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Clinton’s big hurdle: Getting young voters #WithHer

Supporters of Bernie Sanders hold up signs at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders hold up signs at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Shawnee Badger couldn’t contain her disgust when she spotted Hillary Clinton on the television in the hotel lobby.

“It’s the queen. Everybody, bow down,” she said sarcastically. The 22-year-old delegate from Valencia, Calif., was at the Democratic National Convention to support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and she’s not sure whether she can bring herself to vote for Clinton in November.

Whenever Clinton speaks, Badger doesn’t hear detailed plans for making college more affordable or her history-making status as the first female presidential candidate for a major political party. Instead, Badger said, she hears, “Fall in line, vote for me because of Donald Trump.”

Winning over young voters is a challenge for Clinton as she launches her general election campaign this week. Polls show they prefer her to Trump, but there’s no sign of the generational wave that helped propel President Obama to the White House eight years ago.

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In addition, the calls for Democratic unity in the wake of a fiercely contested primary may be less effective with young voters, who are less likely to be registered with a political party than are their parents.

Clinton’s team has acknowledged the issue. The convention stage has been packed with young celebrities like Lena Dunham and America Ferrera, and speakers have painted a multicultural vision of America aimed at resonating with a generation that’s more diverse than those before it.

“At the end of the day, she’ll get their support,” Stephanie Cutter, a consultant who worked on both of Obama’s presidential campaigns, said during an event hosted by the Atlantic in Philadelphia. “It’s a matter of whether … they get out and vote.”

Getting young voters to the polls is always a challenge. In 2012, 38% of people ages 18 to 24 cast ballots, compared with 70% of people 65 and older, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

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“We always knew that we have to move forward, appeal to energize younger voters,” John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, said during a convention breakfast hosted by the Bloomberg news service. “We’ve got a lot of voter registration work ahead of us.”

The problem isn’t that young voters don’t care about issues like climate change and student debt; it’s that too often they view politics with a jaundiced eye. For them, Clinton is the product of a corrupt system, said Stanley Greenberg, a pollster who worked for Bill Clinton.

“They think she’s a typical politician … aligned with the elites … aligned with the big money and Wall Street,” he said.

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Hillary Clinton’s deep political experience — first lady, senator, secretary of State — isn’t a turnoff for supporters like Melissa Cairo, a 20-year-old delegate from Hillsborough, Calif.

“She knows how to work the system,” she said, an “I’m with her” button pinned to her pants.

But some voters speak of disgust with politics, keeping them from getting involved or voting.

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“I always felt something was wrong with it,” said Brandon Black, 19, of Greenville, S.C. He didn’t see the value in voting.

Eventually, Black joined the Sanders campaign because he was inspired by his crusade for sweeping, uncompromising change. Black traveled to Philadelphia this week to show his support at the convention.

“In order to make the changes you want, you can’t sit back,” said Black, who wore a “Thank you, Bernie” shirt, with a Guy Fawkes mask, a common symbol used by protesters, hanging from his backpack.

It’s that transition from apathy to action that Tom Steyer, the billionaire Democratic donor and founder of the advocacy group NextGen Climate, wants to see happen more often among young people

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“It’s not like they don’t care about the issues,” he said. “They need to buy into the fact that their vote matters.”

His group is working in seven key states — Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Colorado and Nevada — to register voters and try to boost turnout over issue like climate change.

“This is a turnout election,” he said. “It’s not a question of how they’re going to vote, but whether they’re going to vote.”

MoveOn.org, a liberal group that endorsed Sanders during the primary, is counting on an anti-Trump campaign to drive young voters to the polls.

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Justin Krebs, the campaign director, said they “need social and cultural momentum of believing you’re a part of something.”

For many, Sanders provided that. It’s unclear whether Clinton can do the same.

“I don’t think I could give her my full devotion after my year with the Bernie Sanders campaign,” said Teva Gabis-Levine, a 35-year-old volunteer from New Mexico.

Times staff writers David Lauter and Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.

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chris.megerian@latimes.com

Twitter: @chrismegerian

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