(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

At a rally in North Carolina today, Hillary Clinton tried to build on last night’s debate performance by pivoting to a discussion of the importance of voter turnout — which suggests her campaign is now turning to the task of tending to the composition of the electorate on election day.

“I believe we may have record-setting turnout in this election,” Clinton said, according to Bloomberg reporter Sahil Kapur. “We’re seeing voting rates among African Americans, Latinos and young people going up. And for the first time, the estimate is that young people could represent 25 percent of the vote.”

This highlights one of the key goals that Clinton tried to accomplish during the debate, one that has gotten lost in discussions of whether she appealed to swing voters or successfully provoked Trump into revealing his inner madman: Speaking directly to core groups in the Democratic coalition.

“This was about consolidation,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who conducted dial sessions gauging voter responses to the debate, told me today, adding that his previous polling had indicated to him the challenge she faced: “One of the big things holding her back was the failure to consolidate Democrats.”

As James Hohmann reports, even some GOP strategists have noted that focus groups appeared to show undecided swing voters favoring her performance. But top Dems were also watching for Clinton to take big steps towards energizing core Dem constituencies (Latinos, African Americans, unmarried women) and towards bringing into the fold voters drifting to minor parties (young voters). As former Obama advisers David Plouffe and Jim Messina argued, Clinton needed to give such voters more of a reason to be passionate about her candidacy, and a clearer sense of what motivates her and where she’d take the country. This would hopefully convert registered Dem-leaning voters into likely or certain voters, while beginning to persuade voters horrified by Trump — but alienated by Clinton, and tempted by Gary Johnson or Jill Stein — to reconsider her.

And so, during the debate, Clinton repeatedly returned to laying out the same programmatic agenda she did in her convention speech, once again pushing increased spending on infrastructure, job creation, and clean energy; pay equity; family and medical leave; a minimum wage hike; and college debt relief. Such proposals are broadly popular but might have juiced up appeal to core Dem voter groups, with millennials in particular favoring debt free college and action on the minimum wage and climate change (note that Clinton attacked Trump’s climate denialism).

“Millennials disproportionately support Johnson and Stein,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman told me. “So she articulated an agenda that was appealing to them: growth that is shared by everyone, plus job creation and college affordability.”

However, also important in this regard was the protracted debate dispute over racism. By confronting Trump’s bigotry and defending President Obama against Trump’s birtherism — and talking about systemic racism and the need for police and criminal justice reform — Clinton was also seeking to energize these groups, including nonwhites and white millennials.

“Continuing to stand up to Trump’s racism helps to ensure higher turnout among core constituencies like African Americans, Latinos, and Asians, who are disconcerted by the tack that Trump has taken,” Mellman said.

Meanwhile, Dem pollster Greenberg says his dial sessions last night revealed that some of these constituencies — in particular, white millennials and unmarried women — responded to Clinton’s targeted appeals. He said that unmarried women responded positively to the sections laying out Clinton’s economic agenda, while millennials responded well to Clinton’s defense of Obama and to her discussion of racism as an enduring societal problem.

This gets at a broader story, which has been discussed by Ron Brownstein and Bill Scher. Clinton, following Obama, is increasingly aligning the Democratic Party with constituencies that welcome diversifying America — and as part of that process, she’s energizing its core voter groups by eschewing white grievance and by fully engaging the battle against Trump’s racism.

We’ll have to wait for comprehensive, high-quality polling taken after last night’s debate to judge whether Clinton’s efforts will pay off. But one thing to watch closely for is increased signs of Dem consolidation behind Clinton, including whether she begins to haul in more of the Johnson-Stein vote.


UPDATE: A full report on the findings of Greenberg’s dial sessions is now online right here.