A Million Votes: Why Biden Is Making Unprecedented Efforts to Court Muslim Americans

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Muslim supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders during his campaign rally in Riverside, California, during the 2016 campaign.
Muslim supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders during his campaign rally in Riverside, California, during the 2016 campaign.Credit: DAVID MCNEW / AFP

“You’re doing what’s never been done before,” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said last week while addressing the “Million Muslim Votes” summit – a virtual gathering meant to increase voting within America’s Muslim community.

He was right that the event was unprecedented: never before had there been such a level of political organizing among Muslim Americans ahead of a presidential election. And the former vice president’s speech was just as unparalleled as the gathering itself. It was the first time in decades that the presidential candidate of one of the two major political parties had given such a high-profile speech aimed at winning votes in the Muslim community.

Biden’s campaign is currently doing “the most substantial outreach that the Muslim community has ever received from a presidential nominee,” said Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and one of the leading experts on Muslim public opinion in the United States.

“I don’t think there’s even been a party nominee that has done this level of outreach,” Mogahed told Haaretz in a phone interview.

A person who advised several presidential campaigns on Muslim outreach, and who asked not to be named in order to discuss internal campaign information, seconded that. “Hillary Clinton never did something like this, and neither did Barack Obama or John Kerry,” the former adviser said.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaking at a campaign event in Delaware, July 21, 2020. Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP

During his appearance before the “Million Muslim Votes” event, Biden promised that if he won, he would rescind President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” immigration policy on day one of his presidency. “We all come from the same root here in terms of our fundamental, basic beliefs. I just want to thank you for giving me the opportunity, for being engaged, for committing to action this November,” he said.

Growing importance

The fact Biden is doing more to win support in the Muslim community than previous Democratic presidential nominees is somewhat surprising – both Clinton and Obama were considered more to the left of Biden, who has a long track record as a centrist and moderate Democrat. In this year’s Democratic primary, the candidate who seemed to energize and inspire the Muslim community most was progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, not Biden.

Mogahed thinks Biden’s approach to the Muslim community is a testament to the community’s growing electoral importance. The United States is home to some 3.5 million Muslims – just over 1 percent of the population. Though this makes Muslims one of the smallest faith groups in America, they’re concentrated in several important swing states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Texas. In all of these states, 1 percent of the population could be enough to swing the election – and thus determine the identity of the next president.

“When you talk about American Muslims, you need to distinguish between raw population numbers and voting numbers,” said the former adviser to presidential campaigns. “In states like Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, you have hundreds of thousands of Muslims who are eligible to vote – but the challenge has always been actually turning them into voters, getting them to participate in the election. This community for many years was not effectively organized, and so it didn’t have a lot of influence politically.”

Barack Obama, who was born to a Muslim father, received higher levels of support from American Muslim voters than any presidential contender before him, but he didn’t do much to appeal to the Muslim community. On the contrary: In his first election campaign in 2008, Obama was trying to push back against right-wing conspiracy theories claiming he was a “secret Muslim.” As a result, he was cautious about addressing the community directly.

In 2016, despite the fact Trump had promised to ban people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, the level of voter turnout among Muslims dropped compared to Obama’s two election victories. The result of Trump’s upset victory, however, has been what Mogahed described as a “wake-up call” for the community, causing more people to become politically engaged and registering to vote.

“Trump is definitely a factor in driving up voter registration in the community,” she explained. “We have seen a steady climb in the number of Muslims registering to vote ever since he entered the White House. You can also see how community leaders and influencers, when they urge people to register to vote, talk about the impact of his policies and the way he goes after our community.”

This trend, Mogahed said, was evident in the 2018 midterm elections: “There were stories everywhere about people who had never voted before and were voting for the first time in that election.”

One example was relayed by NBC journalist Ayman Mohyeldin. “A personal story,” he tweeted. “My parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1984, became citizens years later & sadly for whatever reason (God knows I tried) never registered to vote. Now at the age of 71 years young, my mom has finally voted for the first time in her ENTIRE life! Proud Son!” 

Emgage, an organization that focuses on political organizing within the Muslim community (it also hosted Biden’s speech last week), reported that voting participation among Muslim Americans in the 2018 midterms was 25 percent higher than in 2014.

In Michigan, though, the organization’s estimate was that only 50 percent of the registered Muslim electorate voted – meaning there is still potential for a much larger turnout in 2020. The overall turnout among Michigan’s entire population in 2018 was 57 percent; if Muslim turnout reaches that level in November, Biden’s chances of defeating Trump in the critical Midwestern state would improve dramatically.

