How Republicans Won and Then Lost the Muslim Vote

Long before Donald Trump proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States, the GOP believed that Muslims were a natural constituency.

President Bush stands with Islamic leaders at the Islamic Center of Washington on September 17, 2001. (Doug Mills / AP)

Even before Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration on Monday, it was a foregone conclusion that Republicans would lose the Muslim American vote on 2016. Now, the question is just how small a portion of the Muslim vote the eventual Republican candidate—be it Trump or someone else—receives. Yet this state of affairs is actually a relatively new development.

The idea that the Muslim vote in the United States would even be worth studying, much less winning, is fairly young. The number of Muslim voters in the U.S. remains small—perhaps 2 million or fewer adults, though they are expected to double as a percentage of the population by 2050. That means the data on how they vote is often incomplete or partial. But Muslims are highly politically engaged and likely to vote, and in a political environment where every presidential election is tight, swing voters are practically non-existent, and white voting ranks are scheduled to shrink, they are a potentially valuable group of voters.

One of the great ironies is that even as Muslims are portrayed as monolithic by many politicians, they are a politically fractious bunch. More than six in 10 are immigrants, and they come from 80 different nations. They’re spread across the nation, and across tax brackets, and professions. Prior to September 11, they were generally thought to be heavily divided, says Zahid Bukhari, executive director of the Center for Islam and Public Policy. American-born Muslims (a group that includes many African American Muslims) tended to vote Democratic, while immigrant Muslims—a group that included many professionals, especially doctors and businessmen—leaned more Republican. Bukhari noted that Democrats had often been seen as friendly to India and Republicans more friendly to Pakistan. The parties’ positions on Israeli-Palestinian relations were not as firmly set, either; no president in recent memory had taken such a hard line with Israel as George H.W. Bush.

In turn, his son, George W. Bush, made a special effort to court Muslims during the 2000 campaign. That was in large part at the urging of Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, who argued that because Muslims are a socially conservative, family-oriented, business-friendly group they are a natural GOP constituency. Bush was more proactive in his outreach to Muslim American leaders than Vice President Al Gore, according to Bukhari and Robert McCaw, government affairs manager at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Bush also spoke out about surveillance of Muslims during the second presidential debate. “Arab Americans are racially profiled in what is called secret evidence,” he said. “People are stopped, and we have to do something about that.”

Exactly how well Bush did among Muslims is tough to tell. The exit polls don’t break out Muslims. A CAIR survey found that 70 percent of Muslims voted for Bush. (The CAIR number, from an unscientific study, should be taken with a healthy amount of skepticism. In a 2001 Zogby poll, more methodologically rigorous but taken nearly a year after the election, a much smaller 42 percent of Muslim Americans saying they voted for Bush, versus 31 percent for Gore.) The American Muslim Alliance estimated that 60,000 Muslims voted for Bush in Florida, a state he won by mere hundreds of votes. “George W. Bush was elected president of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote,” Norquist boasted.

Bush’s inclusive rhetoric about Muslims has been cited frequently and wistfully during the last few months, as Republicans have taken ever-more strident stands on Islam and Muslims. On September 17, 2001, just days after the attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., and delivered his famous “Islam is peace” speech. Importantly, said McCaw, it wasn’t Bush’s first time meeting with many of the leaders who appeared with him. They were on friendly terms already. “This wasn’t your ‘get the book of Muslim names and convene them,’” McCaw says.

Although Bush kept hammering home the difference between jihadists and the great mass of Muslims throughout his term, he and his party steadily lost Muslim support. In addition to the highly unpopular war in Iraq, the Bush administration became known for intensifying the very civil-liberties violations that Governor Bush had condemned during his debate against Gore.

Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Georgetown’s Muslims in the American Public Square project polled American Muslims. Almost a quarter identified as Republicans, 40 percent as Democrats, and 28 percent as independents. Three years later, those numbers were 12, 50, and 31, respectively. The 2004 poll, taken on the eve of the election, found three-quarters of Muslims planning to vote for Democrat John Kerry and just 7 percent backing Bush.

“The shift by American Muslims away from the president—and the Republicans—is dramatic, and the truest example of a backlash we've seen,” said pollster John Zogby. “This is virtually unprecedented.”

