By Vanessa Williams,
Kahlida Lloyd can explain her reasons for voting for Hillary Clinton, even if she is not especially excited about them. But she has a hard time making the case to obstinate friends why they should support the Democratic presidential nominee.
Lloyd, 31, a lawyer, sought advice from other black millennials during a recent lunchtime gathering in downtown Washington. What should she say to encourage young black voters, who rallied in 2008 and 2012 to help Barack Obama make history as the first African American president, to show a little of that enthusiasm for Clinton?
“I just don’t want the first woman president to be elected because the other person sucks, but that’s where I think we are,” Lloyd said in an interview after the event last week hosted by #WeVote, a new effort aimed at mobilizing young black voters. “People either say, ‘Donald Trump is not where it’s at, so I’m gonna vote for Hillary.’ Or you have people say, ‘Donald Trump is not where it’s at; I’m not gonna vote at all.’ And that’s not cool.”
Younger African Americans, like many millennials, are not excited about this year’s presidential election. The Clinton campaign, which has sought to reassemble the Obama coalition, has struggled to connect with a key piece of it: voters under 30.
Turnout among African Americans under age 30 spiked from 49 percent in 2004 to 57 percent in 2008, but it dipped to 53 percent in 2012, according to Census Bureau data. While 43 percent of Obama supporters under age 40 were “very enthusiastic” about him in 2012, just 24 percent of Clinton supporters under age 40 feel the same way about her now, according to September averages of Washington Post-ABC News polls from four years ago and this year.
Black activists and organizers, frustrated with the Clinton campaign’s inability to engage young voters, have taken it upon themselves to challenge their peers to consider the consequences if Republicans take the White House and keep control of both houses of Congress. They also have encouraged young voters to focus on state and local elections, because those officials make decisions about how police departments and schools are run, issues that more directly affect their lives.
Voting rights were an important victory of the civil rights era, and because Trump’s campaign has laid bare racist attitudes, the seeming indifference of black millennials to the election has sparked broad discussion within the African American community.
But young people who say that the political system has failed them argue that they don’t owe it to anyone — not even the often-cited warriors of the civil rights movement — to participate in the presidential election. Many are critical of some black political leaders for framing the election as a choice between an arch enemy and an old friend rather than talking about the issues, such as what they view as broken economic and criminal-justice systems.
“We know what the issues are. What we can’t seem to get is candidates to talk about them in a nuanced way,” said Lauren Brown, 34, a public-relations professional who said she has not been moved by Clinton’s talking points on addressing police violence against black people or economic equity for women of color. “This election cycle is more about who you hate more than who you like.”
Brown decided to vote for Clinton after taking part in a discussion during an event, hosted last month in Philadelphia by a civic project called Black and Engaged, about the stakes in the campaign. Trump’s debate performances also helped sway her.
Symone D. Sanders, 26, a top aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) during his Democratic primary campaign, co-founded #WeVote along with three other millennial activists to urge their peers to register and vote. Lloyd was among about 145 people who attended the Washington event. Similar gatherings are planned around the country.
Other efforts to engage millennial activists include BlackPAC, which got funding from the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA to do outreach in Florida and Color Of Change Fund, which got money from the progressive For Our Future super PAC to connect with voters in battleground states via text message.
“I think it’s extremely important that the message we take from this room, when we’re going out into our individual networks, is that this is not the election to sit on the sidelines,” Sanders said during last week’s discussion. “There are so many things, as President Obama has said, that are on the ballot: our progress as a country is on the ballot, criminal justice reform and the future of criminal justice reform in this country is on the ballot, our economy and who will be able to get a job is on the ballot. So if those are the things you care about, that is why we have to go to the polls.”
But Lloyd told Sanders and members of the panel that she had been having trouble convincing others that they should vote for Clinton.
“After the first African American president of the United States of America, we cannot afford not to vote,” said panelist Mary-Pat Hector, national youth director for the National Action Network and a student at Spelman College in Atlanta.
“We cannot risk [Supreme Court] justices that are going to push us back. All of the things that we’ve worked so hard for, not only as African Americans, but as women, can be gone — tomorrow. We cannot allow someone who does not care about us win. So if that means voting for Hillary Clinton, then so be it.”
DeRay Mckesson, a prominent leader in the Black Lives Matter movement also on the panel, said the campaign has not offered a compelling, affirmative reason to vote for Clinton, nor a credible surrogate who can speak to young black voters in the way that Atlanta rapper Killer Mike represented Sanders.
“I don’t know who is out there like that for Hillary. Trump drives us all nuts, but we know Trump wants to build a wall,” Mckesson said. “I’m an insider in the criminal justice space, and sometimes I’m like, ‘What is it Hillary’s going to do?’ That is a problem.”
Clinton campaign aides say she has not only talked about issues affecting communities of color, but has offered detailed proposals to address such concerns as criminal justice, income inequality and infrastructure in neglected neighborhoods.
Addisu Demissie, director of national voter outreach, said the campaign has been doing extensive outreach to black voters — including millennials — in their communities, and in recent weeks African American celebrities and athletes have been more active on the trail. Over the weekend, hip-hop artist Pusha T joined fellow Virginian and Clinton running mate Tim Kaine for a campaign event in Liberty City, a predominantly black, low-income community in Miami.
Maya Harris, senior policy adviser, said Clinton’s economic agenda “touches on various issues that are related to wealth and income inequality, specifically addressing the African American community.”
“Does that mean there are not more policies that we could or should pursue if she is fortunate enough to be elected president? Of course not,” she said. “But is her policy agenda one that recognizes the specific circumstances and challenges and lack of opportunities in the African American community, not only recognizes it, but puts forth solutions to begin to address those issues and create opportunities? Absolutely.”
Carmen Berkley, director of civil, human and women’s rights for the AFL-CIO, said many black millennials have to stop “waiting to have that same level of excitement” they felt for Obama’s campaign. “If I had my choice of who would be the president, it probably would be Michelle Obama, but she’s not running for president. Hillary Clinton is.”
Berkley, 31, said some black millennials are being overly critical of Clinton, for instance, by continuing to criticize her for supporting her husband’s 1994 crime bill and using the term “super predator” to describe some young offenders. They don’t give her credit for having apologized, or for pledging to work to achieve criminal justice reform. “Here, you have a candidate who says, ‘I messed up, and I’m willing to change.’ ” Berkley said. “I think that is powerful. We have — as activists, organizers and everyday people — the power to bring pressure on political leaders to get what we want.”
Lloyd, who said she gave money and volunteered for Obama’s campaigns, had not been active for Clinton. The #WeVote discussion inspired her to sign up for a text-a-thon. She sent messages to more than 500 mostly black voters in Pennsylvania.
“I definitely think that event ignited something in me, made me want to take advantage of opportunities to share with others,” she said.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.