Mitt Romney may have won the Michigan primary, but there's one key demographic he did not score big points with on Tuesday: Muslims and Arab-Americans. While Romney and Rick Santorum essentially ignored Muslim voters in Michigan, Ron Paul was the only Republican candidate to receive support from the Arab-American community.
Romney's failure to capture the support of Michigan's Muslims is one of the under-examined plotlines of Tuesday's primary. With 191,607 Arab-Americans, Michigan has one of the largest concentrations of Arab voters in the country. The city with the largest percentage (40%) of Arab Americans is Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.
Ron Paul, who has repeatedly questioned American aid to Israel and called for the U.S. to drawdown troops from the Middle East, was the only candidate to lead a major outreach drive in the Arab-American community, and the results showed. On Friday, he received an endorsement from the Arab American News, a Dearborn-based newspaper: "The Arab American News ... sees Dr. Paul's refreshing, forthright foreign policy philosophy as one of his greatest strengths at a time when the specter of a potentially catastrophic war looms over festering, misunderstood and misreported conflicts in the Middle East," the paper's editors wrote on Friday. "His positions are perhaps the best hope for even a remotely balanced policy in the troubled region that we've seen in decades."
Arab Republicans in Detroit announced a joint endorsement of Paul with about 150 mostly Muslim business leaders. In Dearborn, Paul's campaign distributed flyers translated into Arabic entitled "Ron Paul's Plan to Restore America" emphasizing Paul's commitment to ending foreign wars.
The Paul campaign also organized a rally in Dearborn on Monday night sponsored by the University of Michigan-Dearborn's Arab Student Union.
Nationwide, the Muslim community represents an untapped voter base that Ron Paul can gain favor with by touting his foreign policy and civil liberties positions. Rivals Newt Gingrich, who refers to Palestinians as an "invented people," and Rick Santorum, who holds hawkish positions on Iran, have no support amongst Arab-Americans.
Although Muslims represent less than 1 percent of the population, there are 1.7 million Arab Americans in the country, and 70 percent voted for George W. Bush in 2000. Before 9/11, Bush made a concerted effort to reach out to Muslim and Arab Americans and meet with faith leaders. On fiscal and social values issues, the Muslim community is a natural fit for the GOP. The GOP could pick up a substantial portion of the Muslim vote, even though 76 percent approve of President Barack Obama, according to a Pew study.
But rather than trying to capture this demographic, today's Republican candidates have used inflammatory rhetoric to distance themselves from Arab-Americans, rhetoric that perpetuates a fear of Islam and average Muslims.
Obama captured 90 percent of the Muslim vote in 2008, but many Muslims are disappointed with Obama's national security and civil liberties track record (soundbites like "Obama is no different than Bush" are common in the Muslim community here in New York City).
Whether Ron Paul can channel that frustration into support, and whether that support can make a difference for his campaign, remains to be seen.
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