In recent weeks, Republicans have expressed surprisingly muted criticism of President Obama’s handling of the Ground Zero mosque controversy. Some GOP leaders – everyone from anti-Zionist Pat Buchanan to libertarian Grover Norquist – have gone so far as to warn the party that it would be a "mistake" to “overdo” their attacks on the current administration.
It’s true, Obama did just hand the GOP a major unexpected “opening” on national security that he’d largely managed to close with hisbellicose policies in Afghanistan. And there may not be much more Republicans can do to make the President look even more inept and indecisive than he already has thus far.
But it’s not sympathy for the President — or respect for Muslim religious freedom per se — that’s leading the GOP to restrain its anti-Obama jihad. It’s something far more mundane: Muslim votes.
It turns out that most of the country’s 8 million Muslims – and its estimated 2.5 million voters – are concentrated in thirty congressional districts that could decide whether the GOP regains control of the House this November. And most of these swing districts are also found in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida – states that are among the most important “toss-up” contests in the battle for the US Senate.
In the slice-and-dice competitition for "niche" voters that frequently defines the modern political campaign, even a razor-thin demographic like Muslims could have a significant impact, depending on its voting preferences and turn out.
And that impact can be magnified when the race has narrowed, the election is fast approaching, and most other votergroups have already made up their mind, as they clearly have in many of the current races (judging from the dwindling number of"undecideds").
In fact, Muslims, despite their relatively small size, are a highly volatile and unpredictable voting constituency – more of a "swing" vote than a true voting "bloc." For years they voted overwhelmingly for Democratic party candidates, especially in national elections. But in 2000, they swung sharply behind George W. Bush and the GOP, only to swing sharply away from Republicans after 9/11.
But rather than swinging squarely back to the Democrats, they appear to be in flux, which only heightens their potential last-minutesignificance. In addition, without a galvanizing issue, barely half of Muslim registered voters typically bother to vote. Give them acause to rally around, however, and that figure can shoot up to 65-70 per cent.
This could easily translate into tens of thousands of additional Muslim voters in races that are sometimes decided by a relativehandful.
The unpredictability of the Muslim swing has been apparent in recent years. In 2004, polls conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that 56 per cent of Muslims supported John Kerry, compared to the 72 per cent that had supported Bush just 4 years earlier. But notwithstanding the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq and the mounting war on terror ever since, some 30 percent of Muslims still refuse to align themselves firmly with either party.
In some respects, the Muslim vote is almost as complex as the Latino vote, with divisions based on nationality as well as nativity. There are three distinct groups: South Asian Muslims, primarily Pakistani immigrants; Arab Americans, about 30 per cent of whom identify as Muslims; and African-Americans who have become converts to Islam. Overall, Muslims are young, relatively well-educated, upwardly mobile, pro-family, and highly religious voters – in other words, they generally look like Republicans.
But given their cultural and national diversity, Muslims can also swing in radically different ways politically: Arab-Americans moretowards the Democrats, and peace in the Middle East, and Pakistanis more towards the GOP and an interventionist stance in Afghanistan.Bush, apparently, was one of the few American presidents to consolidate the Muslim vote decisively. His call for a return to"traditional family values” and his embrace of “compassionate” conservatism struck an especially responsive chord. He also wonsupport by vowing to provide special tax credits to private schools, including religious schools, at a time when Muslims were beginning to build more mosques and educational centers for their children.
And prior to 9/11, Bush also scored points with Muslims for criticizing the Clinton administration’s use of "secret evidence" and itsperceived profiling of Muslims and Arab Americans at the nation’s airports. As the champion of immigrants, Bush seemed to be ushering in a new era of inclusive, moderate Republicanism that fit American Muslims to a tee.
Democrats, in theory, might have capitalized upon Bush’s embrace of a new Cold War against Islam. But starting with Kerry, they’ve been loathe to embrace Muslims en masse, in part out of fear of alienating mainstream US voters. That’s one reason Kerry polled so low with Muslims in 2004. Even in 2006, when the Democrats dominated the mid-term elections and regained control of Congress, barely 40 per cent of Muslims identified themselves as Democrats, according to another CAIR poll.
And now with Obama, the picture continues to be muddled. Eighteen months ago, Muslims were cheered by the president’s promise of a new American attitude toward the Muslim world. But during the campaign Obama refused to visit mosques or to meet with Muslim leaders. As president, he has sharply escalated an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan and done little in the Middle East, all the while leaving the Bush-era domestic surveillance apparatus largely in place.
So, on the eve of the 2010 midterms, Muslims remain divided and confused, much like America generally. Which is probably just where you want them if you’re the GOP. On the precipice of victory, the last thing it needs is an 11th hour surge of volatile swing voters towards the Democrats, anxious to protect a sacred symbol of their culture and faith in America. Better to let Obama trip over himself, watch the Tea Partiers rage, and remain as far above the fray as possible.
Stewart Lawrence is a free-lance writer based in Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org