TAMPA — "I need you," Hillary Clinton humbly declared, a stage behind her filled with a diverse group of college students.
She was at Temple University in Philadelphia on Monday, but the plea was no less directed here, the University of South Florida, home to 30,000 students who could help decide the outcome of the biggest battleground state in the country.
Clinton, 68, has a problem with young voters. She has been unable to generate the excitement instilled by the man she wants to replace, President Barack Obama, or the man she defeated in the contentious Democratic primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders. Turning that around is vital for her campaign.
The challenge was abundantly clear Thursday at the Marshall Student Center, where a lunchtime crowd did homework or socialized over plates from Papa John's, Moes and Panda Express.
"She's the stereotypical career politician and has been accused of various scandals," said Kyle Gaylor, 21, an anthropology major from Tampa. "That's why a lot of people are shying away from her. She isn't very genuine."
Like the overwhelming majority of young voters, Gaylor supported Sanders. The liberal senator's endorsement of Clinton has helped, he said, but with 45 days to the election, Gaylor will only go as far to say he is "leaning" toward Clinton.
Abby Ellingsen was at a table nearby, punching numbers into a calculator for a chemistry II lab report. "They are horrible, 15 pages long and you have to put in all these calculations," she said, laughing.
From a Republican home in Tallahassee, Ellingsen voted for moderate Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the GOP primary. But Donald Trump is too much, his wall, his rhetoric. "He's kind of crazy, but at the same time I don't like Hillary, so what do I do?"
She could turn to a third-party candidate. Libertarian Gary Johnson has gained ground in recent weeks while Green Party candidate Jill Stein's environmental focus has attracted attention from Sanders' supporters. A New York Times poll of Florida released this week showed young voters are considering a third-party candidate more than any other age group. Nationally a quarter of voters under age 40 indicated support for a third-party candidate.
Neither Johnson nor Stein interest Ellingsen, who may not vote at all.
"This is my first time voting — I'm 19 — for something this important," she said. "When I was younger and all my older friends said they wouldn't vote, I was like, 'That's so stupid, you have that right, you have that privilege and should totally exercise it.' Now I'm in their position and I'm like, 'Wow, I totally understand why they didn't.' "
The poll revealed Clinton taking 51 percent of the vote among people age 18-29, well below the 66 percent Obama drew in 2012, which provided him with enough juice to win the state by 0.9 percent. Clinton and Trump are headed toward another close election, which puts her youth problem on display.
At Temple, Clinton spoke in measured tones and acknowledged her shortcomings while stressing inclusiveness. "I need you as partners, not just for winning this election, but for driving real change," she said, adding she understood young voters may still have questions about her.
Her speech represented a stepped up effort to attract millennials. She has dispatched Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the popular Massachusetts liberal, to college campuses. Celebrities are doing events and hitting social media. Happy hours are held for young professionals including one recently hosted by Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, age 37.
The campaign has campus organizers at USF and 12 other colleges across the state. It has encouraged early voting and placed ballot boxes on campus to spur vote by mail. Policy roundtables have been held, including a climate change panel in Miami and one on gender equity in Orlando.
Yet enthusiasm in the candidate — and the election in general — still lags. "The apathy toward politics really gets under my skin sometimes because we have the potential to enact real change," said Caitlin Croley, a Flagler College student who is vice president of Florida College Democrats. She has been a Clinton supporter from the start, but understands the appeal Sanders held.
"Where Hillary Clinton takes a more baby steps approach, Bernie Sanders was going all the way. It was more exciting," Croley said. She is hopeful students wake up in time and said a recent campus visit from Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan helped.
Getting young people to vote has always been a challenge, and participation rates have declined. In 2008, when Obama captivated the demographic, 51 percent of people age 18-29 voted. In 2012, it fell to 45 percent.
"It's not that young people are disengaged, but they are finding different solutions where they can have a direct impact. They may want to see more rapid change," said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
Millennials are rejecting the establishment not just in politics but also with churches and other institutions, she added. That helps explain the support for Sanders, an outsider, and lukewarm reception for Clinton, who has been in the public eye for decades. An aggressive push by Clinton for their support also carries risk.
"Young people do notice there's suddenly a surge of attention," and can feel used, Kawashima-Ginsberg said. "There is this idea they weren't talked to, the politics didn't address them earlier when it was looking like a safe win for Hillary Clinton. It really plays to authenticity."
Clinton did talk of issues aimed at young voters during the primary but struggled mightily against Sanders, who got more votes from people age 18-29 than Clinton and Trump — combined — more than 2 million to their nearly 1.6 million. Clinton easily beat Sanders in the Florida primary, but his advantage among young voters was 35 percent.
She moved toward his position on several issues, including college tuition. While Sanders wanted free public college for all, a plan Clinton called unreasonable, she now injects her stump speech with a proposal to cover the cost for the children of families earning less than $125,000 a year. She also plays up a vow to overturn Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that propelled super PACs. She highlights climate change and expanding health care coverage.
"You want something to vote for, not just against," Clinton said Monday at Temple. "We need everyone off the sidelines. Not voting is not an option. It plays into Trump's hands. It really does."
Outside the USF student center Thursday afternoon, Clinton's appeal failed and resonated.
Alexas McLendon, a 22-year-old mass communications major, sat under a gazebo. She liked Sanders, and concedes some of his ideas were fairy tales. "But he seems more of a real person. And I think that's why more young people liked Obama, too. My grandma is voting for Hillary, but I'm not feeling that way."
"If Bernie were still in, I'd be excited," she explained. "Once he was over, I was over it, too. This election you're forced to pick the lesser of two evils. And I don't like the feeling of that."
She also doesn't like what she perceives as Clinton pandering to young black voters or the constant attacks on Trump. "That's bullying and I don't like bullying. It says a lot about you if you have to sink to that level.
"I'm divided. Of course black people weren't always allowed to vote and I'm a responsible woman and feel I should exercise that right. But at the same time, I just don't know. I'll probably write in Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein even. And I'm not exactly sure about her."
A.J. Hlavac, a 20-year-old advertising major from Jacksonville, also liked Sanders and isn't enamored with Clinton. "The way that she's corporatized herself. It's a little phony. It comes with the years and years of being in the political system," she said.
"I want to vote for somebody who has the same values and ideals as I do. But I feel like if I vote for Jill Stein that's a wasted vote. I'm probably going to vote for Hillary. It's kind of like a reluctant vote.
Her friend, 20-year-old Katelyn Montagna, is similarly unsure who to vote for, or to vote at all. "This is a really bad one for my first election," she said. "I never looked at a full ad. None of it interests me. It kind of disgusts me. I completely push it away. November's not going to be pretty."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected] Follow @learyreports.