ORONO, Maine –- As Hillary Clinton and her allies scramble to keep young liberal voters inside the Democratic Party, Green Party nominee Jill Stein is doing her best to coax them out.
Stein, who won just one-third-of-one-percent of the vote when she ran in 2012, has set an internal goal of reaching 5 percent this time. It's a far shot from winning, but that kind of showing -- along with a more robust effort by another independent candidate, libertarian Gary Johnson -- could pose a huge headache for Clinton.
Stein's efforts will require lots of new converts, and the strategy to get them is simple: Target the remnants of the Bernie Sanders movement by convincing young Clinton skeptics that the Democratic Party is too compromised to be reformed from within -- no matter that Sanders now is saying the opposite.
During a tour of college campuses across Maine last week, Stein began each event by asking for both a show of hands of Green Party members and one for Sanders holdouts. At least nine out of 10 audience members raised the hands for the latter category.
Stein’s pitch to them is not subtle. She calls herself “Bernie Sanders on steroids,” tells the so-called Bernie or Busters their “movement lives on” and even offered to step aside to let Sanders have the top slot on the Green Party ticket.
“When we turn the White House into a Green House, we’ll be Berning Green together!” Stein proclaimed, either oblivious to, or winking at, what some college ears hear as a marijuana reference.
A grey haired 66-year-old medical doctor, Stein’s appeals to young people can be feel clunky at times. She’s used Harambe, the gorilla whose shooting death at a Cleveland zoo went viral, to call for banning zoos. And her campaign has embraced “Dank Jill Memes” -- supporter-generated memes promoting the candidate (“dank” is also a marijuana reference).
Stein has run for governor of Massachusetts twice, but hasn't shown much interest in lower levels of government. While much of her platform would look familiar to any liberal Democrat, other parts -- especially on foreign policy -- are far outside the mainstream.
Stein has called for shutting down U.S. military bases abroad, said she would not have killed Osama bin Laden and said that her secretary of state would be Medea Benjamin, who founded the anti-war group Code Pink. NSA leaker Edward Snowden would also be in Stein’s cabinet, she has said.
There's also an undercurrent of conspiracy theory in Stein's politics, with all of the world's ills traced back to corporate power. She's been slow to clarify comments about the September 11 terror attacks and the alleged health effects of vaccines and WiFi that many saw as winks to conspiracy theorists. She's accused the mainstream media of suppressing her campaign and vowed to “use anti-trust laws to break up corporate media" as one of her first acts in the White House.
But it works, at least for some, just as it did for the equally grey-haired Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, because Stein is seen as authentic and speaking to issues her young supporters care most about.
Harry Wells, an engineering student at the University of Maine, told NBC News he’s more excited about Stein than he was about Sanders. “We were sick of Clinton, we were sick of Trump, we were sick of Obama. When Bernie went away, we were so disengaged. Then we found Stein,” Wells said.
The memes sometimes work too. Wells’ friend, Zachary Stinchfield, said he first discovered Stein through a GIF of Homer Simpson disappearing into a bush while wearing a Bernie T-shirt, only to re-emerging with a Stein t-shirt.
With support in the single digits, Stein is running a niche campaign and has focused her time in liberal states, not battlegrounds, since she’s interested only in raw votes and not electoral ones.
But millennials’ flirtation with Stein and Gary Johnson has given some anxious Democrats flashbacks to Ralph Nader’s spoiler of a campaign in 2000, which helped deliver the White House to Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore in a race so close it was resolved by the Supreme Court. It's a lesson some younger voters never properly learned about, many Democrats say.
"There's very little danger that any of these Sanders voters are going to vote for Donald Trump. But there is a real danger that they will vote for a third party,” said Democratic pollster Andrew Baumann, who recently completed a new poll of millennials in 11 battleground states commissioned by the pro-Democratic group NextGen Climate.
While Clinton is easily winning 18- to 34-year-olds, she’s underperforming President Obama's 2012 margin among the group by as many as 10 percentage points. Clinton is also viewed more far unfavorably among young people than by the public as a whole.
