” Quintanilla said. “Bernie’s, I do.”
For Raphael Macalintal, a sophomore at the UCCS, the major party candidates are “two criminals.” Olivia Jones, a freshman at the University of Colorado Denver, said the choice comes down to “a liar and a misogynistic jerk.”
But Jones, 18, said she’s likely voting for Hillary because “I’m not going to be caught dead voting for Trump.” She originally supported Sanders, who is from her native Vermont.
“[Sanders] did endorse her, and I see his reasons for endorsing her, and they do kind of add up,” said Michael Bianco, a freshman at Metropolitan State University of Denver, whose support of Hillary was “still a little iffy.”
Even for students who have supported Clinton since the start of her campaign, questions about her character are a part of the conversation.
“I wouldn’t call myself satisfied with Hillary Clinton and yet I definitely am supporting her wholeheartedly,” said Ethan Greenberg, a freshman at Colorado College who was a precinct delegate for Clinton during the primaries. “I don’t think this is the time to vote third party.”
In spite of the lack of enthusiastic support, it’s likely Clinton will clinch the battleground state — polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight puts her chances of winning at 86.9 percent as of Oct. 25 — and the number of registered active Democrats in the state has surpassed the number of registered active Republicans for the first time in three decades. Clinton’s odds also got a boost thanks to Republicans who say they can’t bring themselves to support Trump.
Noah Henry, a freshman at Colorado State University, said that he normally leans Republican. But this election, he plans to vote for Johnson as a compromise.
“As a platform I cannot bring myself to vote for Hillary and as a person I cannot bring myself to vote for Trump,” Henry, 19, said.
Christopher Kohl, president of CU Boulder’s College Republicans, said that most of his group is behind Trump, but that he personally is not campaigning for the Republican nominee.
“Supporting is a strong word,” Kohl, a senior, said. “But he has my vote.”