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SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah student Jenica Jessen, 21, said she's already cast her first-ever presidential vote, choosing independent candidate Evan McMullin even though she is a registered Republican.
"This is my first presidential election that I'm old enough to vote in," the senior majoring in linguistics and political science said Wednesday. "I do see myself as having an impact here in Utah where the race is so much closer than it ever has been before."
Jessen, part of the millennial vote seen as key to a McMullin win in Utah, said "both the Republican and Democratic parties have let me down. They see each other as enemies, and they're more concerned with scoring points than with doing good."
She was among the students who filled the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics auditorium to hear from McMullin and his running mate, Mindy Finn, as they spend the final week before the election campaigning throughout Utah.
"The race has really heated up in the past couple of days especially," McMullin, 40, a former CIA operative and congressional aide, told them. "That's because we're competing here in Utah very closely with Donald Trump."
Polling has put McMullin ahead of or statistically tied with Trump in Utah, a state that has voted Republican since 1968. Utah GOP officials held their own rally Tuesday at the state Capitol to urge Republicans to "come home" to their party's nominee.
McMullin's message to the largely under-35 audience was that the major political party candidates are like taxis, not Uber, the upstart rideshare service.
"They're looking backward," he said. "They are committed to old ideas, and that's what they're offering us."
McMullin is counting on winning Utah's six electoral votes and neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, securing the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House so the election is sent to the U.S. House to decide.
"We always knew this was a long shot," Finn said. She and McMullin both talked about their goal of building a new conservative movement that would include the GOP only if the party repudiated some of Trump's stands.
Jessen liked what she heard.
"Honestly, I think the rest of the Republican Party needs to come home to its original principles," she said, dismissing criticism that she and other McMullin backers are "throwing away" their votes or secretly supporting Clinton.
Even if that were true, she said, "my loyalty to America, my commitment to these ideals, my commitment to equality is more important than party loyalty. And if the Republican Party cannot support that, that is not a party I can be loyal to."
Sutherland Institute President Boyd Matheson said millennial voters, those about 35 or younger, are more conservative and community focused than previous generations but are turned off to political parties and limited choices.
"It's not how they think. It's not how they function," said Matheson, a former chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. He said millennial voters want authentic candidates, and they see that in McMullin, not the others in the race.
"If there wasn't an Evan McMullin, I think there would be a lot of millennials who would just disengage," Matheson said. Now, he said, the group that makes up about 30 percent of voters is poised to swing the election in Utah.
"I think they will be the difference in McMullin winning and Trump coming in second and Hillary taking third," Matheson said, putting Utah with its youngest in the nation population on the leading edge of millennial influence.
Polling often underrepresents millennial voters because they're harder to reach than older voters who still have landlines in their homes. They're also a tough sell when it comes to voting, state Elections Director Mark Thomas said.
"They look at this process and it's not very inspiring for them," Thomas said, describing how his office has traveled to concerts and other events to try to sign up new, young voters. "It's just really hard."
Two years ago, about 14.5 percent of voters ages 18 to 34 cast a ballot, Thomas said, while in the 2012 presidential race that number climbed to just over 27 percent.
Kirk Jowers, former Hinckley Institute head, said millennials "are the least politically engaged of all generations, perhaps ever. This election is not going to help that trend. They just don't see politics solving the problems that are important to them."
Jowers said millennial voters see McMullin as sincere despite their distrust of the political system. "I think they say, 'I don't see this ever changing. We've tried it traditional ways. … What could be worse than what we've had?'"
McMullin told the Deseret News and KSL-TV he believes he is doing even better than polls have suggested because his "core base, which is the 45 and younger crowd," is underrepresented in the results.
"Millennials are looking toward the future, and they see in the two major parties what I see," McMullin said. "Millennials are the most empowered generation ever. Millennials are people who because of technology can do so much more than any of us."
Meagan Nielsen, 21, a U. senior majoring in environmental sciences, said listening to McMullin and Finn on Wednesday "opened my eyes because I was not going to vote for Trump. So I was going to go for Hillary Clinton."
Nielsen, a Democrat, said hearing that McMullin may have a chance to win the state could change her mind. "What they will do and what they say is more important than the party. And I liked a lot of things he was saying."
She said she was struck that McMullin and Finn considered themselves conservatives but could not support the GOP nominee. "That right away grabbed my attention and I knew that they were more focused about their beliefs."