Throughout the presidential campaign, Donald Trump has promised he’ll win a yuuuge portion of the minority vote. That would defy history, as well as every common-sense understanding of his campaign as a vehicle for working-class white grievance. No Republican has cracked 17 percent of the black vote since Gerald Ford. One would expect things to be even worse among Hispanics, given Trump’s hardline on immigration, and among Muslims. Trump has endorsed a national registry of Muslims and suggested banning them from entering the country—even, perhaps, Muslim Americans who have been traveling abroad.
That makes the finding of a new survey of Muslim voters particularly remarkable: Incredibly, he’s third in the race, and top among Republican contenders, according to a new study from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. About 7.5 percent of those surveyed said they support Trump—though that trails far behind Hillary Clinton (52 percent) and Bernie Sanders (22 percent).
That’s the most surprising finding from the survey, though it should be taken with several grains of salt. Trump’s surprisingly high standing may have more to do with his own name recognition than with real, enduring support. Moreover, the result comes from a survey rather than a formal poll. CAIR identified 2,000 people who it believed were Muslim voters by matching voter rolls with a list of traditional Muslim first and last times. The respondents were chosen from the six states with the highest Muslim populations: California, New York, Illinois, Florida, Texas, and Virginia.
That means the survey may not have the scientific accuracy of a Gallup poll, but it may be the best snapshot we’ll get of the Muslim vote in 2016. There isn’t much good polling on Muslims in the U.S. The number of Muslim voters is still small—perhaps 2 million—but it’s expected to double by 2050. Muslim voters are also thought to have strong turnout, and, in fact, CAIR’s survey found that 74 percent of the registered voters polled intend to vote in this year’s election.
Given the increasingly polarized state of the electorate, blocs like Muslim Americans can take on outsize importance—and they have shown themselves to be swing voters. Prior to the 2000 election, Muslims tended to be a fairly splintered group, often voting more based on ethnicity than a shared religious identity. During that race, George W. Bush made Muslim outreach a priority, and he did well with the bloc. But following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Muslim vote has swung strongly toward Democrats, driven by opposition to wars in the Middle East and concerns about civil liberties and Islamophobia stateside.
This survey supports many of those trends. Two-thirds of respondents identified themselves as Democrats, versus just 15 percent Republicans. Meanwhile, about three in 10 respondents identified Islamophobia as their No. 1 concern in the election, trailed by the economy, health care, civil liberties, foreign affairs, and education. The economy and health care also tend to be top issues for the population at large.
It’s the Trump finding that really sticks out. Since the Bush campaign in 2000, the Republican Party has become increasingly strident in its rhetoric about Islam—from opposing the so-called Ground Zero mosque to the argument that Syrian refugees are likely to spread terror in the United States. But the approach has hardly been unanimous. Chris Christie has a history of outreach to New Jersey Muslims, though he has backed away from those ties somewhat during the campaign. Jeb Bush has attacked Trump for his proposed Muslim-immigration ban. And how do they place? Bush runs third among Republicans, while Christie is much further back. Given the small number of GOP voters in the sample, these numbers may be pretty muddy. What’s clear is that Trump, no matter how outrageous his comments may be, tops the Republican field in the CAIR survey. In that respect, Muslims voters don’t seem different from the overall electorate.