Jo Pipes is afraid for the future of America.
She worries that, under a Donald Trump presidency, the country will return to the tumult of the 1960s. At 66 years old, Pipes was a child when Jim Crow reigned, and remembers the violence perpetrated against black Americans—and against those in the civil rights struggle who rose up against it. Today, she fears Trump’s appeals to “law and order” will prompt a rise in police brutality.
“I think more white supremacists will join the police force,” says Pipes, who grew up and still lives in Cincinnati. “Our lives will be a bit more miserable because they will feel they can do anything they want with wild abandon.”
But Pipes, a retired pharmacist, sees an out, a way to avoid the outcome of Trump in the White House: to vote—and to vote for Hillary Clinton. “I feel I know Hillary Clinton’s heart and ambition,” Pipes says. “I feel compelled to support a sister against all odds. She represents our struggles and flaws.”
Pipes, however, isn’t overconfident in a Clinton victory. She worries that her younger family members won’t all get out and vote, even though they live in the crucial swing state of Ohio.
“I don’t understand why our young black folks don’t understand that Donald Trump represents everything about white supremacy and the KKK, and that they wouldn’t want to vote against him anyway they can,” she says. “They must understand that it is your personal responsibility to be involved in democracy.”
Pipes’s story is not unique. Black women voted at higher rates than any other demographic in 2008 and 2012. Among them, women such as Pipes fit into a special segment of black women voters over the age of 64 who, according to an analysis by Fusion, wield particular influence on who will next occupy the White House. But their younger counterparts, owing to lower voter turnout, do not wield the same clout.
Our data team crunched numbers from the U.S. Census and forecast data provided by Fivethirtyeight.com to build a model that assigns voters what we call a “power score.” Sorted by race, gender, and age, it was older black women like Pipes who returned the highest power scores—most notably in key swing states. Black women in Nevada between 64 to 75, for example, are 398 percent more powerful than the average American voter nationally. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, their votes count for more than twice the national average; in Florida, they measure at 185 percent. (To find your voting power score, click here.)
These findings are critical to understanding whose ballots will be key to Clinton’s electoral chances. Of particular concern to her campaign are black voters—an important Democratic constituency in Barack Obama’s two successful presidential runs.
Polls show that Clinton’s support among young black people lags far behind the the numbers Obama garnered in 2008 and 2012. These voters don’t hold as much power in elections, according the Fusion voting power analysis. In swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, black women between 25 and 44 return power scores about a third less than their elder counterparts.
Among the older black women who constitute the most powerful voting block in the country, those who spoke to Fusion are seeking to multiply their disproportionate power by addressing the power gap with their disenchanted younger counterparts.
Political engagement by youthful black Americans isn’t the problem. The Black Lives Matter movement galvanized young black people in ways unseen since the 1960s Civil Rights Era. But that hasn’t translated into votes. Trump may be considered racist, but Clinton’s support for the 1994 Crime Bill and her “superpredator” comments cloud the enthusiasm of young black voters—especially those involved with BLM. Results from a recent focus group found that many young black people are skeptical that Clinton would really use her office to address substantial criminal justice reform.
“We know Hillary is not perfect but she has purpose,” says Dianne Smith, 67, of Stuart, FL, a member of several faith-based organizations in her state. Smith stays busy trying to persuade younger voters to reconsider their thinking. “My thing is: ‘No vote is a vote’.”
Many older black women’s job, as they put it, is to convince young black people that not voting for Clinton will hamper their efforts to advance their civil rights agenda.
“I don’t think they really understand the depths of what we’re dealing with,” says Lois Toni McClendon, who lives in Pittsburgh, of the young black people skeptical of Clinton. McLendon, 68, works for the Black Political Empowerment Project, a nonpartisan organization that encourages political engagement. She understands why young people don’t want to vote or don’t trust Clinton, admitting that she’s not too happy about voting for the former secretary of state, either. She sees Clinton as part of a “good old boy network.” “I know they’re disillusioned; I am, too. I know they’re fed up; I am, too,” she says, her voice dripping with empathy.
Yet allowing Trump a chance to win would install a man in the White House whose potential pitfalls pose a far greater threat to black Americans. “To stay home is a vote for the other side,” McClendon cautions her younger counterparts. “I really think they need to understand that, but I thoroughly understand what they are going through.”
Some make the same approach, but with a harder leading edge. “I tell them, ‘You must get out and vote,’” says Joyce Eatman, 73, who runs a Las Vegas anti-poverty nonprofit. “If your vote does not matter and everybody takes that attitude and stays home and don’t vote, you’re actually putting in a vote for that person you don’t want to win. Your vote you didn’t think mattered actually does matter.”
Women who, like McClendon and Eatman, are on a quest to bring along young black voters can leverage the revulsion that many Americans have felt at the racially divisive nature of Trump’s campaign. “The more vile he becomes the more likely it is the enthusiasm builds,” says Ohio State University political scientist Wendy Smooth. “Not necessarily for Hillary, but the idea of stopping Trump. And that is a huge galvanizer.” Smooth puts paramount importance on the mission of powerful black women voters: “All of this hinges on, Will black women not just show up, but do as they did in 2008, mobilize and bring their friends along?”
This much is certain: Part of what is motivating women like McClendon to speak with young people who feel unsure about casting their ballots is the memory of what America felt like during the 1960s—when legal barriers kept black people from voting—and the belief that a Trump presidency could replicate that climate of racial tension. As they look back, though, these women also look forward: They see the stakes in this election for their children and grandchildren, says Khalilah Brown-Dean, a professor of political science at Quinnipiac University.
“If you look at the women in this demographic”—black women between 64 and 75—“the concern is that the hope that they had for their children has not been realized,” Brown-Dean explains. “Home ownership amongst their children is down. Access to college education is down. All of these things that these women and their peers fought for seem to be elusive. So if all of the things we have fought for have not been realized, what do we do?” The answer Brown-Dean offers should by now be obvious: voting. “So it is not about them individually. It is about the collective advancement of that community.”
This is what is also motivating Pipes, who believes Trump is racist. She understands the concerns young people have about Clinton. As often as she can, Pipes tries to convince her younger family members that no one is perfect. She’s confident women in her age group are going come out for Clinton in high numbers in Ohio—and convince their family and friends to do the same. She wants, though, Hillary Clinton herself to do a better job driving home the argument of how fraught life will be for black people under a President Trump.
“Hillary should make people understand the alternative is almost like wishing yourself a grave spot because he’s gonna make your life miserable,” she said. “He doesn’t know anything. He’s gonna put all of those Breitbart white supremacists in office. And they’re gonna come at you tooth and nail. Don’t get comfortable.”