That’s left some who would otherwise vote Democratic to consider a third-party candidate. When forced to choose between the two major party candidates, 57 percent of Stein supporters go for Clinton, compared to 18 percent for Trump, according to a recent NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll of registered voters.
Among “Sanders holdouts” -- young people who say they would vote for Sanders, but not Clinton, in a general election -- Clinton has a net negative 78 percent approval rating, which is worse than the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil and even Lord Voldemort from “Harry Potter,” according to Baumann.
Given the size of the millennial generation, which recently surpassed Baby Boomers as the largest in America, even small swings could be critical. “The difference between Clinton winning 50 percent, 55 percent or 60 percent of millennials could very well be the difference between her winning the election or not,” Baumann said.
Clinton’s campaign is working hard to push millennials to the polls -- a $30 million digital ad buy announced Thursday is the latest effort -- while a pro-Clinton super PAC is planning a multi-million-dollar campaign to dissuade third-party voting.
“The campaign has ramped up efforts in the general election to engage, energize and mobilize millennial voters, including those who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary,” said Clinton campaign spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa.
Sanders, Warren, first lady Michelle Obama and President Obama have recently hit the road to vouch for Clinton with young voters. But it was Sanders himself who has sounded the alarm most clearly of third parties.
"I ran as a third-party candidate. I'm the longest-serving independent in the history of the United States Congress. I know more about third-party politics than anyone else in the Congress, OK?” he said at a rally for New York congressional candidate Zephyr Teachout last week. “This is not time for a protest vote.”
Historically, many people who tell pollsters they’ll vote for a third-party candidate end up voting for a major party nominee in November. And Stein’s backers may never have been potential voters for Democrats under any circumstance.
But it’s clear Stein has reached a group of voters who were Democrats long enough at least to vote for Sanders -- only to then break with the party when they felt it rigged the election against their candidate.
“The way the Bernie Sanders campaign was treated by the DNC is the latest example that the Democratic Party is opposed to real change,” said Seth Baker, a Green Party candidate for the Maine state Senate.
Young people were trending away from the two major parties anyway -- a Pew survey found half don’t identify with either -- even as they tend to vote Democratic and hold progressive views.
Even Tom Steyer, the billionaire who funds NextGen Climate and is a Clinton supporter, isn’t sure if young liberals will naturally become loyal Democrats.
“I think there’s a real question about party and millennials. They don’t necessarily believe that the institutions of the past are going to serve them well,” he told NBC News, noting he has four children in their 20s. “So when you say, are they going to come back to the Democratic Party -- I don’t think they were ever with the Democratic Party.”
Still, exasperated Democrats wonder how anyone could vote for Johnson or Stein this year and risk putting Trump in the White House.
“Do you want Trump to win? Do you want to split the vote?” said Asher Platts, the chairman of the Green Party in Portland, Maine as he introduced Stein. “This is such an absurd question. Because really, what we’re talking about is a choice not between an evil and lesser evil, but a choice between a loud, boorish, racist evil and a quiet, polite, effective, racist evil.”
“The Democratic Party is an unreformable and irredeemable institution which should be abandoned,” Portland Green Party Chairman Asher Platts, one of half dozen speakers with a similar message, said before Stein took the stage. “The Democratic Party is not ours, it’s never been ours, it never will be ours.”
He’s hardly alone. According to the NextGen survey, 29 percent of millennial likely voters said “there is no real difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump” -- down from 37 percent in July.
“Trump is a buffoon, but she almost seems like a proven criminal,” said Janane Tripp, a 30-something Portlander who said she’s always voted Democratic in the past, but is volunteering for Stein’s campaign this year.
Clinton has made progress in convincing millennials she is not the same as Trump, polls show, but it will be hard to reach Stein voters.
Even Elizabeth Warren, whom the Clinton campaign has deployed as an ambassador to young liberals, was heckled this weekend in Ohio. “Bernie was robbed!” and “Jill not Hill!” a handful of protesters shouted.