Stacey Abrams’ campaign bus was running forty minutes late. But the anticipation for her arrival at Savannah State University seemed to intensify with each passing minute. Hundreds of people had settled into lawn chairs or found a spot on the ground around the gazebo in the center of campus Tuesday night. The candidate’s advance team was on the scene to clear a pathway to the stage where she would speak. When her bus finally arrived, the crowd hurried towards Abrams. Excited supporters had their phones in selfie position to snap an image as she walked into the frame.
One young woman cried.
“The last time we felt this energy was with Obama,” said Paris Carter, a junior and Abrams canvasser. “And it feels really good to feel that again, now that I am older and can understand what it means.”
Carter was drawn to Abrams’ call for debt-free college and expects Abrams to win because her message seems to resonate with Georgians of all races.
Though Abrams didn’t have to, given the evident excitement in the crowd, after she made it to the stage and settled into her stump speech, she made a lighthearted attempt to connect with the younger audience. Voters under 30 years old have long been elusive for any political candidate. A few exceptional candidates, like Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama, have broken through. The Abrams campaign believes their candidate is very much that once-in-a-lifetime candidate who can generate a similar response at the polls.
“I’m not the most hip-hop-friendly person, but I do know certain phrases, and I believe the phrase to describe the Republican Party I see today is that they’re shook,” Abrams said to the crowd. “They know we’re on a road to victory. They’ve never seen this story. At 8:47 p.m. at night, the campus is full of people who look like Georgia, and we are ready to get work done. They’re not used to this. They haven’t seen this before.”
Indeed, the audience of hundreds looked like the Georgia demographers say the population will be in the next 10 years, a people of color-majority state, a mix of Asian, black, white, and Latinx.
It’s the kind of coalition Abrams will need next month on Election Day. Polls have her in a near tie with Brian Kemp, her GOP opponent. College students are among the major demographic groups she is actively pursuing for votes. That’s why the campaign has ambassadors at nearly 20 colleges and universities, including Georgia State, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Emory, Morehouse, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University. The Democratic Party of Georgia has a college and millennial outreach coordinator who galvanizes students to support Democratic campaign efforts across the state. They have designated college ambassadors on campuses to lead voter contact efforts, such as canvassing and phone banks. Beyond their efforts on campus—including their own dorms—ambassadors knock on doors in surrounding neighborhoods.
Kelsy Brown, a junior at Savannah State University, has been canvassing the area for Abrams and says people are excited about her candidacy and the history they can help make if Abrams wins. Brown was too young to vote for Obama in either 2008 or 2012 but feels she is getting her shot with Abrams.
“As a black woman, that’s very exciting,” she said. “It gives us hope; let’s us know anything is possible and it’s time for change.”
In 2008, Obama earned 66 percent of the vote from people 30 years old and younger, according to the Pew Research Center. It is the largest disparity between young voters and other age groups since 1972 when exit polling began. Abrams hopes her popular appeal can generate a similar turnout. She has been on the road since Monday, traveling to college campuses to speak with young people about issues important to them, namely debt-free college and trade schools for people who do not want a university experience. She also shares her vision about how students in grade school should experience education.
During her talk at Fort Valley State University Monday afternoon, which was hosted by journalist Ed Gordon, Abrams talked about a comprehensive approach to educating children, not just focusing on their needs in the classroom. She discussed universal daycare so parents can take care of their children without risking their jobs.
“We have to educate the whole child,” Abrams told those in attendance. “A child who shows up in class on Monday having last eaten on Friday cannot learn no matter how good the teacher is.”
Her message is in line with the social justice message many of the students in attendance relate to. Joseph Cornick, a senior and member of the political science club at Fort Valley State University, said he can recall friends who had to learn on an empty stomach. Communities surrounding FVSU are full of people who have similar stories. Cornick has been trying to get them to support Abrams.
As for getting his fellow classmates to vote, Cornick and other student canvassers have been “dorm storming,” literally knocking on every door on campus to see if their classmates are registered to vote, or if they have taken advantage of early voting. Sometimes, the students don’t realize they must be registered to vote in Peach County, where FVSU is situated, not their hometowns. He has had to help students switch registrations because they likely won’t take the long trip home to vote.
Forget mail-in or absentee ballots. “We’re 21st-century millennials,” Cornick said. “We ain’t mailing nothing.”
Abrams’ appeal to young people in Georgia is multifaceted. She believes every person deserves access to a debt-free college education, and that they should not have to be a 4.0 student to get a full ride.
“I have a family of Bs and Cs that’s doing the best they can,” she likes to tell younger audiences.
Her youth is also a plus. At 44-years-old, she is just one generation removed from the millennial generation, a group she desperately needs to show up at the polls in November.
“For the first time, there is a politician who I see myself in the mirror with,” said Kyla S. Dickson, a recent graduate of Georgia Southern University who was on campus to hear Abrams speak Tuesday. “I like how personable she is. I think this is a great time in politics for African American women. We have such strong candidates. It’s something to look forward to.”