The midterms also featured the election of Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress. Their confrontations with Trump, the Democratic Party’s leadership and pro-Israel organizations have made national headlines, turning them into two of the most well known lawmakers in the country.

Trump and other Republicans have used Omar and Tlaib in fundraising appeals and in political advertising, hoping that their statements against Israel and the pro-Israel lobby will help drive Jewish voters away from the Republican Party. Mogahed cautioned, however, that the president’s attacks on the two congresswomen could also have the unintended impact, from his perspective, of further energizing Muslim voters and increasing their voting participation. 

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Andre Carson all endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden prior to the "Million Muslim Votes" virtual summit. Credit: John Autey/AP / Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP / Andrew Harnik/AP

‘Urgent issues’

Mogahed told Haaretz that for Muslim voters, the two highest-priority issues in the upcoming election are the economy and civil rights.

“Muslim voters, just like most Americans, are concerned about job creation and economic growth,” she said. “They want to be able to feed their families, invest in their children’s education, save up for retirement. And at the same time, they’re concerned about Trump’s Muslim ban, as well as police brutality and other civil rights issues. For Muslim voters, these are urgent issues.”

Emgage CEO Wa’el Alzayat told the Emirates-based newspaper The National last week how his organization and others were planing to actually turn the “Million Muslim Voters” pledge into reality come November: “We have access to the voter data and the likely Muslim voters who are registered, so it’s literally contacting households and getting a hold of people and making sure they commit to voting,” he said. “People who actually say ‘I commit to vote’ are more likely to vote.”

Alzayat, a former State Department official who worked on Syria policy, added: “Should the COVID-19 situation improve, we also will conduct door-knocking operations in some of the critical districts.” Right now, he said, with the pandemic limiting political operations mostly to online events, “There’s been a lot of excitement by activists and organizers to attend our online meetings that we’re conducting.”

One of the main challenges Emgage and similar organizations face is a generational split within the Muslim community when it comes to voting.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib in Washington, U.S., on October 23, 2019.Credit: Erin Scott/ REUTERS

Mogahed said that younger Muslims register to vote in lower numbers, with many of them feeling disillusioned about politics in general. “We polled this question in 2016, asking people ‘Why aren’t you registered?’ or ‘Why didn’t you vote?’ It’s more young people, and the answers you get are ‘My vote doesn’t matter’ or ‘Both candidates don’t represent me.’”

While more young Muslims have registered to vote since 2016, Mogahed said a gap still exists. She noted that Sanders’ presidential campaign was successful at mobilizing young Muslims, but that it was still too early to say if those voters will now support Biden against Trump. “Sanders is encouraging his base to vote for Biden, but it’s hard to predict what these voters will do,” she said.

Trump unites Muslims and Jews

One of the issues on which Biden and Sanders differ most prominently is Israel-Palestine. Sanders has called to condition U.S. military aid to Israel, an idea Biden described as “outrageous.” Biden takes pride in the fact that the Obama administration, in which he served as vice president, gave Israel more military aid than any previous administration. Sanders called to divert some of that aid and send it to Palestinians in Gaza.

Mogahed told Haaretz, “There’s definitely a segment of the Muslim community that sees this issue as their top priority – but it’s not the majority. When you ask Muslim voters what their top priorities are, the issues that determine how they vote, this issue usually isn’t top of the list. One reason is that up until recently, there were almost no differences between the two major parties on this issue. But still, many more people will mention the economy, civil rights, discrimination, health care and other issues.”

This phenomenon, Mogahed noted, is also true for Jewish American voters: polls consistently show that while a majority of them support Israel, this is far from a top priority issue when it comes to voting. “They care more about domestic issues, just like most Americans,” she said.

Muslims and Jews, she added, both have very low levels of support for Trump, lower than almost any other faith group in the country. 

Biden’s campaign seems to believe it can attract very high levels of support among both communities, despite their differences when it comes to Israel. Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, Tony Blinken, has given briefings to Jewish organizations in which he emphasized the former VP’s strong support for Israel, but he’s also given an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind briefing to America’s Palestinian community.

Blinken didn’t hide Biden’s pro-Israel positions in that briefing, but instead emphasized the differences between Biden and Trump on the issue. He noted that Biden supports a two-state solution, opposes the unilateral annexation of settlements and wants to renew diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority.

Biden’s pro-Israel positions could potentially cost him some votes in the Muslim community, but he’s doing more than any candidate before him to secure the support of the majority of that community.

“It’s going to be a big challenge,” said the adviser who worked on Muslim outreach with previous presidential campaigns. “One thing that will probably help him is the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.”

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