WASHINGTON — Within the span of ten months, Harvard University junior Declan Garvey said he saw the Republican presidential primary race go from optimistic to demoralizing.
Garvey, vice president of the Harvard Republican Club, is one of many conservative college students dispirited with the presidential race because of the GOP’s controversial front-runner, Donald Trump. Now faced with the prospect of a Trump nomination, Garvey and other college Republicans say they may do the unthinkable in November: Vote for Hillary Clinton.
“If you had to put a gun to my head and pick one of the two, I prefer Clinton,” said Nick Pappas, University of Massachusetts Amherst senior and membership chairman of its Republican club. “To me as a conservative, she is a known poison.”
Garvey, too, said he would “have to bite the bullet” and cast a Clinton vote if faced with the choice between her and Trump. For him, it is more pressing to stop a Trump presidency, regardless of which side doles his defeat.
In the fall, Garvey said he and his fellow Republicans would gather on campus for GOP debate watch parties, chuckling at first at Trump and cheering when his rivals attacked him. Students rallied behind candidates such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush or US Senator Marco Rubio, Garvey said.
But as time went on and the candidate pool thinned, he said, the front-runner became less amusing to the group.
“The campaign season has devolved into a very hostile and depressing reality of where the country is,” he said. “I’m not super optimistic. I don’t know too many people who are.”
Skyler Golt, University of Maryland College Park senior and president of the school’s College Republicans, also dreads a Trump nomination.
“If Trump gets the nomination he has a lot of work to do to bring me back to the Republican Party,” said Golt, who plans to vote for Ohio Governor John Kasich during Tuesday’s Maryland primary. “Under those circumstances I see myself voting for Hillary. That’s something I never thought I’d say.”
Polls show the vast majority of GOP voters would not support Clinton in a general election. A recent CBS News poll showed 11 percent of GOP voters would vote for Clinton (only 8 percent of Democrats said they would support Trump).
Along those lines, some college Republicans said they could not stomach a Clinton presidency. Johns Hopkins University senior Nitin Nainani, president of his school’s College Republicans, said he would pick a third-party candidate over Trump.
“I am someone who would never vote for Hillary Clinton under any circumstances,” said Nainani, another Kasich supporter. “Very few people trust Hillary. … With Hillary Clinton, you don’t know which Hillary you’re getting.”
Trump has yet to fully enchant the college crowd, even its conservative pack. National polls show his base of support among conservatives who are older or don’t have a college education. Trump was also the least preferred GOP nominee among people under 30, according to an Economist/YouGov poll taken at the end of March.
In college towns such as Cambridge and Wellesley, Kasich took first place during the Massachusetts GOP primary on March 1. College students have said Kasich’s appeal lies in being more moderate and electable. In Real Clear Politics polling averages that pit the GOP candidates against Clinton, Kasich fares the best, and Trump trails her by 9 percent.
“Kasich is someone who is palatable,” said Boston University junior Jake Reiser, a College Republicans membership chairman who also supports the Ohio governor. “He brings a lack of controversy in an era of drama where people are looking to pick fights.”
Trump has been one of the most controversial GOP candidates in decades. He has proposed building a wall along the southern border paid for by Mexico and frequently levels insults at his opponents, such as questioning whether US Senator Ted Cruz’s wife was more attractive than his.
“It’s just not fitting for a president for what I believe is the greatest country in the world,” said Garvey, who now also prefers Kasich.
What’s more, many college Republicans don’t consider Trump a true Republican. Pappas, a Cruz supporter, expressed concern over Trump’s record on free trade, second amendment rights and tax policy. Garvey described Trump as a Democrat because he wants to expand the role of the government.
But college conservatives are not completely despondent with the presidential contest. Although some are disappointed with the presidential race, many remain optimistic in the future of the Republican Party, anticipating Trump will bow out from the political stage after this cycle.
“The repudiation of Trump among younger voters is a positive sign that we can move forward and hopefully not see an election like this again,” Garvey said.
Many Republican students are holding out for July, when Republicans could have a contested convention if Trump does not get enough delegates to secure the nomination.
“If the Republicans nominate Trump, they’ll lose,” Pappas said. “God help us if he wins.”
Alice Yin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.