HANOVER, N.H. — Martin O'Malley came to this New England college town bearing pizza, and a message he hopes will click with the young voters who could be critical for his long-shot bid for president.
"One thing I've been struck by is a big generational shift underway in our country," O'Malley told about 100 students gathered May 31 in a small library meeting room at Dartmouth College last week. "I've rarely met someone under 40 who denies climate change is real. I rarely meet anyone under 40 who wants to scapegoat immigrants."
The line brought murmurs of agreement from the crowd of young Democrats.
As the former two-term Maryland governor sets out on an ambitious campaign for president, he is courting the type of young voters who fueled Barack Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012. He relies on words like "this generation" and "new leadership" to make a not-so-subtle point about his opponents, who are not only older but have spent more time in Washington.
But the 52-year-old guitar-slinging politician faces stiff competition for the under-30 set. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are also working to lock down the potentially powerful constituency.
Whoever inspires them will have an important advantage in the Democratic primaries next year, and the general election in November. In 2014 there were 46 million eligible voters under 30, compared with 39 million seniors, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
One display of their ability to influence an election: If Republican Mitt Romney had managed to just split the youth vote with Obama in 2012, he would have won Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio — and the presidency.
Obama carried at least 60 percent of the young voters in each of those states.
So it was little surprise that O'Malley planted himself in the Dartmouth library a day after announcing his campaign on Federal Hill in Baltimore. He spoke about college affordability, climate change and the job market that some of the students listening are anxiously preparing to enter.
"I'm for moving us to a point as a country where we have debt-free college," O'Malley told the group. "You can finance a home at less than you can finance your college education. And sadly, if you can't finance your college education you're never going to be able to buy a home."
Plenty of O'Malley's lines drew applause, and several students said they would follow his campaign more closely.
Connie Lee, an 18-year-old freshman from Houston, said she was "vaguely" aware of O'Malley before the event.
"It's interesting that he's taking the direction of appealing to the younger audience in contrast with Hillary Clinton," she said. "He addressed a lot of the social issues this younger generation cares about. I think it was effective that he highlighted that."
Charlotte Blatt, also 18 and a freshman, is vice president of the Dartmouth College Democrats.
"As a college student, it's important to hear politicians speaking about the issue of college loans and student debt," she said. "It's really crippling."
Because students arrive on campus from across the country, many do not necessarily vote in the state where they study. But young voters are often an important part of a campaign's volunteer base.
Turnout among young voters can be fickle, and it is frequently lower than other age groups' rates.
O'Malley launched his long-expected bid for the Democratic nomination in Baltimore on May 30. Polls show him in the single digits in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationally — but he has managed to capture headlines when he takes on Clinton. Most recently, that criticism has manifested itself as an attack on Wall Street, and its ties to the Clinton campaign.
But as far back as last summer O'Malley was using words like "fundamentally newer" and "new way of leadership" to describe his approach.
On the campaign trail, those phrases have become sharper, and they have taken on added meaning in the context of a race that includes Clinton, a former first lady, senator and secretary of state who has spent decades in Washington.
O'Malley has never directly made an issue of Clinton's age — at 67, she is 15 years his senior — and he has demurred when asked about it directly. Yet he has sought to project an image of youth by appearing more often with his Celtic rock band and by talking about the data-focused management he employed as Baltimore's mayor and Maryland's governor.
Clinton, by contrast, often touts her status as a new grandmother — as in Houston last week, when she welcomed Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to "the grandmothers' club."
"As a member of now a little over eight months," she said, "it is the best club you will ever be a member of."
But Clinton also used the words "young people" three times.
"Now what possible reason could there be to end preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds and eliminate voter outreach in high schools?" Clinton asked. "We should be doing everything we can to get our young people more engaged in democracy, not less."
Sanders is 73.
O'Malley has "got to say something," said Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "But right now it doesn't matter what Martin O'Malley is saying. The ball's in Hillary Clinton's court. She's either resonating or she's not."
Early polling indicates that she is.
Clinton is viewed favorably by more 18- to 34-year-olds than she is by the electorate as a whole. Among that group, 55 percent have a favorable impression of her, according to a CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday. Among those over 50, 42 percent have a favorable impression of Clinton.
That's a remarkable shift from the results of the 2008 Democratic primaries. Obama received 57 percent of young voters in the first 16 primaries that year, compared to Clinton's 41 percent, according to exit polls analyzed by the Pew Research Center.
He won the youth vote in every one of the early primary states except California, Arkansas and Massachusetts.
A CNN/ORC poll from last month showed that just more than half of Americans believe Clinton "represents the future." For O'Malley, a 42 percent plurality said he "represents the past."
A quarter of respondents in the poll had no opinion of the former governor.
But there may be a sliver of good news for O'Malley in the polling from Maryland, where he is known best. Though his approval slipped during the 2014 gubernatorial election, he does slightly better among young voters in the state — though the difference is within the margin of error.
A Goucher Poll from October found than 18- to 34-year-olds in Maryland had a slightly better impression of O'Malley than older age groups did.
"I think he will try to use his youthfulness as a way to attract those voters," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher. "While in Maryland we have seen this shtick before and it's old news to us, it's not old news to the rest of the United States."
Alex Doser, president of the Iowa State University College Democrats, heard O'Malley speak in April. If O'Malley becomes better known, Doser said, his message could appeal to young voters.
"I see a lot in O'Malley's rhetoric that can connect to young people but he hasn't really gotten his name out there yet," he said. "He hasn't made the kind of dent on the Internet that Sanders has and he's not featured in the media like Clinton has been.
"People are losing faith in the idea that their voice makes a difference in Washington. So there's a lot of room to bring in young voters if you can convince them that you are sincerely fighting for them."
In other words, O'Malley's broader challenge — and perhaps also his opportunity — lies in raising awareness of his campaign.
A few minutes after he left the Dartmouth event, two young men wearing baseball caps walked by the room where he had spoken. One asked why all of the desks had been pushed aside.
"Martin O'Malley was here," the one student said.
His friend's response: "Who?"