(TNS) — Four years ago, significant numbers of Black voters, a historically Democratic voting bloc, stayed home, resulting in one of the lowest turnout for Black voters in decades.

In Pennsylvania, the dismal turnout helped tipped the margins that secured the presidency for Donald Trump.

This cycle, Democrats are vowing that they have learned their lessons and will not repeat the same mistakes. They are laser-focused, they said, in ensuring former Vice President Joe Biden clinches victory on Nov. 3.

“There is tremendous enthusiasm and drive to vote against the president,” said state Sen. Art Haywood, a Philadelphia Democrat and member of the Legislative Black Caucus. “It’s very emotional. People are very concerned.” Four years ago, Pennsylvania, along with Michigan and Wisconsin saw historically low Black voter turnout, resulting in the 270 electoral college votes that elected Trump.

Legions of Black voters viewed Hillary Clinton negatively as a result of her connection to the 1994 Crime Bill, which resulted in historic incarceration numbers of Black men. In 2016, Black voter turnout nationwide dropped for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election, according to the Pew Research Center. The Black voter turnout fell to 59.6 percent, down from a high of 66.6 percent in 2012.

Haywood said the 2020 presidential cycle is different.

“The people I’m talking to have come to the conclusion that the president is a racist who doesn’t care about Black people and aligns with white supremacists,” he said. “Quite a bit of the talk is anti-Trump. I would say 80 percent is anti-Trump, in terms of why people are motivated to vote.”

But translating that voter engagement into actual voting is the challenge before Democrats, as well as Republicans hoping to secure Black votes.

Democrats Aim to Engage

For Democrats, the challenge goes beyond energizing and mobilizing the Black vote, to recognizing that however loyal, it remains an unreliable voting bloc.

“We know what we need to do here in Pennsylvania to make sure Joe Biden is the next president of the United States,” said Nancy Patton Mills, the chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

“We are not repeating any of the mistakes made in 2016. We are extremely well coordinated and working not only with the Biden campaign, but with state senators, House members, the Attorney General, Auditor General and row offices.”

The Democratic Party has spent months reaching out to minority communities, as well as rural areas. The party has even ramped up its outreach to Asian Americans, she said.

Beyond the polls, voter enthusiasm may be one indicator to increased voter engagement. Haywood said he has seen Biden yard signs pop up everywhere, and he even has noted the interest in participation in mail-in ballots. Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into voting.

Biden’s close connection to Obama works to his favor, but it’s not a guarantee, particularly when it comes to younger Black voters.

“A lot of people in the Black community just don’t think their votes count,” said Mikell Simpson, founder of Harrisburg-based Capital Rebirth, a non-profit organization committed to engaging and elevating the Black community in the city.

“It’s because of the systematic suppression and having our voter rights revoked for so many years. That culture is still new for a lot of us. The realization that our vote counts is hard to understand.”

Simpson, who has been involved in voter registration and voter awareness events, is concerned that the Black community in Pennsylvania is far from being completely committed to the voting process.

That is particularly so among young Black voters. Older Black voters, particularly Black women, have been the cornerstone of the Democratic Party, but pundits say - and polls show - the younger generation hasn’t necessarily fallen in line.

A recent survey out of American University, for example, polled Black voters in battleground states, including Pennsylvania, and found that while older Black voters remained reliable Democratic voters, less than half of the Black Americans under 30 years old planned to vote for Biden.

“Is Biden the best answer? No,” Simpson said. “Is Trump? No. But we have to pick the better candidate.”

In recent months, groups such as Black Voters Matter have been saturating key battleground states to shore up that historically low voter turnout.

Voter education is critical, said Brittany Smalls, the Pennsylvania state coordinator for the organization.

“I think people are sometimes confused on the order of government, and how we actually get change in terms of differentiating between the executive branch and the legislative branch and local government,” she said. “It’s more of an educational thing.”

The Trump Campaign’s Efforts

The Trump campaign has also been trying to whip up the Black vote in Pennsylvania, hoping to replicate the swings in vote that handed the president the 2016 victory.

To be sure, Trump has to fend off a public relations dilemma when it comes to Black Americans. The president fueled the birther movement against Obama; he has vowed to protect the legacy of Confederate leaders, and has rolled back a slew of civil rights victories against voter suppression, housing discrimination and police misconduct.

In the eyes of his critics, Trump recently compounded his image as a racist when he expounded on the “suburban lifestyle dream."

The Trump campaign highlights accomplishments his handlers say illustrate the president’s high esteem for Black Americans. Indeed, the president has famously been quoted as saying: “No one loves Black people more than me.”

“Joe Biden had eight years as vice president to undo the damage caused by nearly 40 years of racist policies that he authored while sitting in the United States Senate,” Trump deputy national press secretary Ken Farnaso told PennLive.

