Last week, 20 presidential candidates debated at Detroit’s Fox Theatre in Michigan, home to one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in the country. On the second day of the debate, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez met with Muslim leaders at a mosque 20 minutes away to hear issues important to Michigan’s 119,634 eligible Muslim voters. Muslim organizers say Democratic Party outreach to their communities has a long way to go, which could mean a missed opportunity for candidates in 2020.
The DNC says the meeting was a stop on their "Muslim Listening Tour," part of what Perez says is an effort to improve outreach. "We know we’ve got a lot of work to do," Perez said.
“This is a battleground state and 10,000 votes can equal just a fraction of the voters in, for example Dearborn, which is Muslim-dense,” said Lama Alzuhd, Vice Chair of Muslim advocacy group Emgage Action Michigan. “In 2020, no presidential candidate can afford to not campaign in the Muslim community.”
The 2016 margin of victory in Michigan for President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton was a mere 10,704 votes.
Amid a historic national surge in Muslim candidates such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Dr. Abdul El-Sayed in 2018, typically low Muslim voter turnout rose 19 percent for the midterms in Michigan. Despite the significant increase, only half of total registered Muslim voters in the state came to the polls in 2018, leaving untapped available voters. Perez says Democrats hope to engage those voters in the 2020 general election, according to Muzammil Ahmed, a board member for CAIR Michigan.
“We believe that with enough of a [Muslim] turnout, we can really contribute to making our state vote Democrat,” said Ahmed. “The DNC realizes this.”
Alzuhd, who co-organized the meeting with Perez, said local organizers voiced their concerns but that it was “disappointing” that Perez listened without engaging in back-and-forth discussion. Leaders brought up the Muslim Ban, healthcare and inadequate outreach to their communities, and stressed their frustration with what they feel is a lack of support for Muslim legislators.
“I think we’re at a point where if we don’t hear enough support for Rashida [Tlaib] and for Ilhan [Omar], people are going to stay at home,” said Alzuhd. “We finally got people who look like us, who sound like us, who pray like us, who speak to our issues, who connect with us, on the ballot and in office, and yet we are receiving no support.”
The Muslim Caucus, including Reps Tlaib and Omar, sponsored the first ever Muslim political conference event in Washington, D.C. last month, but New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was the only presidential candidate to attend in person. Muslim leaders say the absence of all front-running candidates did not go unnoticed in their communities. At the end of this month, there will be another Muslim Presidential forum at the Islamic Society of North America’s 55th annual conference. Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary Julian Castro are the only two contenders confirmed to attend so far, while others have either declined or not yet replied, multiple ISNA members tell the Rachel Maddow Show.
Bernie Sanders' 2016 Michigan Democratic primary win over Hillary Clinton may have been in large part due to Muslim voters. The Detroit Free Press writes that in some precincts “where the residential population is at least 90% Arab-American Muslim, Sanders got 67% compared to Hillary Clinton's 32%," further noting that "Sanders did better in Dearborn than he did statewide.”
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver deemed the 2016 Michigan Democratic primary result “among the greatest polling errors in primary history,” but many have noted that part of the Sanders campaign's success was prioritizing dialogue with Muslim communities. The campaign aired Arabic radio advertisements and posted graphics in Arabic on Instagram in 2016, and since then, Sanders has been singled out for having consistently defended Rep. Omar and for his continued outreach.
Alzuhd said organizers tried to emphasize to Perez and the DNC last week that Muslims will not come out to vote if candidates fail to “come into our mosques and our small businesses and talk to us about how they will actually fight Islamophobia and talk to us about the issues that matter to us.”
“Do not take our vote for granted,” she said.
ADDED: This post has been updated with the additional detail that the meeting with Tom Perez was part of a DNC Muslim Listening Tour.