PHILADELPHIA — Amanda is a liberal, idealistic, college-educated, master's degree-pursuing, 27-year-old single mother who has voted for Barack Obama. She cares about climate change, child care, affordable health care, police brutality, public nutrition. Policy specifics matter to her.
On paper, she is the kind of millennial voter whom Hillary Clinton should have in the bag, wrapped up with a tight little bow.
But Amanda is a lost cause for Clinton. The first three words she associates with the Democratic nominee? "B—-, liar, false."
"She's the embodiment of fake to me," Amanda said. "Even her smile, everything about her feels fake and not genuine."
But for every Amanda who's slipping through Clinton's fingers, there may be a begrudging, nose-holding, pride-swallowing vote from someone like Tim Venne, a disillusioned young Republican.
Both 20-somethings were participants in a focus group of undecided suburban millennials here in Pennsylvania on Wednesday night, which I was invited to observe by Harvard's Institute of Politics. Yes, they're just two voters but each offers a window into the challenges and opportunities of an election in which — at least for disenchanted young voters — revulsion rules and partisan ties no longer bind.
Amanda, a Bernie Sanders admirer and, now, a devotee of the Green Party's Jill Stein, is so cynical about establishment politics that she wondered aloud whether Clinton and Republican rival Donald Trump may secretly be in cahoots.
"I feel like Trump's only running so people are scared and vote for Hillary. I feel like it's kind (of) like … a conspiracy, almost. I'm not a conspiracy theorist but I feel like that's what happened," said Amanda, who declined to give her last name. She believes Trump's candidacy is a necessary condition for Clinton's victory, because "in a normal world I don't think anyone would vote for Hillary."
No one at Wednesday's focus group views this as a normal world. In a normal world, Venne, 26, would never consider voting for Clinton, whom he views as an untrustworthy, nontransparent, "automaton"-like "career politician." Her lethal unlikability and lack of relatability, he said, will hurt not only her chances of getting elected but also her ability to govern.
What's more, Venne was born and raised a Republican and he remains registered with the GOP. He believes in "conservative, small-reaching government," free trade and other values and positions traditionally associated with the party.
But Trump, he said, is wholly unacceptable — an unstable, hot-tempered, warmongering "bigot" who does not represent Republican values and is already embarrassing the United States on the world stage.
Trump isn't the only problem. Venne believes the "derailing of original Republican ideology" began long before this reality TV star transitioned to politics; it dates back to when party leadership began pandering to the religious right and disavowing climate change. Venne couldn't even say for certain that if his preferred primary candidate, Jeb Bush, had secured the nomination, he'd have won Venne's vote in the general.
Venne believes the party's choices over the past decade, up to and including the selection of its current standard bearer, may have permanently alienated conservatives of his generation — and driven them into the eager arms of Democrats.
"Unfortunately their focus on the Bible Belt, it really disenfranchised young potential Republicans and I think that they lost the race to connect with us," Venne said.
About a quarter of registered millennial voters say they plan to vote third-party, according to recent polling from SurveyMonkey. That's out of the question to Venne. He views Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson as "uneducated and stoned" and Stein as "irrelevant." Moreover, he said, a third-party ballot would be "throwing my vote away," helping Trump.
Venne was invited to join this focus group because he is technically undecided. But you could hear in his voice that he knows what he'll do on Nov. 8. Like about a quarter of self-identified conservative millennials, according to SurveyMonkey, Venne expects to cast a ballot for Clinton.
"It's a matter of swallowing my pride, so to speak, and not sharing it with my parents for sure," he explained with a sigh.
"I say that I'm undecided," he said, but in reality he doesn't see much choice. Given his intense concerns about Trump, voting for Clinton becomes "the move I feel I have to make."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Not exactly a declaration of loyalty to the Democratic Party. But, at this point, it may be the best that Clinton can hope for.
Catherine Rampell is a columnist for The Washington Post. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.
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