“Whether it be criminal justice reform, Opportunity Zones, or overseeing the lowest unemployment rate for African Americans in history, Black Americans can rest assured that President Trump is the true fighter and advocate they need in the White House.”

Among accomplishments that address the concerns of Black voters, Trump touts his signing of the First Step Act, which shortened mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, the majority of whom were Black Americans. The president also reauthorized the Second Chance Act – which broadened work opportunities for former inmates. Trump restored some funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, touts himself a champion.

But Simpson said what seems clear to almost anyone observing the 2020 cycle: That Trump just does not resonate with the Black community.

“I don’t think the president has done anything for us directly that I can sit here and say this is trickle down effect,” Simpson said. “I wouldn’t give any president any credit for doing much of anything for Blacks. When you look at the criminal system, it’s still wrong. There is an educational disparity. Who closed that gap? I don’t see it.”

The Trump campaign machine trying to sway Black voters may be meager, but persistent. The organization Black Voices for Trump consists of only 36 members, but even now in the home stretch they are holding two events in Michigan later this month.

‘Change Starts At The Ballot’

Given that Democrats lost Pennsylvania in 2016 by less than 40,000 votes, neither party is sitting back and putting their feet up. Still, it’s hard to drill down into real numbers given that Blacks make up about 10 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate.

Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, uses the analogy of a pie: The size of the pie matters, but so does the share of the pie.

“If you can get 90 percent of a pie and it’s a small pie, that’s good,” Borick said. "But if you can get 90 percent of a bigger pie, that’s better.

A Pennsylvania sampling size of 1,000 voters, Borick explained, may only grab a snapshot of 100 Black voters. That’s hardly a reliable picture.

“It’s hard to get granular so you have to turn to the national polls,” Borick said.

Recent data shows that Black voters will overwhelmingly support Biden, with some estimates giving him 90 percent of the Black vote.

“Basically for Joe Biden to get Black voters to turnout in the way they did for Barack Obama would be an incredible boost to his chances in Pennsylvania,” Borick said.

Black voter turnout in 2008 was higher than white voter turnout, but that was a historical anomaly. The fact remains that historically Black voter turnout, especially in urban and majority Black communities, have been comparatively low.

Add to that the fact that candidates tend to focus their time and energy on voters they think are going to show up and far less on cohorts who do not vote. It’s one of the reasons political figures have historically invested less stumping in Black communities.

That dynamic seems changed especially in this cycle for Biden, who in many ways, can attribute his victory in the primary to Black voters.

But stakeholders in the Black community say that only is not enough. Black voters, for instance, long stymied by voter suppression tactics have to be indoctrinated into the non-traditional options for voting, notably voting by mail.

Small said it still comes down to how well a candidate and campaign resonate and relate to the Black community.

“We engage by meeting them where they are and in educating them on how important this election is to us,” she said. “We cannot continue to show up in communities and expect them to jump out and say ‘we’ll go with this person.’ We need to have more respect for our people.”

Rogette Harris, chairwoman of the Dauphin County Democrats and the only Black woman to hold such an office in the state, said the only way for candidates to connect with Black voters is to have their platform reflect the issues that impact and concern the Black community.

Notable among those concerns, Harris notes, are health care concerns, the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color, job losses and police brutality.

“It’s not good enough to show up at a rally and point out who you are employing or who you are giving jobs to,” Harris said. “Each candidate is going to have to address those issues.”

After a season of social unrest and social justice protests nationwide, Black voters would seem poised to take the next step - and vote. But people like Harris remain concerned that given the historical fault lines that have alienated Black voters, it’s not a done deal.

“That’s something we are trying to do,” she said. “To get people to see that change starts at the ballot. You can protest all you want but if you don’t have someone in place that believes that this is a policy issue, nothing is going to change.”

The pandemic and the disproportionate toll bore out by communities of color have further underscore deep political divisions.

“People in all communities have experienced great loss and suffering,” said Karl Singleton, president and CEO at PA Diversity Coalition. "But this pandemic has highlighted inequities like never before in my lifetime. If a politician, whether Republican or Democrat, is not willing to tell the truth, he or she is doing a great disservice to his or her constituency.

The systemic inequalities highlighted by the pandemic will either rally Blacks to vote or further contribute to apathy.

“For the communities I interact with daily the level of classism that has been highlighted under this current administration, and even our career professionals, has been disheartening to a lot of people,” Singleton said.

“That can have two responses. Either apathy. The complete lack of voter turnout or it can be like that shot that is needed to infuse to create synergy. The level of engagement that we haven’t seen outside of 2008.”

(c)2020 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.