WASHINGTON — When a handful of liberal advocacy organizations convened a series of focus groups with young black voters last month, the assessments of Donald Trump were predictably unsparing.
But when the participants were asked about Hillary Clinton, their appraisals were just as blunt and nearly as biting.
"What am I supposed to do if I don't like him and I don't trust her?" a millennial black woman in Ohio asked. "Choose between being stabbed and being shot? No way!"
"She was part of the whole problem that started sending blacks to jail," a young black man, also from Ohio, observed about Clinton.
"He's a racist, and she is a liar, so really what's the difference in choosing both or choosing neither?" another young black woman from Ohio said.
Young African-Americans, like all voters their age, are typically far harder to drive to the polls than middle-aged and older Americans. Yet with just over two months until Election Day, many Democrats are expressing alarm at the lack of enthusiasm, and in some cases outright resistance, some black millennials feel toward Clinton.
Their skepticism is rooted in a deep discomfort with the political establishment that they believe the 68-year-old former first lady and secretary of state represents. They share a lingering mistrust of Clinton and her husband over criminal justice issues. They are demanding more from politicians as part of a new, confrontational wave of black activism that has arisen in response to police killings of unarmed African-Americans.
"We're in the midst of a movement with a real sense of urgency," explained Brittany Packnett, 31, a St. Louis-based leader in the push for police accountability. Clinton is not yet connecting, she said, "because the conversation that younger black voters are having is no longer one about settling on a candidate who is better than the alternative."
The question of just how many young African-Americans will show up to vote carries profound implications for this election. Clinton is sure to dominate Trump among black voters, but her overwhelming margin could ultimately matter less than the total number of blacks who show up to vote.
To replicate President Barack Obama's success in crucial states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, she cannot afford to let the percentage of the electorate that is black slip far below what it was in 2012. And while a modest drop-off of black votes may not imperil Clinton's prospects, given Trump's unpopularity among upscale white voters, it could undermine Democrats' effort to capture control of the Senate and win other down-ballot elections.
Clinton's difficulties with young African-Americans were laid bare in four focus groups conducted in Cleveland and Jacksonville, for a handful of progressive organizations spending millions on the election: the service employees union, a joint super PAC between organized labor and the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, and a progressive group called Project New America. The results were outlined in a 25-page presentation by Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster, and shared with the New York Times by another party strategist who wanted to draw attention to Clinton's difficulties in hopes that the campaign would move more aggressively to address the matter.
Word of the report has spread in the constellation of liberal operatives and advocacy groups in recent weeks, concerning officials who saw diminished black turnout hurt Democratic candidates in the last two midterm elections.
Adding to the worries is a separate poll of African-Americans that Belcher conducted earlier in the summer indicating that Clinton is lagging well behind Obama's performance among young blacks in a handful of crucial states.
In Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, 70 percent of African-Americans younger than 35 said they were backing Clinton, 8 percent indicated support for Trump and 18 percent said they were backing another candidate or did not know whom they would support. In 2012, Obama won 92 percent of black voters under 45 nationally, according to exit polling.
More than 25 percent of African-Americans are 18 to 34, and 44 percent are older than 35, according to 2013 census data.
"There is no Democratic majority without these voters," Belcher said. "The danger is that if you don't get these voters out, you've got the 2004 John Kerry electorate again."
In Ohio, for example, blacks were 10 percent of the electorate in the 2004 presidential race. But when Obama ran for re-election in 2012, that number jumped to 15 percent.
What frustrates many blacks under 40 is Clinton's overriding focus on Trump.
"We already know what the deal is with Trump," said Nathan Baskerville, a 35-year-old North Carolina state representative. "Tell us what your plan is to make our life better."
Such talk can be frustrating to Clinton's aides, who point out that her first speech of the campaign was on criminal justice and that she has laid out a series of proposals on the topic.
"It is on us to make sure that that's known," said Addisu Demissie, Clinton's voter outreach and mobilization director, adding of young black activists, "We share their goals, we share their values and we want to make sure that's reflected through our campaign."