Even though Muslims make up only 1 to 2 percent of the American population, they could play a pivotal role in picking the next president and in determining other races as well in this wildly unpredictable election year.
Candidates should recognize that reality and not only avoid antagonizing a voting group that could provide their winning margin but also spell out how their political positions might coincide with the interests of Muslim voters. Studies show that in 2014, more than 60 percent of Muslims considered themselves Democrats or said they leaned that way.
That figure was down a few percentage points from 2007, but all such numbers were calculated before Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump proposed at least a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the country and before Trump’s recent highly publicized feud with a Muslim Gold Star family. Trump’s unreasonable immigration proposal and his outrageous comments about Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Muslim parents of a decorated American soldier who died in the war in Iraq, have galvanized many Muslims across the country to oppose Trump.
On Monday, Trump attempted to distance himself from the controversies he created by sharing his economic plan in Detroit. It included the usual Republican tax cuts for the wealthy, allowing parents to fully deduct the average cost of child-care spending from taxes, upending global trade agreements to try to reduce trade deficits, shredding the Paris climate agreement and ending U.S. payments to the United Nations for programs to reduce global warming.
What will Muslim participation in the election matter if they are such a small percentage of voters? It might mean nothing if Muslims don’t turn out in big numbers.
But it’s possible that in states where the presidential race is close, the Muslim vote could favor Democrat Hillary Clinton. There are, for instance, sizable concentrations of Muslims in the Detroit area, which means they could make a difference in the fate of Michigan’s 16 votes in the Electoral College. Detroit this week is where both Trump and Clinton, who will speak Thursday, chose to unveil their economic plans for the U.S.
Muslims also live in relatively large numbers in such important states as Florida, Ohio and Virginia. And Illinois has been found to be the state with the largest percentage of Muslims in its population — 2.8 percent. The 25,000 or so Muslims in the Kansas City area are spread across two states, so they may not be much of a factor in national races, but they might affect tight local contests.
John Esposito, an Islamic studies professor at Georgetown University, has been looking at Muslim voting possibilities in the 2016 election and has concluded that “when the vote is close, then in fact, the Muslim vote in those swing states can play a significant role. They ... will be seen as a significant minority community.”
In some ways, then, Muslims are following the same path that other minority groups — from Irish and Latino immigrants to freed slaves — have followed to become important groups of voters whom candidates would do well not to alienate but to pursue. It’s one more sign that Muslims are slowly negotiating their place in American society.
The Council on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., is leading a 2016 “Muslims Vote” campaign, hoping to get at least a million Muslim American voters to the polls in November. That seemed at first like an optimistic goal, but Muslims have been handed several reasons in this presidential campaign to make a special effort to turn out.
Not only has Trump foolishly angered Muslims, but the 2016 Democratic Party platform is specifically appealing for Muslim support in several ways even as it slams Trump. Many Muslims remember with fondness the ways in which former President George W. Bush defended Islam after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, so perhaps a change of Republican rhetoric now might win back some of that support.
But the Muslim vote this year seems more likely to go Democratic. Whether it’s large enough to sway the outcome of the presidential race depends on both how tight the race is in November, and how seriously Muslims take their citizenship duties.