Why Sanders won big with Michigan Muslims

Bernie Sanders pulled off a massive upset of Hillary Clinton in Michigan last night. While Michigan’s in-state polling firms are notoriously bad, pre-election polls had Clinton winning by margins of over 20 points — seemingly too large a margin for even a bad pollster to produce in error. And yet Sanders was able to eke out a one-point win.

There are a lot of reasons for Sanders’s win, but one reason in particular had pundits scratching their heads last night: Sanders won the city of Dearborn by twenty points. Dearborn’s population is over 40 percent Muslim. Overall, exit polls showed that Sanders won Muslim voters in Michigan by a 70 to 30 margin.

Why, they wondered, did Muslims turn out and vote for a secular Jewish candidate by such large margins?

As the International Business Times reported:

As the results rolled in, television pundits like Lawrence O’Donnell and Chuck Todd marveled on MSNBC that Sanders was doing so well in Dearborn “despite” the large Arab-American population there. WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer tweeted that Sanders’ dominance in Dearborn was “the stat of the night,” later adding “It’s official: Arab city feels the Jewish Bern.” Meanwhile, The Week dubbed it “just one more strange data point in an election overflowing with them.”

Bernie Sanders speaking at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, via John Pemble / Flickr

Bernie Sanders speaking at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, via John Pemble / Flickr

In fact, this data point isn’t at all “strange.” For starters, if you really want to make the reductive argument that Muslim voters will inevitably vote against candidates who don’t share their faith, then your real shock should be that they showed up at all — not that they happened to vote for Sanders. There aren’t any Muslim candidates for president this year in either of the two major parties, and Hillary Clinton is a committed Christian.

But as soon as you make a first attempt to consider where Sanders and Clinton stand on issues that Muslim-Americans are likely to care about specifically, their split in favor of the candidate who isn’t a foreign policy hawk makes a bit more sense. Bernie Sanders voted against the Iraq War. He voted against the Patriot Act. He generally opposes further American intervention in the Middle East.

He isn’t actively tipping the scales in favor of one side of the Israel/Palestine conflict, nor has he promised to undermine pro-Palestinian groups on college campuses. He wasn’t instrumental in creating a power vacuum in Libya through the use of American influence. He isn’t to the right of President Obama on the use of force in Syria.

It also probably helped that he bothered to ask for Michigan Muslims’ votes:

Indeed, the Sanders campaign has focused on courting the Arab population in Dearborn, especially in the last week. He met with Arab-American leaders in the city, released an Arab-language radio ad in the Dearborn market, and reiterated at a Dearborn campaign rally that “we’re going to end bigotry in this country once and for all.” It’s hardly a new theme in Sanders’ campaign — he has spoken out against anti-Muslim rhetoric for months, likening such prejudice to the conditions his Jewish parents faced preceding the Holocaust.

Put yourself in a Muslim-American’s shoes for half a second, and a vote for Bernie makes quite a bit of sense. The only reason his performance with that demographic is that “stat of the night” is because so few people bothered to do so.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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