As we reflect on the controversy of the past several weeks, few would argue that this has been a truly remarkable election, in all respects. Despite the inordinate emphasis on such vague election minutiae as hanging chads, pregnant chads, and butterfly ballots, the 2000 presidential election has spurred unprecedented interest in our nation's election process. Not surprisingly, a steady stream of political pundits and commentators have speculated profusely on the potential impact of a variety of factors, ranging from lingering outrage in the Cuban American community over the Elian Gonzalez debacle to the excitement generated among Jewish voters over the inclusion of Joseph Lieberman on the Democratic Party ticket. Yet as the Florida election drama hurtles forward at warp speed, seemingly powered by its own bizarre momentum, one aspect of the contest has gone curiously unnoticed; the impact of the American Muslim vote on the outcome in Florida.
Earlier this year, John Zogby of Zogby International, a major national polling service, published a landmark study on the American Muslim community and its role in our nation's political process. Most estimates place the American Muslim population at 6-7 million, roughly on par with that of American Jews. In his study, Zogby underscored the increasing importance of this fast-growing, dynamic segment of the American melting pot, its geographic concentration in key, so-called "battleground" states such as Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Florida, and its potential to sway the outcome in a tight national election. Nothing that has transpired over the past several weeks contradicts Zogby's basic premises.
The 2000 election campaign capped a stunningly successful, nationwide voter registration drive among American Muslims. On November 7, American Muslims flocked to the polls in unprecedented numbers to cast their ballots in local, state, and national contests. In one post-election survey conducted by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), more than 70% of the respondents indicated that they had voted for Governor George W. Bush of Texas for president. And in the state of Florida, these voters may very well have determined the outcome of the race.
Why is this important, and how did such a traditionally marginalized community develop such impressive political clout? First, some background information: the year 2000 represented the first concerted effort among American Muslims to forge a cohesive voting bloc from an ethnically, economically, and politically diverse constituency. In early November, the American Muslim Political Coordinating Council Political Action Committee (or AMPCC-PAC), an umbrella organization comprised of several major national Muslim advocacy and civil rights organizations, formally endorsed Governor Bush for the presidency. According to the CAIR survey, nearly 85% of respondents cited the AMPCC-PAC endorsement as a decisive factor in their votes. In Florida alone, an estimated 60,000 American Muslims cast their ballots on November 7. According to an exit survey sponsored by the American Muslim Alliance, over 90% of these voters chose Bush for president. You can do the math on your own. In an election that has hinged on several hundred (not even thousand) ballots, the Muslim vote played a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the presidency, far exceeding, many times over, the margin of victory.
The impact of the American Muslim voting bloc cannot be overemphasized. In general, labor union activists vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, Jewish voters tend to favor Democrats by a 2:1 majority, and Cuban Americans in Florida have traditionally supported Republican tickets. While subject to some variability, these patterns have remained in place for decades. The American Muslim vote, however, may fluctuate dramatically from one election cycle to the next, backing a Democratic candidate in one election and leaning Republican in another. American Muslims represent a true "swing" constituency in every sense of the term.
This volatility may in part be attributed to the community's relatively recent entry onto the national political landscape. Moreover, major party presidential candidates have generally shunned the Muslim and Arab American vote. During the early Clinton administration, American Muslims made significant inroads, at least on a symbolic level, and President Clinton's initial spirit of inclusiveness fostered a measurable sense of goodwill among Muslims. Neither the President nor the Vice President were able to capitalize on this goodwill, however, allowing Governor Bush to seize the momentum on such issues as the repeal of the secret evidence law, a critical civil rights issue for the American Muslim community.
The Florida episode only highlights one of the great ironies of the 2000 election. Even as some prominent political campaigns hoisted up the "Arabs and Muslims Need Not Apply" signs (think of Congressman Rick Lazio and First Lady Hillary Clinton of New York), this was the year that American Muslims truly came of age politically. And in Florida, a tiny difference in the American Muslim vote (say, 5% or less) may have swayed the election in Al Gore's favor, something for the Vice President and his army of political strategists to contemplate in the coming weeks and months.
On a number of different levels, American politics will never be the same.
Basil Abdelkarim is a physician and research associate for the Council on American Islamic Relations, Southern California.