POLITICS
11/05/2020 13:29 EST | Updated 11/05/2020 16:17 EST

Muslim and Arab Voters May Have Secured Biden's Michigan Win

Biden beat Trump by roughly 150,000 votes in Michigan, where Hillary Clinton lost by just 11,000 votes in 2016.

Arab and Muslim communities likely substantially contributed to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s victory in Michigan, according to local activists and organizers.

Emgage Action, a Muslim civic advocacy organization that endorsed Biden, said that approximately 81,000 Muslim Americans cast early and absentee votes in the state. (The exact number of votes cast by Muslim Americans in Michigan is not yet known.) Biden beat President Donald Trump by roughly 150,000 votes in Michigan, where Hillary Clinton lost by just 11,000 votes in 2016.

Muslim American groups and activists focused on rallying voters before Election Day — setting up phone banks and virtual town halls aimed at maximizing turnout, especially in battleground states. Those efforts, they said, paid off and Michigan is an example of that.

“Where would the Democrats be without those 81,000 Muslims?” said Nada Al-Hanooti, executive director of Emgage’s Michigan chapter. She said her organization had been working every day since August to register a record number of Muslims as part of their nationwide Million Muslim Votes campaign, and added that Biden’s victory in Michigan could not have happened without the Muslim and Arab vote.

“Muslims showed up for Biden today and we’re going to expect him to show up for us come January,” she said. 

Although it is difficult to say for sure, the Arab and Muslim vote in the state appears to have had a significant impact. More than 270,000 Muslim Americans live in Michigan, making up nearly 2.75% of the state’s population. More than one-third of residents in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, identify as Arab-American or Muslim or both. Biden defeated Trump in Wayne County, which includes Detroit and Dearborn and is the most populous county in the state.

Antranik Tavitian/Detroit Free Press/Imagn Content Services, LLC
Dawleh Ahmed (second from left) and Naji Ahmed (left) wait in line to vote at Salina Elementary School on Nov. 3 in Dearborn, Michigan.

Nationwide, Muslim American voters turned out in huge numbers this election, which is in line with patterns across all demographics. Preliminary projections from The Washington Post predict that turnout in 2020 was the highest percentage it’s been since 1900, and the highest number of voters ever. 

Nearly 800,000 Muslim Americans voted early or absentee in just 12 states, according to Emgage, which collected the data from voter files in those states. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, said that roughly 1 million American Muslims voted in the election. Based on its own survey, CAIR estimated that 69% of them backed Biden. (An NPR poll conducted in the days leading up to and on Election Day found that 64% of Muslim Americans voted for Biden and 35% of voted for Trump.)

In 2016, Muslim and Arab voters were credited with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)’s primary win over Clinton. And while Biden wasn’t the first choice for many Arab and Muslim residents in the Dearborn area, many strongly opposed Trump due to his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric.

“Just based on all the efforts, I think we really hit the message home that this election is unlike any other election, and it’s a critical matter of life and death to get out the vote this time and I think the community responded really well,” said Sarah Alaoui, a Ph.D. candidate at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a volunteer with Arab Americans for Biden, a grassroots coalition working to elect Biden.

Alaoui believes that Arab Americans’ huge turnout can be attributed to the Biden campaign’s direct engagement with the community; that it spoke to voters in Arabic; and that it reached out to both Arab Muslims and Christians, which showed that it was able to identify and speak to the diversity of the Arab community.

Organizers also said endorsements from Sanders and Wayne County’s own Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) helped galvanized Arab and Muslim voters in the state as well. The results mirror early polling and initial exit polling that suggested that high turnout from Arab and Muslim segments of the state assisted Biden’s win.

Despite their small numbers overall ― Muslims make up just 1% of the U.S. population ― there are significant concentrations of Muslim Americans in key presidential swing states, including Michigan.

Michigan is not only home to a populous and diverse Muslim community, it also has one of the largest mosques in North America, whose congregation can trace its history back 100 years. The state is also the birthplace of the Nation of Islam, a Black political and religious movement founded by Wallace Fard Muhammad in 1930.

Youssef Chouhoud, an assistant professor of political science at Christopher Newport University in Virigina, said both Democrats and Republicans often overlooked Muslim and Arab voters due to their comparatively small population size and historic lack of civic engagement nationwide.

But that’s changing. Although it is difficult to nail down exact numbers, he is confident that a larger trend is at play.

“These numbers are very inexact but what is indisputable is that there has been a much larger turnout in the Arab American community and in the Muslim American community this year than we’ve seen in any previous presidential cycle,” said Chouhoud. “I only see that growing.”

JEFF KOWALSKY via Getty Images
Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) speaks with restaurant employees after making a stop to pick up food at Khalaf Grill on Oct. 25 in Dearborn, Michigan.

Nationwide, more than 66% of Muslims identify as Democrats, according to a 2018 Pew Research poll. Chouhoud said that it is crucial for Democrats to seize this opportunity to invest in Arab and Muslim voters.

“It is to the benefit of the Democratic Party to nurture that support and not simply take it for granted. Michigan is going to remain a pivotal state in presidential contests moving forward. So if the Democratic Party is wise, they will nurture their support and not simply ignore it,” add Chouhoud.

The work is also far from over for activists; Al-Hanooti said her job isn’t done. Getting out the vote was just the first step to ensure that Arabs and Muslims’ concerns are addressed outside of campaign season.

“Regardless, we know we won right now and we feel good, but we’re still rolling up our sleeves and getting to work,” she said. “No one person is going to save the world. So we still have so much work to do.”