The trend has continued. A poll in 2008 showed Obama drawing 89 percent of Muslims. Four years later, CAIR found Obama pulling a still-dominant but much reduced 68 percent. A 2011 Pew poll found 46 percent of Muslims identified as Democrats, with another 24 leaning that way. Only 11 percent said they were Republicans.

Norquist’s argument in 2000 notwithstanding, there are several areas in which the majority of Muslim public opinion diverges widely from the Republican Party’s platform. Muslims have opposed wars in the Middle East. They are concerned about civil liberties and excesses of the national-security state. They tend to be far more sympathetic to Palestinians, and as the Republicans have become uniformly pro-Israel, that has created greater estrangement. Muslims are also (sorry, Grover) in favor of a larger government that provides more services.

But the single most important issue that comes up in conversations with Muslim advocates and leaders is the growth of Islamophobia and the persistence of anti-Muslim rhetoric among Republicans. That rhetoric tended to well up from local and state politicians, despite Bush’s inclusive rhetoric. Republican state legislators proposed and often passed bills to ban sharia. Later, they switched to bills barring “foreign law.” Most recently, activists have pushed for bans on teaching students about Islam until high school.

The 2010 controversy over a proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan—dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque” by its opponents—helped to make this rhetoric a national issue. Many Republican leaders joined in the chorus against the mosque and kept talking about Islam throughout the 2012 election. Norquist, who is married to a woman born in Kuwait, has been accused of being an apologist or worse for Islamism. Suhail Khan, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and Reagan acolyte who served in several posts in the Bush administration, was accused by Frank Gaffney of being a Muslim Brotherhood agent. (Gaffney, a well-known anti-Islam rabble-rouser, was behind the shoddy poll that Trump cited in calling for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S.)

During this election, GOP presidential candidates have gone further. Ben Carson said he thought a Muslim should not be president. Republican governors, as well as some Democrats, have asked the federal government not to resettle Syrian refugees in their states. Republican candidates have offered bills in Congress to end the refugee program. Donald Trump suggested registries and special IDs for Muslims, before making his suggestion Monday that Muslims—immigrants, tourists, and perhaps even citizens—be barred from entering the United States.

“​The apple has fallen very far from the tree,” McCaw said, taking stock of how the party has evolved since the Bush administration. “This mainstreaming of Islamophobia by Republican candidates is definitely contributing to overall hostility in America toward Muslims.”

This spring, Suhail Khan told a crowd of Muslim activists, “Just as you don’t believe in the stereotypes of Muslims in the media, don’t believe the stereotypes of conservatives that you read in the media. You might hear the bigoted statements of a few but that doesn’t mean they represent the majority of conservatives, they don’t.”

That argument gets harder and harder to credit as Trump keeps rolling—and as other Republicans squirm but don’t fully repudiate him. And yet Muslims aren’t enamored of the Democratic Party, either: There’s a reason a large portion of them remain independents. Muslims have long been conflicted about Obama, feeling that he went too far in distancing himself from Islam while trying to convince people he was not a Muslim himself during the 2008 campaign. In 2011, before Obama gave a major speech on Islam, I talked to several Muslim leaders who were generally disappointed in Obama, though they conceded he was still their best bet in 2012.

Four years later, many of the same frustrations hold. Obama still has not, for example, visited a mosque in the United States—a pointed contrast with Bush. The two sitting Muslims members of the U.S. House are both Democrats, but overall the party could do much better, McCaw says. Pausing to choose his words diplomatically, he adds, “Their approach is timid.”

It’s unclear whether Hillary Clinton will be more responsive to these concerns. She blasted Trump’s proposal, and one of her closest aides, Huma Abedin, wrote an email to Clinton’s list, saying, “I am a proud Muslim.” Meanwhile, CAIR’s McCaw says the organization would respond to Trump by working to foster more Muslim American political engagement.

“There are 2,000 mosques in this country, and we plan on printing out 2,000 get-out-the-vote posters,” he says. The organization hopes to register 20,000 new voters in this cycle. That’s still a tiny portion of the electorate, but presidential elections have been decided by less.