By nightfall on 3 November 2020, the United States appeared to be heading towards a second term of Donald Trump. The “blue wall” that Joe Biden worked to reconstruct had seemingly crumbled at his feet, and Rust Belt states like Michigan and Wisconsin beamed a deep shade of red from the electoral maps of major news networks across the nation.
By morning, however, those maps looked quite different. The state of Michigan flipped from red to blue overnight as its poll workers tallied more ballots, and Joe Biden amassed a modest lead. When the election was called three days later, that lead had ballooned to over 150,000 votes—a win margin that one Biden spokesman noted was fourteen times bigger than Donald Trump’s margin in 2016. With this, Biden’s strategy worked: states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania decided the election.
News outlets and publications everywhere have furiously taken to dissecting Biden’s victory, with analysts pointing to record turnout of African Americans and moderate voters to explain the blue wall’s resurgence. Edward Isaac-Dovere of The Atlantic phrased it succinctly: “[Biden] had strong support from moderates and progressives, won more votes from Black voters and women than either Obama or Clinton did, and ran stronger in many white areas than Democrats have recently.”
Upon closer inspection, however, President-elect Biden’s victory appears more marginal. According to Dave Wasserman, the House Editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, Biden clinched the White House “carrying just seventeen percent of America’s counties, the lowest share of any winner in history.” In other words, contrary to Trump’s strategy of ginning up support in small-town suburbs, the 2020 election was decided in densely-populated areas—meaning particular population clumps mattered considerably to Biden’s win. In essence, then, Edward Isaac-Dovere’s implicit point is correct: identity politics matter.
For this reason, it is worth posing a question about another demographic in the 2020 race, one that has so far received much less attention: what of the Arab American vote? Could it have been decisive?
Full data breakdowns have yet to be released in every state, so some information remains forthcoming. Still, we know a few things right away. The 2010 Census recorded roughly 1.7 million people who self-reported as Arab Americans living in the U.S., and the numbers are closer to two million today. Lebanese Americans comprised the largest group (501,907), with Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Moroccans taking the next four places. PBS reported in 2016 that approximately 3.6 million Americans trace their roots to Arab countries, with twenty-four percent of Arab Americans practicing Islam and sixty-three percent practicing Christianity. And since the September 11 attacks, Arab Americans have skewed increasingly towards the political left, with forty-four percent of Arab Americans registering in the Democratic Party in 2014.
For the 2020 election, The Jerusalem Post reported that eighty percent of Arab Americans planned on voting—a rate consistent with 2016’s turnout for Arab Americans, and a substantially higher voting margin than the general electorate. In the swing states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, Arab Americans make up about five percent and two percent of each state's population—respectively, 500,000 and 256,000 residents.
As such, the evidence that Arab Americans played a kingmaker role in the 2020 election is suggestive. A case-in-point is the state of Michigan, which has the largest Arab American population in the United States. Since the early twentieth century, when Detroit’s burgeoning car industry drew immigrants from around the world, Michigan has been a national hub for Arab American culture. Dearborn, MI hosts the Arab American National Museum and the largest mosque in America, and roughly sixty percent of its residents identify as being of Arab descent. The surrounding metro area holds approximately 200,000 Arab Americans overall.
In the 2020 election, “nearly 45,000 residents turned out to vote” in Dearborn, according to Press & Guide, a local newspaper. Press & Guide also reported that the voting went well, with no major issues reported in either Dearborn or its neighboring city Dearborn Heights. Of that vote, “nearly sixty-nine percent” went to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who won Dearborn by 30,718 votes to Donald Trump’s 13,239 votes. Wayne County, which contains both Dearborn and Detroit, released official results that showed Joe Biden beating Donald Trump by 17,479 votes—outperforming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 showing by 5,778 votes. Meanwhile, Trump gained only 1,068 votes over his 2016 performance.
Arab Americans contributed strongly to this result, which is in line with Wayne County’s historical reputation as a liberal stronghold. Despite this, several interesting trends nevertheless emerge. Arab News reports that among 844 surveyed Muslim households, almost seventy percent voted for Biden, compared to seventeen percent for Trump. The Jerusalem Post noted that Joe Biden’s campaign hired additional Arab American staff in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. And in a survey of Arab Americans, the Arab American Institute found that forty percent of respondents ranked the deterioration of race relations in the U.S. as their most important issue in deciding whom to vote for.
Both trends reveal the push and pull factors that may have persuaded Arab Americans to vote as they did. The push factor was Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim stances. Since taking office in January 2017, Trump has made multiple attempts to curtail Muslim activity in the United States, banning visitors from Muslim countries and amplifying Islamophobic content on Twitter and elsewhere. His actions have earned the criticism of numerous politicians and public leaders. Within this Islamophobia lies a disdain for Arab Americans, who turned out in force to reject the president’s messages of hatred.
By contrast, the pull factors were Joe Biden’s outreach to Arab Americans and pro-Biden activism by Arab Americans who helped drum up voters. On Biden’s outreach, Dr. James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, had glowing comments. “There has never been a Democratic or Republican candidate that has done as much to reach out to Arab-Americans in a respectful way as [Biden’s] campaign has done,” he said. Similarly, Arab Americans began organizing for Democrats well before 2020, successfully sending candidates like Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib to Congress and investing deep resources in voter data, poll access, and targeted overtures to Arab American constituencies. More recently, organizations like Yalla Vote helped get out the 2020 vote among Arab American communities, and existing coalitions between Arab Americans and African American or Latino groups carried over into 2020. Put together, these push-pull factors helped produce Biden’s convincing win.
To be sure, other questions linger—chiefly, whether Arab Americans swung to Biden more as a rejection of Trump than as a genuine embrace of the Democratic candidate. According to an Arab American News poll from October 31, President Trump was still able to attract one-third of the Arab American vote—a result that may, in part, be explained by the social prevalence of Arab American Christians and Trump’s strong policy alignment with Christian Evangelical groups (although clear ideological differences exist between Evangelicals and Arab American Christians, to say nothing of racial and ethnic differences). Notably, Syrian Americans sided with Trump in 2016, criticizing the Obama administration’s response to the ongoing Syrian civil war. Iraqi Americans, by contrast, tended towards Democratic candidates because of frustrations over Trump’s response to ISIS.
It also remains to be seen if Biden will keep his promises. After Trump’s presidency, serious work lies ahead to improve social conditions for Arab Americans, with even longtime Arab immigrants decrying the xenophobia they still experience day-to-day. Indeed, independent organizing is already beginning to pressure the incoming administration to honor its commitments. After congratulating Biden, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group that counts many Arab Americans among its base, released a report on all of the actions the President-elect could take to help its constituents in his first one hundred days, vowing to hold him accountable. Other organizations that represent Arab Americans will likely take similar actions, eager to see Biden fulfill his lofty campaign promises to the Arab American community. Starting 20 January, they will certainly be watching.
If one thing is clear, though, it is that Joe Biden has Arab Americans to thank for the pivotal role they played in the 2020 election. When Jesse Jackson won Michigan in 1988, and Bernie Sanders won Michigan in 2016, both attributed their victories to a strong Arab American coalition. Following in their footsteps, President-elect Biden—and the mainstream media with him—would be wise to do the same.