Could Arab American and Muslim voters cost Biden the 2024 election?

They're a small voting bloc but could make the difference in Michigan.

February 28, 2024, 2:53 PM

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden won the Democratic primary in Michigan with 81 percent of the vote — and yet it was his opponents who claimed victory.

At least 100,000 Democrats in the Great Lakes State voted for “uncommitted,” a protest vote driven in large part by dissatisfaction with Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war. Multiple groups had urged voters to reject Biden due to his support for Israel in the conflict, and the “uncommitted” vote was particularly high in heavily Arab American and Muslim cities such as Dearborn (where “uncommitted” actually defeated Biden 56 percent to 40 percent).

The deep discontent among these normally Democratic voting blocs could be a problem for Biden in November, particularly in swing-state Michigan, which has the nation’s highest share of Arab Americans and one of the highest shares of Muslims. The Biden campaign is counting on Arab American and Muslim voters holding their nose and voting for him anyway when they consider the likely alternative: former President Donald Trump, who also supports Israel and has a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

But Democrats would be unwise to take Arab American or Muslim voters for granted. Polls indicate they were drifting away from Democrats even before the Israel-Hamas war. And some of those who opposed Biden on Tuesday insist that they will stand firm against him in November.

“[Our goal] is to punish Joe Biden by making him a one-term president,” said Khalid Turaani, the co-chair of one of the anti-Biden groups.

That said, it’s also possible to overstate Arab Americans’ and Muslims’ impact on the 2024 election. They make up only a small fraction of the population, and “uncommitted” still received only 13 percent in the Michigan Democratic primary. While it’s possible that Arab American and Muslim voters could decide a very close race, Biden could also win reelection without their support.

Before we get any further, it’s important to get to know Arab American and Muslim voters, starting with the fact that they are not a monolith. In fact, there’s not even much overlap between the two groups: According to the Arab American Institute, only a quarter of Arab Americans practice Islam; a supermajority of them are actually Christian. Similarly, many Muslim Americans are South Asian, Black or some other non-Arab ethnicity (e.g., Iranian).

It’s hard to get precise data on such small slices of the electorate, but on balance, it appears that Muslim voters are — or at least were — slightly more Democratic than Arab American voters. According to a poll from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Muslims voted for Biden over Trump in 2020 69 percent to 17 percent (3 percent voted for a third-party candidate, and 11 percent refused to answer). And according to AP VoteCast, Muslims voted for Biden 64 percent to 35 percent. (The disagreement over Trump’s vote share really underscores how hard it is to survey such a small group!)

Meanwhile, Arab Americans told Zogby Analytics and the Arab American Institute in an October 2020 poll that they were planning to vote for Biden over Trump, 59 percent to 35 percent. Arab Americans who identified as Muslim in that poll supported Biden by a slightly wider margin, 60 percent to 30 percent. (Biden led more narrowly among Christian Arab Americans.)

So both groups were pretty Democratic, but not uniformly so. And interestingly, both of them were already trending toward Republicans before this year. According to CAIR, in 2016, Muslims supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Trump 74 percent to 13 percent. And according to Zogby Analytics/the Arab American Institute, in 2016, Arab Americans identified with Democrats over Republicans by a 26-percentage-point margin; by 2020, that Democratic edge was down to 8 points.

The reasons for this could be similar to the reasons why Latino and Asian American voters also moved right between 2016 and 2020. For many Arab Americans and Muslims — especially white ones — Trump’s stewardship of the economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic took precedence over his racist rhetoric. According to Zogby Analytics/the Arab American Institute, the economy was the second-biggest issue for Arab Americans in 2020, and those who were primarily concerned about the economy were the only group that did not support Biden over Trump by a large margin.

In other words, many Arab Americans and Muslims were persuadable voters even before the Israel-Hamas war broke out on Oct. 7, 2023. And Biden’s response to the conflict has greatly alienated them from the Democratic Party. According to a John Zogby Strategies/Arab American Institute poll conducted Oct. 23-27, Trump led Biden 40 percent to 17 percent among Arab American voters. And Arab Americans also disapproved of Biden’s response to the violence in Palestine and Israel 67 percent to 24 percent.

Turaani said the Gaza issue has dwarfed all others among his community.

“When there’s a fire in my next-door neighbor’s house, I can’t be talking about the garbage on his lawn or that I don’t like the purple color of his door. No. Put out the fire, and then we’ll talk about the rest later,” Turaani said.

For the first time since at least 1996, more Arab Americans also identified as Republicans than as Democrats, 32 percent to 23 percent. Just six months earlier, in April, 40 percent had identified as Democrats and 24 percent had identified as Republicans.

