Were Muslim Voters Behind Sanders’ Surprising Upset in Michigan?

One key fact observers overlooked is that Sanders definitely won the Michigan primary when you add over 100,000 Muslims from other races to Arab-Americans (which are still defined as white by the Census Bureau). The Arab-American Institute and other Arab-American organizations are supporting the Census Bureau’s effort to add a separate Middle East and North African (MENA) racial category to the upcoming 2020 Census. Arab-Americans are now counted as an ancestry under the white racial category, which the Institute believes lowers their numbers. Besides increasing the numbers of Arab-Americans that will help provide more funding for political groups like the Institute, the MENA category will also assist in greater Arab voter mobilization by ensuring the availability of foreign language ballots and translation services at polling places for the first time.

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By Jay O’ Callaghan | March 22, 2016

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On the Monday afternoon before the primary, Sanders spoke to a packed theater in Dearborn, Michigan, where he was introduced by Detroit native U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress.

Bernie Sanders shocked everyone by winning the March 8th Michigan primary 595,222 to 576,795 over heavy favorite Hillary Clinton in what FiveThirtyEight numbers cruncher Harry Enten called “one of the greatest upsets in modern political history.” FiveThirtyEight, named after the number of electors in the Electoral College, is a “polling aggregation website.” The 18,000 or 1.5% margin can be explained in part by the overwhelming support Sanders received

from white Arab-American voters who make up 500,000 or 5% of Michigan’s population according to the Arab-American Institute plus Muslim voters from other races.

FiveThirtyEight has a stellar reputation of predicting recent elections based on polls and other demographic factors but even they did not foresee Sanders’ surprising win. As Enten points out, “Bernie Sanders made folks like me eat a stack of humble pie on Tuesday night. He won the Michigan primary… when not a single poll taken over the last month had Clinton leading by less than 5 percentage points. In fact, many had her lead at 20 percentage points or higher.”

The X factor in Sanders’ only victory so far in a major industrial state may have been the Arab- American vote. As Mondoweiss, a ‘progressive Jewish’ news and analysis website said, “One of the great storylines from last night’s surprise victory for Bernie Sanders in Michigan is that he won the Arab-American vote – and the mainstream media are stunned that Arab Americans would vote for a Jew…Bear in mind, Sanders won the state by little more than 18,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast. Much of that margin was surely Arab-American.”

The Dearborn-based Arab American News, which endorsed Sanders, said that “Michigan’s Arab and Muslim communities made history last week by voting for the right candidate in the Democratic primaries… “the Arab vote matters and can be decisive. A fraction of Michigan’s Arabs live in Dearborn. The high concentration of voters in the east side of the city could serve as a litmus test for Arab-Americans’ political mood each election cycle. Sanders won the state by fewer than 20,000 votes. One could safely say that Arab and Muslim Americans made that difference.”

Since exit polls did not examine how Arab-Americans voted in the primary, it is necessary to look at the precinct vote in Dearborn, Michigan, which has the highest concentration of Arab- Americans in the nation.

A close examination of the precinct vote by the Detroit Free Press revealed that Bernie Sanders won the “Salina School precincts in the southeast end of Dearborn, where the residential population is at least 90% Arab-American Muslim, Sanders got 67% compared to Hillary Clinton’s 32%. The same Salina precincts voted 72% for George W. Bush over Al Gore in November 2000, when the area was, as it is now, almost all Muslim.”

Sanders also scored well “in other precincts where Arab-American Muslims are in a clear majority: At Oakman School’s two precincts, Sanders led Clinton 70% to 29%, at Lowrey School, 71% to 28%, and at McDonald School’s two precincts, 67% to 32%. Clinton did, however, beat Sanders in an election precinct in Hamtramck that’s largely Yemeni-American Muslim.” There’s been a dramatic demographic shift in once Polish-Catholic Hamtramck, Michigan – the first U.S. city to elect a majority-Muslim city council in 2015.

In Hamtramck, “a city that also has a sizable Muslim and immigrant population, Clinton narrowly won 50%-48% over Sanders, getting 1,002 votes to Sanders’ 953 votes. Anywhere from one-third to more than half of Hamtramck’s residents are Muslim. In the sixth precinct, which is largely Yemeni-American Muslim, Clinton won 62% to 36%, 103 votes to 59.”

The Arab-American vote even in Dearborn is still far below its future potential according to Prof. Ron Stockton of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He points out that the percentage of Arab Americans “who are eligible to vote, registered to vote and come out to vote is still much lower” than other voter groups. Turnout in east Dearborn, which is more heavily Arab-American, was a lot lower than the rest of the city. “At Salina, for example, only 14% of registered voters came out, compared to 47% at a precinct at Dearborn High School in the west, and 34% overall for the city.”

One key fact observers overlooked is that Sanders definitely won the primary when you add over 100,000 Muslims from other races to Arab-Americans (which are still defined as white by the Census Bureau). A very conservative estimate by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies has Michigan Muslims in 2010 at 120,000. Only 16% of the Muslim population in Michigan identifies itself as Arab with much larger groups African-American (31%) and Asian (25%) according to a 2011 survey of 115,000 Muslims by KE Human Resources LLC for the TMO Foundation. This could explain why Clinton won only 68% of the Black vote in Michigan according to the exit poll compared to 80%-90% in other states.

How did Sanders, an unknown Jewish Socialist Senator from Vermont, easily win the Arab- American vote over an experienced Secretary of State with a vaunted political machine. “Sander’s victory was fueled by young Arab and Muslim voters, and that he put out an Arabic ad at a time when Hillary Clinton wasn’t working that community,” said Barry University law professor Khaled Beydoun.

On the Monday afternoon before the primary Sanders spoke to a packed theater in Dearborn, where he was introduced by Detroit native U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress. The Arab American News said that Sanders has shown the most even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict including his support ending the blockade on Gaza and “condemnation of Israeli attacks that kill Palestinian civilians is unprecedented by any major presidential candidate.”

The Arab-American Institute and other Arab-American organizations are supporting the Census Bureau’s effort to add a separate Middle East and North African (MENA) racial category to the 2020 Census. Arab-Americans are now counted as an ancestry under the white racial category, which the Institute believes lowers their numbers. Besides increasing the numbers of Arab- Americans that will help provide more funding for political groups like the Institute, the MENA category will also assist greater Arab voter mobilization by ensuring the availability of foreign language ballots and translation services at polling places for the first time.

For the purposes of this article, the use of ‘Arab’ refers to the Middle Eastern demographic, whereas Muslim is inclusive of North Africa – (hence, the use of MENA) and Asia, although the Arab category is considered largely Muslim.


Jay O’Callaghan has worked extensively with issues involving the U.S. Census Bureau including serving as a professional staff member for the House Government Reform Census Subcommittee, as a senior legislative analyst for the Florida House of Representatives Redistricting Committee and for two U.S. House members. He is also a contributor toSFPPR News & Analysis.