BOULDER, Colo. — John Morales was interning for Bernie Sanders’ campaign when the longshot Democratic candidate’s hopes started to fade in the spring. That’s when Libertarian Gary Johnson caught his interest.
In many ways Johnson and Sanders are ideological opposites. The Vermont senator is an opponent of foreign trade deals and won over many younger voters in the primaries by calling for enormous government spending to guarantee universal health care and free college tuition. Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, supports smaller government and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But he shares Sanders’ outsider, tell-it-like-it-is style, social liberalism and skepticism about military intervention overseas — attributes that have won over enough Sanders supporters to worry Democrats he could jeopardize Hillary Clinton’s chances in November.
Morales, a 22-year-old community college student and Army Reservist, is one of those converts — he’s now interning for Johnson.
“He agrees with about 70 percent of what Bernie was saying,” Morales said, adding that many of his friends who liked Sanders now are also drawn to Johnson. “I do believe that he’s got better ideas than Hillary and Trump,” Morales says.
With roughly a month until Election Day, Clinton is still struggling to win over young voters who twice helped elect Barack Obama.
“They’re not brand loyal to either party — they’re loyal to ideology and disruption of the status quo,” said Jill Hanauer, a Denver-based Democratic strategist whose firm has polled the age group known as millennials. She said many don’t remember how protest votes for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader helped elect George W. Bush in 2000.
Clinton’s challenge with younger voters is part of what’s keeping the race close. A recent AP-GfK poll found Johnson pulling 14 percent of voters under 30, Green Party nominee Jill Stein with 3 percent and “other” with 6 percent. Clinton had the backing of 48 percent of young voters, compared with the 60 percent Obama notched in 2012. Trump had 27 percent in the poll.
“Most of the supporters and volunteers who come in here are former Bernie people,” said Woodrow Johnston, the Las Vegas-based deputy director of youth outreach for the candidate.
“I think that for the most part people buy more into themes — or character — than issues.”
Clinton’s campaign plans to have popular surrogates, including Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and Sanders make her case. Their arguments to young people won’t directly target Johnson but instead will focus on the potential consequences of voting for a third-party candidate.
“If you don’t vote, that’s a vote for Trump,” Obama declared this week on the Steve Harvey radio show. “If you vote for a third-party candidate who’s got no chance to win, that’s a vote for Trump.”
Johnson’s support among younger voters has roiled the campaign, especially in Colorado, though he’s hurt himself with recent gaffes. This week he’s being mocked for being unable, in a television appearance, to name a single world leader he admired. That awkward moment drew a comparison by Johnson himself to his “Aleppo moment” this month, when he didn’t recognize the besieged city in Syria.
Still, Clinton has struggled to win over supporters of Sanders, who handily won the Democratic primary here.
A CNN poll this week suggested third-party candidates could make a difference in Colorado: The poll found a nominal one-point lead for Trump when Johnson and Stein were included in the survey, while Clinton had a two-point lead when they were not.
Clinton’s challenges are obvious in the liberal college town of Boulder. Some young voters at the University of Colorado are still pining for Sanders and unwilling to embrace her.
Payton Smith, a 21-year-old business major, had backed Sanders even though he disagreed with some of the Vermont senator’s proposals. “It was something different,” he said. Now he’s shifted to Johnson. “I’d rather put my name behind someone who’s not a liar or a thug.”
At the Innisfree poetry bookshop and coffee house, a Sanders sign and an etching of the senator still hang in the window. On the patio, Dani Ballard, 21, and Cal Hoffman, 22, pondered their options. They’ll probably vote for Stein and can’t bring themselves to support Clinton. “I just feel like she’s untrustworthy,” Ballard said.
“I find the choices of both major parties so depressing,” said Hoffman.
Some Sanders supporters have no problem with Clinton. “Bernie is the leader I’d like in an ideal world, but Hillary is the leader I want for America today,” said Shruti Kaul, 18.
And plenty of ex-Sanders voters are willing to temper their feelings.
Brooke Long, a 23-year-old geography major, tells pollsters she supports Johnson in hopes the Libertarian candidate reaches the 15 percent polling threshold to let him into presidential debates.
“If my options were Gary Johnson, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, in a reasonable situation where Donald Trump couldn’t win, I’d go with Gary Johnson,” Long said.
But she knows she doesn’t live in that world and is voting for Clinton. “I’m in a swing state,” she. “I have a responsibility. I don’t want to have a Nader problem again.”
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace and AP Polling Editor Emily Swanson contributed to this report from Washington.