The big question, of course, is whether those voters will return to the Democratic fold by November. Activists like Turaani are adamant that they will not, emphasizing how raw and personal the conflict in Gaza is to their community.

“There is really nothing at this point that this president can do to win back our vote,” Turaani said. “We don’t look at [the primary] as therapy; it is not there to make us feel better and to vent our frustration. No. The wound is deep; the hurt is immense.”

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But many of those voters abandoning the Democratic Party do not seem to be embracing the GOP either. The 8-point increase in Republican identification since April is only half the 17-point decrease in Democratic identification. As a result, Arab Americans’ affinity for the GOP is actually at a historically normal level — on par with what it was in 2020. It’s only Democratic identification that is at unprecedented levels.

Instead, lots of Arab Americans — 25 percent in the October poll from John Zogby Strategies/the Arab American Institute — are simply undecided about whom they will support for president. And Muslim and Arab American leaders in Michigan are skeptical that their community will vote in large numbers for Trump.

“We’ve seen his presidency before, and we’ve seen the impact it has on Muslims,” said Hira Khan, the interim executive director of the Michigan chapter of Emgage, a Muslim advocacy organization. “There’s still a lot of fear about what would happen if he comes back into office again.”

Turaani agreed: “I don’t think our community is going to vote for Trump.”

Of course, that’s not the only alternative. Muslims and Arab Americans could simply withhold their votes from both Biden and Trump in November. According to Khan, Emgage has talked to a lot of Muslims who “are feeling very apathetic toward voting. They felt very betrayed by the current administration; we were hearing a lot of people saying they just didn’t want to go out and vote.”

And Turaani’s group plans to either urge voters to blank the presidential race in November or support a third-party candidate. That appetite may already be there: According to the October poll, 18 percent of Arab Americans said they planned to vote for either Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or Cornel West.

That would still be a blow to Biden, but not as big of one as if his former supporters switched to Trump. That’s just due to simple math: If a person goes from a Biden voter in 2020 to not voting or voting third party in 2024, that’s a lost vote for Biden, but not a gained vote for Trump. By contrast, a voter who switches from Biden to Trump effectively narrows the margin between Biden and Trump by two votes.

And the math is on Biden’s side in another crucial way as well: There just aren’t a lot of Arab American and Muslim voters out there. The U.S. is only 0.7 percent Arab American and 1.3 percent Muslim. And most swing states don’t have significant Arab American or Muslim populations; even in Michigan, which has the largest such populations, they each make up less than 3 percent. And while the 100,000 “uncommitted” votes on Tuesday sounds like an impressive number, it is over 50,000 shy of Biden’s 2020 margin in the state (154,181 votes).

Muslim or Arab American voters could still tip the scales in Michigan … but only if the state is very close. Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope math: Emgage estimates that 145,620 Muslims cast a ballot in the Great Lakes State in 2020, and the conventional wisdom among Michigan political observers is that around 80 percent of them voted for Biden.* For argument’s sake, let’s say that, in 2024, 20 percent switch to Trump, 40 percent vote third party or leave the presidential race blank, and only 20 percent stick with Biden. Do the math, and that would decrease Biden’s margin in the state by 58,248 votes. That’s just 1 percent of the 5.5 million people who voted in Michigan in 2020.

So if Trump wins Michigan by 1 point or less in 2024 — very possible! It happened in 2016! — you could argue that Muslims cost Biden the state. But at that point, you could also argue that virtually any demographic group could cost Biden the state. With such small room for error, Biden could win if he does a little bit better among LGBTQ+ voters, non-college-educated whites, male voters aged 35-49 with incomes between $60,000 and $100,000 …

And Biden, who carried Michigan by 3 points in 2020, could still win the state if he loses Muslim votes but retains his other supporters. Or Trump could win the state by more than 1 point, as many polls currently suggest.

What’s more, given other swing states’ smaller Arab American and Muslim populations, they would have to be even tighter than 1 percent for these voters to be decisive. Again, this is very possible: You could argue that Biden owed his razor-thin victories in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin in 2020 to Muslim voters, given how much bigger their share of the population is than his margin of victory.**

In the end, you could argue that Biden won those states for any number of reasons. A close election can’t be boiled down to just one cause. So while it would certainly be good for Biden to hold onto Arab American and Muslim voters, if they do end up defecting from him in large numbers in November, it will probably not be the main story of the election.

Footnotes

*538 was unable to find data to confirm this.

**That said, their share of the population isn’t necessarily the same as their share of the electorate.

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