Bernie Sanders' Next-Level Outreach Gives Muslims Solid Footing In Presidential Politics

Candidates on both sides of the aisle have rarely formalized their attempts to draw in Muslims. Sanders has succeeded and lifted up an often-overlooked voter base.

Super Tuesday saw former Vice President Joe Biden leap ahead in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) got knocked out of the lead.

Despite the losses, the Sanders campaign has advanced how presidential candidates have reached out to Muslim voters. In the 2020 campaign, nearly all of the Democratic presidential candidates have lobbied Muslim communities across the country in hopes of garnering their support.

The day before Super Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released an in-depth plan that tackled issues faced by Muslim Americans alongside a running list of endorsements from Muslim leaders. Biden tapped into Gold Star father Khizr Khan, who spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, to engage Muslim voters. Even former New York Mayor Bloomberg, who has long been condemned by Muslims for refusing to apologize for his controversial program of police surveillance of Muslims, attempted to reconcile through a single tweet that said he “spoke up” for Muslims.

Before dropping out, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee visited mosques as they campaigned for the Democratic nomination. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was the only candidate to attend a Muslim conference in Washington, D.C., in person. In Houston, Sanders and Julián Castro attended the largest gathering of Muslim Americans last year.

“It’s a sign of health that the community has a diversity of opinion, and there’s a home in different campaigns for our communities,” said Wa’el Alzayat, CEO of Emgage, a Muslim civic engagement advocacy organization. The organization’s political action committee endorsed Bernie Sanders, noting that the Vermont senator had included Muslims in his messaging more than any other candidate this election cycle.

Prior to the 2020 election, few politicians formalized their attempts to reach out to Muslim voters, partly due to the fact that Muslims comprise only 1% of the U.S. population and partly because the community wasn’t as politically engaged.

Neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton visited a mosque during the race for the Democratic nomination in 2008. Obama didn’t visit a mosque until his final year in the White House. During the last Democratic presidential primary, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley visited a mosque in Sterling, Virginia, in 2015. In 2016, Clinton hired a Muslim outreach director, Farooq Mitha, and Huma Abedin, her campaign vice chair, often acted as a surrogate in the community. But still, many Muslim Americans were reticent to back Clinton based on her actions as secretary of state.

On the Republican side, then-President George W. Bush made it a point to visit the Islamic Center of Washington a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in an attempt to discourage the wave of hate crimes against Muslims. (In fact, Bush courted the Muslim vote during his 2000 campaign and won, with several studies citing more than 40% of Muslims voted for him over Al Gore.)

More recently, in 2015, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona visited a mosque in an attempt to repair the GOP’s relationship with Muslims after then-candidate Donald Trump called for a “complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S.

Democrats and Republicans have consistently on the national level abused the Muslim community and its support,” said Ibraheem Samirah, a Virginia state delegate who endorsed Sanders. “They have taken them for granted and in many cases hurt them with policies, with no regard for their vote whatsoever.”

Muslim woman support Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during a 2016 campaign rally in Riverside, California.
Muslim woman support Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during a 2016 campaign rally in Riverside, California.
DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images

With the 2020 election in full swing, seeking out Muslim voters is no longer an anomaly. Supporters like Samirah said Sanders was a decisive agent of that change. He said Sanders has acknowledged problems such as the rising vilification of Muslims abroad and at home –– all while still including the community in conversations surrounding domestic policies like student debt and universal health care. This approach allowed Muslims to feel seen as a whole and not just tied to issues of immigration and national security, Samirah said.

“He expressed the frustration a lot of Muslim Americans have in general and made that emotional connection,” he added.

The allure of tapping into Muslims for donations was another reason why presidential candidates began to pay attention to Muslims, experts say. If Muslims keep up their current political and charitable giving trends and maintain wealth levels, it opens up an additional $3 billion that can be accessible to the candidates, Shaun Kennedy, the co-founder of the Justice Education Technology Political Advocacy Center (also known as Jetpac) has told HuffPost.

After the 2016 election of Trump, Muslim civic engagement skyrocketed, with more Muslims running for office than ever before and voter turnout rising. In return, more presidential candidates have made it a point to court Muslim Americans.

In 2018, nearly 100 American Muslims, mostly Democrats, ran for office, a year dubbed as the Muslim blue wave. In New York state, nearly 400,000 Muslims came out to vote in 2016. In Michigan, nearly 120,000 Muslims voted. Muslim turnout in Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Virginia –– four crucial swing states, each with a significant Muslim population –– jumped 25 percentage points from the 2014 to the 2018 midterm elections.

Sen. Bernie Sanders takes the stage Saturday after being introduced by U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) in Springfield, Virginia, ahead of Super Tuesday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders takes the stage Saturday after being introduced by U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) in Springfield, Virginia, ahead of Super Tuesday.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

But for some Muslims, the outreach feels disingenuous. Hoda Hassan, the assistant majority leader in the Minnesota House of Representatives who was among those Muslims elected in 2018, said that, although many Muslims appreciated the efforts by candidates to solicit their support, too many of them are too late. It becomes difficult to overlook some of their problematic policies, such as Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk support or Biden’s top staffer being a cheerleader for Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, where Muslims are facing targeted killings and destruction of their homes.

Sanders, she said, has always supported religious minorities, and his record of doing so sets him apart from other candidates.

He hired Faiz Shakir as his campaign manager, the first Muslim American to take the top role in a major presidential campaign. His campaigns ran ads in languages such as Arabic and Farsi and hired prominent Muslim Americans as his surrogates. He also won the endorsement of Iowa’s sole Muslim state leader as well as Democratic National Committeewoman and Muslim human rights attorney Yasmine Taeb.

Sanders has also repeatedly defended Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, from attacks by Trump and the GOP ― and Muslim voters, including Hassan, took note.

“It’s the first time that a presidential candidate is directly speaking to the Muslim community… [as] somebody who has been an outsider and understands how problematic it is to exist in a system that was never meant for you.”

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