CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s obvious why North Carolina is tantalizing for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and why the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates each made an appearance in the battleground state this week. Trump was in Greenville on Tuesday (and will be in Asheville on Monday), and on Thursday afternoon, Clinton attended a rally at Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university in Charlotte, for what its president Dr. Ronald L. Carter called a “high level job interview.”
Clinton, who has embraced her hard-studying, policy-wonk side — seen in her joint appearance with a charismatic President Barack Obama in this same city in July — had clearly done her North Carolina homework as any eager job candidate would. For her, this was an important crowd.
In order for Clinton to win the state the president barely won in 2008 and barely lost in 2012, the Obama coalition must turn out. The latest polls have Trump pulling slightly ahead. It has been reported that young African-American voters have been noticeably cooler to candidate Clinton in 2016 than they were to the nation’s first African-American president. There is little question that Clinton will win populous Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte, the state’s largest city. She undoubtedly will also do well in the state’s other urban centers. But to overcome Trump’s votes in other parts of the state, she will need enthusiasm from the young voters in Thursday’s audience at the university that, she reminded everyone, her husband had visited this year.
While the youth vote is generally less reliable, in North Carolina, with 15 electoral votes at stake and with African Americans making up about 23 percent of registered voters, there are plenty of other concerns to engage the electorate. The top of the ticket is just one incentive for young people to show up at the polls.
So the well-prepared Democratic nominee — greeted by shouts of “Hill-a-ry” — called out the state’s restrictive voter ID law, recently tossed out as discriminatory against African-Americans by a federal court. A “blast from the Jim Crow past,” she called it.
“Brave people going back for so many years fought to preserve that right,” she said. “And it is under attack in North Carolina of all places, a state that often set the standard for moving everybody into the future.”
It’s the issue that won’t go away, with a current conflict over attempts by Republicans on county election boards to reduce the hours of early voting, heavily used by minority voters, and the number of polling places. Clinton promised to expand early voting and establish universal registration for citizens on their 18th birthday.
Clinton also saw a threat to the state’s future in Republican-backed House Bill 2, the so-called “bathroom bill” that invalidated Charlotte’s LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance. “One thing you can do is change your governor,” she said. “and while you’re at it, change one of your senators,” reminding voters of contested down-ballot races with Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper trying to unseat GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and Democrat Deborah Ross currently running slightly behind incumbent Sen. Richard Burr.
It was appropriate in this educational setting that Carter, the university president, compared the resumes of the two presidential candidates. Though he didn’t state his preference outright, when Carter ran down Clinton’s list of accomplishments, on children’s health care, negotiating treaties as secretary of State, plus the ringing endorsement from Obama, and used the words “fraud, conceitedness and bigotry” when describing Donald Trump’s bona fides, it was pretty obvious where he stood. In that he echoed the vocal audience, a diverse but predominantly young one.
It may ironically be GOP efforts to curb minority voters, efforts Carter called “insidious” and “infamous,” which might be most effective at driving them to the polls.
D’Andre Carter, vice president of student affairs and speaker of the university senate, said on Thursday that he would be voting in his first presidential election. But the 20-year-old junior — majoring in political science and pre-law and minoring in communications — said he had already been politically active back home in Las Vegas.
“My goal is to get more black students to register,” said Carter. “You can change policy by speaking up.” He said he’s particularly interested in engaging young African-America and Latino men, who he said need to speak up about how young men of color are policed. Carter said that young women have been more effective, fighting for issues of health care, education and improving social services.
Student Government Association president Sydney R.L. Henry, 21, a senior biology/pre-med major from Washington, D.C., was wearing a Hillary Clinton sticker. Her campus voter registration efforts start with education on what’s at stake and ends with getting students to the polls. Henry said that while students may have seen Clinton in passing on television or heard her in ads, the candidate’s appearance was “an opportunity to hear her and see her first hand,” to appreciate the “atmosphere” of being in the middle of a campaign.
From comments of speakers, students and others, few have forgotten Trump’s “birther-ism” critiques of Obama or Trump Management’s 1970s housing discrimination lawsuits or other questions that have followed his candidacy.
It was clear that even if Clinton has not completely convinced young minority voters, those at Johnson C .Smith appreciated her outreach. Not many plan to vote for Donald Trump, no matter how many prayer shawls he dons in a black church.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.