Brooke Henderson was excited to be a first-time voter this year.
The 18-year-old University of Virginia freshman studied up on the candidates in the Republican presidential primary in North Carolina and voted for Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. She watched with disappointment as Donald Trump captured the Republican Party’s nomination for president in July.
Henderson eventually turned to Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and found she agreed with his socially liberal and fiscally conservative ideas. She is one of many students dissatisfied with the two-party political system who have not only pledged their votes to third parties, but also switched their formal party identification.
“I just always assumed that [Republicans] would be who I would continue to align with,” Henderson, now a Libertarian, said in a phone interview. “This election has really opened my eyes, and I don't identify that as my party anymore. And I think that's the greatest impact it has had."
Although there is some "anybody but (fill in the blank)" sentiment in almost every national election, this year the third parties are getting more attention from younger voters dissatisfied with Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, said John Hudak, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
An August Pew Research Center study found third parties drew most of their support from registered voters between the ages of 18 and 29, with 19 percent of them leaning toward former New Mexico Gov. Johnson and 9 percent toward physician and Green Party nominee Jill Stein.
In the long run, Hudak said the Johnson and Stein candidacies will shift the political focus to how major parties can court millennials more successfully in the future.
“Third-party voting is largely idealistic and it’s not any realistic approach to American politics,” he said. “After voters get that out of their system in their younger years, they will realize why we have a two-party system and that it’s easier to participate in it than to protest it.”
Although Johnson in particular maintained a significant level of support past the Democratic and Republican conventions, he has dropped in the polls over the last month and is now under 6 percent, according to a RealClearPolitics polling average. While Johnson's support was higher, longer, he's now falling back as third-party candidates usually do.
Johnson’s campaign strategy was to reach 15 percent in the polls in order to be allowed into at least one of the presidential debates. He didn’t come close. And today, according to RealClearPolitics, Johnson and Stein are polling about 8 percent — collectively.
Third-party candidates often face a decline in support as the election wears on, but Johnson seems to have fallen further than expected. FiveThirtyEight's polls-plus model, which tries to account for the decline third-party candidates face — has found Johnson's support erode even more than it had projected it would.
Daniel Pryor, a spokesman for the nonprofit organization Students for Liberty, said the parties are still seeing wider support among students, who are eagerly researching alternatives because of the “sheer unfavorability” of Trump and Clinton.
Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, and the leaked Democratic National Committee emails showing supposedly neutral party officials favored her over Bernie Sanders, made Clinton seem like an untrustworthy symbol of the establishment, said many students interviewed for this story.
But Trump, despite defining himself as anti-establishment, hasn’t appealed to young voters with his vows to build a “big, beautiful” wall along the US-Mexico border, to temporarily ban immigrants of the Muslim faith and to cut taxes and spending.
Organizers focused on young voters say interest has spiked in Libertarian and Green ideas on college campuses. Despite the current polling trends, they think a foundation is being built that will endure beyond the 2016 presidential election.
The Libertarian-leaning Students for Liberty has 160 campus coordinators in North America, a 23 percent increase from 2015, Pryor said. The 2012 election saw a year-to-year increase of only 13 percent, he added.
Another Libertarian nonprofit, Young Americans for Liberty, had 650 college chapters at the beginning of 2016. Cliff Maloney, the executive director, said in an email the group’s goal had been 750 chapters by 2017, but that number was reached in July.
On the left, the Green Party, which focuses on environmental issues, advocates for non-violence and supports other progressive ideas, also claims growth among young Americans. Ursula Rozum, co-chair of Young Greens Youth Caucus, said her group started 2016 with only five chapters on college campuses. It now has 50, with chapter membership ranging from a couple people to more than 30.
Third party votes deliver more than an angry protest against the two-party system, says 19-year-old Aaron Suárez, who previously supported Sanders in the Democratic primary.
Suárez, president of the newly formed Capital University Greens in Columbus, Ohio, changed his party identification following the primary. He said Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and her policy to only regulate fracking — not shut it down — did not sit well with him.
“A vote is not given to a candidate based on their political party,” the sophomore said. “It is my personal belief that Hillary Clinton has not earned my vote, and that Jill Stein has earned my vote.”
Like Suárez, some Sanders supporters are lining up with the Green Party, Rozum said. Nearly every prospective young voter Rozum met at the Green Party National Convention in Houston, had been in some way involved with the Sanders campaign, she said.
Meanwhile, many disaffected Republican students and allied groups are supporting Johnson as “the true fiscal conservative in the election,” said sophomore Olivia Corn, the chair of Cornell Republicans.
The club’s student membership grew by more than 100 at Cornell University after it endorsed Johnson, and some original members of the campus GOP group shifted their allegiance to Libertarian, the 19-year-old said.
In Athens, Ohio, Jacob Koval, communications chair of the Ohio University College Republicans, said he is also voting for Johnson despite having supported Republican candidates in the past. Koval said he will be voting Libertarian in the future as well.
“This election has made me much more embarrassed to have had involvement with the Republican Party,” the 20-year-old sophomore said. “If there was a Republican candidate that I really strongly believed in who was running against Hillary, I'd be much more comfortable identifying as a Republican.”
Some students, however, have expressed disappointment with the lagging poll numbers of the third-party candidates.
“A lot of the hype around Johnson and Stein was media driven,” Hudak said. “But you also have to combine that with the fact that Johnson and Stein are truly awful candidates. They have shown no readiness to campaign or to lead, and they would not make effective presidents.”
With Johnson’s and Stein’s tickets polling at 5.8 percent and 2.0 percent respectively, they are, at least, in a stronger place than their parties’ candidates in the recent past.
Although the students interviewed admitted they do not expect a third-party candidate to become the next president, they said they are motivated by the prospect of victories down the road.
Should either Johnson or Stein receive between 5 and 25 percent of the total popular vote — maintaining the status of minor-party candidates — a future Libertarian or Green candidate could become eligible for public funding in 2020 to help finance a general election campaign, according to the Federal Election Commission.
“There's been a seed of at least considering third parties that has been planted,” Koval said. “More people will say, ‘I may have voted for Hillary, I may have voted for Trump, but I think I really kind of get what this [third part] person is saying. I really can resonate with it. And maybe in the future I'll start looking into it more.’”
Ross Krasner contributed to reporting.
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