Surprise, Surprise! Arab Americans Shifting Away from the GOP Towards Democrats in 2020
By: John Mason, Arab America/Contributing Writer
Prior to the 9/11 attack, many Arab Americans tended to support the Republican Party. That support began to seriously fray in the poisonous post-9/11 environment. Trump’s anti-immigration policies, including barring Muslims, has alienated not only Muslim Arab Americans but Christian Arabs, as well. Muslim millennials as a subset recently showed a significant leaning to Democrats at a rate of 69% and only10% Republican. Few reports, much fewer polls, portray how Arab Americans might vote in the 2020 presidential election, but given the trend of shifting political sentiments of Muslim and Christian Arabs alike, it appears as if there may be a swing away from the one obvious Republican candidate, Trump, to one of the many Democratic candidates.
Michigan–a Bellwether of Arab America’s Presidential Politics
Typically, most national polls do not reach down far enough into the populace to provide reliable numbers on Arab American political beliefs. However, thanks to the work of the Zogby’s at the Arab American Institute, their surveys provide some reliable measures. We focus some of our attention on Michigan since that state has the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the U.S. and because of good press coverage of their political behavior. Overall, the number of Arab Americans of voting age in Michigan is small, about 1% of the state’s voting population. Nevertheless, in states where winning elections is highly competitive, their numbers can be critical. As we saw in the 2016 presidential election in Michigan, it only took a very small number of voters to swing all of the state’s Electoral College votes into the Trump column.
A recent history of Arab American Presidential Voting
Many Arab Americans, prior to the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, tended to support the Republican Party. In 2,000, presidential candidate George W. Bush, according to the Detroit Free Press, believed there was enough of a core Arab population to warrant his visit to Dearborn and the Detroit suburbs. Such an Arab American community-Republican Party alliance seemed natural during those earlier times, given the perception of Arab Americans as “strongly entrepreneurial, socially conservative, and fiscally cautious.” These characteristics aligned with what Republicans were projecting as some of their key values. Bush won the presidential election and although he lost Michigan, he won the state’s Arab American vote, at a rate of 72%.
This neat little arrangement between Arab Americans and the Republican party began to seriously fray in the poisonous post-9/11 environment. As Michigan Republican governor at the time, John Engler, noted, “It’s this racially motivated knee-jerk reaction. I think the whole [GOP] relationship with the Arab community went south very quickly, as they felt more like vulnerable targets of the anger.” The relationship with the GOP further deteriorated due to the way Bush framed the war on Iraq. The Arab American community quickly began to see the U.S. attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan as “needlessly destructive” and Bush’s nation-building pretension as wrongheaded.
Effect of the Post-9/11 Rise of Islamophobia on Arab Americans
Through an organized misinformation campaign, Muslim Americans were targeted and, according to the Detroit Free Press, painted with “the brush of extremism.” The result is that both Muslim and Christian Arabs have been pushed away from the Republican Party. Again, according to the Free Press, “Now, Arab-Americans have turned away from the party that once won their support, and some fear the cultural divisions exposed by Trump’s candidacy. Because of Trump, the GOP has lost—perhaps for a generation—a voting bloc that could have offered the party both much-needed diversity and the prospect of helping put Michigan in play on the electoral map.” Further reinforcing this perspective, Arab American News publisher, Osama Siblani averred that “The Arab-American community and the Muslim-American community have two lives, one before 9/11 and one after.”
While not especially courting the Arab American community in the 2004 election, John Kerry still won their vote over Bush by 85%. More emphatically, Obama, also without wooing them in the 2008 campaign garnered their vote at an astonishing rate of 90%.
The Trump Factor in pushing Arab American Voters from Purple to Deep Blue
The effect of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, including his barring of Muslims from entry to the U.S., has alienated not only Muslim Arab Americans but Christian Arabs, as well. The bottom line of his xenophobia is to cast a shadow of mistrust on all Muslims. A polling organization, FiveThirtyEight, in cooperation with the Arab American Institute (the Zogby group), focused on Arab Americans. Along with other minority groups, they largely identified as Democrats, though not “as a homogeneous voting bloc.” The survey showed that by 2016 Arab Americans identified with Democrats at a rate of 52%, 22% Independents, and 26% Republicans. Despite Trump’s negative actions against Muslims, 77% of Arab Americans who identified with Republicans said they’d vote for Trump (Muslims represented 30% of the survey sample).
A subset of Muslim millennials tells an interesting story. Based on a Pew Research Center survey, this grouping leaned significantly Democratic at a rate of 69% and only10% Republican. This compared with Christian millennials, who were more evenly split between Democrats (47%) and Republicans (45%). These figures are not meant to suggest that Muslim millennials fully embraced Democrats since many of them felt that Democrats were not overly favorable towards Muslims generally. Further, it is well known that Republicans generally have a highly negative opinion of Muslims, based in part on Trump’s promotion of the idea of a rise in so-called Islamic terrorism. In fact, a large majority of American Muslims strongly oppose violence.
For the first time since the events of 9/11, in 2018 Arab Americans made a good showing in national, state and local elections. The online daily magazine, American Thinker, reported a record number of Arab American and non-Arab Muslim candidates for electoral office. This would seem to bode well for future electability of Arab Americans.
Prospects for 2020
Few reports, much fewer polls, exist to portray how Arab Americans might vote in the 2020 presidential election. From an Arab America post of August 14, 2019, “Democratic Presidential Candidates’ Views of the Israel-Palestine Issue—Where do They Stand?,” we get a strong sense of the Democratic candidates’ stance on the one issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Almost all the candidates have stated their support for a two-state solution. All of the candidates strongly support Israel, though not necessarily the regime of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
According to that Arab America post, the Democratic candidates for the most part support “…a fair solution to the long-term problem of the Israeli occupation of Palestinians and their land.” Their stance on this one issue is in no way predictive of how Arab Americans might vote in 2020. However, given the trend of the shifting political sentiments of Muslim and Christian Arabs alike, it appears as if there may be a swing away from the one obvious Republican candidate, Trump, to one of the many Democratic candidates.
References: “5 facts about Muslim Millennials in the U.S.,” Jeff Diamant and Claire Gecewicz, Pew Research Center, 10/12/17; “Poll Suggests Arab-Americans’ Politics Are Similar To Other Minority Voters,” Dhrumil Mehta, Five Thirty Eight, October 26, 2016; “Arab Americans and Muslims in U.S. Politics,” American Thinker on Twitter, Michael Curtis, 11/12/18; “Most Republicans Have Negative Views Of Muslims — And Toward A Religious Test,” Ben Casselman and Harry Enten, Five Thirty Eight, 12/7/15; Various articles, Nancy Kaffer, Detroit Free Press, 2018-19; “The Arab-American community and the Muslim-American community have two lives, one before 9/11 and one after,” Osama Siblani, Arab American News; “Democratic Presidential Candidates’ Views of the Israel-Palestine Issue–Where Do They Stand? Arab America, Arab America, Arab America, 8/14/19.
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.