Students all over Penn State University agree on this much about Hillary Clinton: “She’s slimy,” said Anay Pope.
And Pope, 25, is a Clinton supporter. For the moment.
Clinton’s poll numbers are sagging, and the biggest reason is that she’s plunging among young voters. A Quinnipiac University poll this month found that in a four-way race, Clinton is up 5 points nationally with 18- to 34-year-old voters, down from a 24-point lead just a month before.
Just days ahead of the first debate Monday and less than two months before voting ends, interviews with more than 30 young voters in the battleground state of Pennsylvania underscore her two challenges: Many young voters are taking serious looks at Donald Trump as well as Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein. And many are debating whether they even want to vote this year.
“There’s probably nothing Trump can say to make me vote for him,” Pope said, but added, “She makes it hard to vote for her.”
The Clinton campaign is quickly boosting its efforts to win over these voters, a tough mission since they’ve never been much on her side.
In 27 Democratic primary contests this year, she won an average of 28 percent of the 17- to 29-year-old vote, according to a study by CIRCLE, which studies youth voting trends. Bernie Sanders was the clear young-voter favorite.
Trump didn’t fare much better, winning one-third of the youth vote in 21 GOP primaries, but he did well among those without four-year college degrees.
At least half of young people have negative views of Secretary Clinton, and similar numbers do not find her honest and trustworthy.
Analysis from CIRCLE, which studies youth voting trends
If there’s a sign of Clinton’s challenges with young voters, it’s clear on the campuses of Penn State and the nearby Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology, in the middle of one of the nation’s swing states, where it’s easier to find a New York Giants football fan than a Clinton loyalist.
These are voters whose political awareness began in the mid-2000s. They have little regard – or use for – government and politics. They’ve seen the United States embroiled in two wars, a brutal recession that affected their parents and a Washington that seems endlessly mired in gridlock.
They do know Trump, the host of “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” and his blunt talk has some appeal.
Elliot Jersild, 22, a Penn State junior statistics major, wasn’t planning on voting. Then along came Trump.
“He’s the only reason I’m voting now,” Jersild said. “He’s not politically correct, and that means we can have an honest discussion about policy without being called racist or sexist.”
“Trump is not a politician,” added Felippe Maher, 20, a Penn State junior economics and history major.
Kristen Probst, 26, a practical-nursing student at Central Pennsylvania Institute, is a registered Democrat, but Clinton won’t get her vote. “Trump is no fake,” she explained.
He says the things no one wants to say.
Kristen Probst, a practical-nursing student at Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology
Plenty of students dislike Trump, though; Quinnipiac found two-thirds of young voters view him unfavorably. The campus’ College Republican chapter voted 3 to 1 against endorsing him.
“I despise him with all my heart,” said Michael Straw, 21, the group’s president. He’s undecided. He doesn’t agree with Clinton’s plans to involve government in boosting the economy, and he does appreciate Libertarian Gary Johnson’s free-market ideas.
Students are intrigued by Johnson, and polls show him gaining support. But Quinnipiac also found that 44 percent hadn’t heard enough about him, and the young voters are reluctant to eagerly embrace him at this point.
Johnson at least has fresh ideas, said Matthew Pendleton, 21, a senior economic major. Exactly, said Daniel Donaher, 20, a junior electrical engineering major. He’s less likely to involve the U.S. in war, Donaher said, whereas Clinton is “hawkish.”
Clinton’s biggest obstacle is clearly herself. Vincent Cucchiara, 18, a sophomore chemical engineering major, echoed a common complaint: She doesn’t seem real.
Cucchiara, a Libertarian who is undecided, recalled how Clinton endorsed same-sex marriage only three years ago. During her 2008 campaign, she favored civil unions.
The Penn State Students for Hillary group disputes the notion their candidate is so unpopular. Johnna Purcell, 20, who heads the group, called reports of lagging support a “myth.” She concedes, though, that getting students to vote will be tough.
“They distrust the system, and they don’t want to work within the system,” she said. “We’re showing people the only way to change it is to work within it.”
Anything is better than Donald Trump.
Hannah Magoveny, a senior political science and history major at Penn State
Clinton needs young voters to hear that message. President Barack Obama won 60 percent of their votes four years ago and 66 percent in 2008. Quinnipiac put Clinton’s young-voter support at 31 percent in a four-way race.
She’s pushing hard. The campaign has added staff in key states that will zero in on the millennial vote.
Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are out pushing for her. Clinton herself used an appearance in Philadelphia at Temple University on Monday to stress the need for young people to turn out. She recalled her days as a young Democratic activist.
To many, it all looked like vintage Clinton, shaping her message to get what she wants.
“I just don’t feel I can trust her,” said Jesse Weber, 21, a senior immunology major who’s undecided. He’s no fan of Trump, finding the Republican “makes people feel uncomfortable,” a deadly trait for a president. He’s thinking of not voting.
Most students who say they’ll vote for Clinton do so grudgingly. They were Sanders supporters who spent months disparaging Clinton, and they’re not about to wear her buttons or urge their friends to join them.
“Trump doesn’t have a very solid or logical train of thought,” said Marvin Barnhill, 18, a sophomore labor and employment relations major. A registered Democrat, he said he “distrusts” Clinton but that at least she’s better than Trump.
“I’m not passionate about Hillary Clinton,” added Larissa Gil, 20, a senior philosophy and German major. “She doesn’t have the integrity Bernie does, but she will do a 100 percent better job than Trump.”
The biggest danger for Clinton is another controversy, anything that feeds that distrust.
“The moment I get my head wrapped around the fact that I can vote for her in November another scandal comes out,” said Pope, and that’s why her vote “has been hanging by a thread the whole time.”
This version adds total of interviews.