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How Arabs and Muslims helped Biden win Michigan and the White House

Election data shows increase in turnout in Arab and Muslim communities that overwhelmingly favoured Biden in the presidential race
Turnout increased across predominantly Arab neighbourhoods in Dearborn, Michigan (MEE/Ali Harb)
By Ali Harb in Dearborn, Michigan

In one of his first decrees as president in 2017, Donald Trump signed an executive order banning travellers from several Arab, Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

Less than four years later, Arab and Muslim communities in Michigan and across the country turned out in large numbers to help vote him out of office.

In Dearborn, a city with a population of 94,000 and a large concentration of Arabs and Muslims, President-elect Joe Biden beat Trump by more than 17,000 votes - 30,718 to 13,239. 

In the predominantly Arab neighbourhoods on the east side of the city, Biden's victory margin was even bigger. The president-elect won more than 81 percent of the votes there, compared to Trump's 17 percent. 

Over all, in the precincts with the highest concentration of Arab Americans, Biden beat Trump 13,286  to 2,780. Turnout was up by more than 2,600 votes from 2016 in mostly-Arab neighbourhoods, increasing in every voting location. 

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"We're super proud of that number. We're super proud of getting the vote out," said an organiser with Arab Americans for Biden, a group that pushed to get the vote out for the Democratic candidate. 

"We all know how much Michigan matters. In the future, campaigns that want to win in the Midwest or nationwide, they have to cater to the Arab American. It matters. It's a large vote and it could carry a state like Michigan."

'We can claim victory' 

With its own set of demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, Dearborn may not reflect the entire Arab American community across the country - although it is known as the capital of Arab America.

But the Dearborn Arab community extends beyond the city itself to neighbouring areas in Detroit and other suburbs, including Dearborn Heights, Hamtramck and Melvindale where Biden also won convincingly.

In Hamtramck, the only Muslim-majority city in America, Biden out-voted the incumbent president 6,651 to 1,043.

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The Arab vote certainly played a major role in Biden's victory in Michigan, said Dearborn political consultant Hussein Dabajeh. He added that community advocates and local officials - even those running unopposed - were "putting in the work daily" to get the vote out.

"I think that we can claim victory - not only in Dearborn, but across the state."

Arab-American candidates in safe Democratic districts campaigned hard for Biden despite not having a competitive election. 

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, whose reelection was all but guaranteed, was knocking on doors and engaging voters daily. Her campaign helped turn out the Arab and Black vote and she ended up winning more than 220,000 votes. 

In the last general election, the late Congressman John Conyers received fewer than 200,000 votes from the same district.

In 2016, Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. He also carried the neighbouring Midwestern states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by razor-thin margins. This year, organisers had stressed the importance of every vote, citing the numbers from the last race.

US presidential elections are held separately by individual states, with each state awarding the winner a number of electoral college votes based on its population.

In 2020, the Biden campaign was able to reclaim Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, resurrecting the Democrat's so-called Midwestern blue wall. 

The three states gave the Democratic candidate 46 electoral college votes previously won by Trump, putting him over the 270 electors needed to win the White House.

'Massive turnout'

Despite his loss, Trump managed to grow his voting base by millions of people, but the Democrats were able to turn out even more people, mostly by mobilising young people and communities of colour.

In Michigan's Wayne County, the state's most populous and diverse county home of Detroit, Biden received about 320,000 votes more than Trump - more than double his winning margin in the state over all.

That margin in Wayne County increased by almost 30,000 votes from 2016. In Michigan as well as other states, it appeared that the election outcome was decided by out-voting, rather than converting the opposition.

Oakland County, which encompasses Detroit's northern suburbs, also saw an increase in turnout that translated into a wider margin for Democrats. Clinton had won Oakland by about 53,000 votes in 2016; Biden carried it by more than 100,000 votes.

Diverse areas in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia, Georgia's Atlanta and Wisconsin's Milwaukee also delivered for the president-elect.

Arab-American advocates say pockets of Arab communities turned out in high numbers to vote against Trump.

The Biden campaign launched outreach efforts to both Arabs and Muslims, releasing a Muslim-American platform and a separate one for Arab communities, which promised to undo Trump's Muslim ban on day one and end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Still, the campaign faced blowback from advocates who claimed it did not do enough to address policy questions around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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Palestinian-American comedian Amer Zahr told MEE that he begrudgingly voted for Biden, saying while he understood people's "relief" that Trump was gone, he was worried the new administration would sideline Arab Americans and progressives who helped elect Biden.

Sami Scheetz, who served as the Biden campaign's deputy director of coalitions in Iowa, said Arab Americans voted for Biden as they saw the Democrat as someone "who will fight for them".

"Arab-American voters desperately need someone in the White House who will fight for them," Scheetz said. "With their overwhelming support and high turnout in battleground states like Michigan, they made clear that Joe Biden is that fighter." 

Scheetz, who is Arab American himself, encouraged the community to continue to engage with the Democratic Party, expressing optimism about the incoming administration.

"Joe Biden will not only reverse the damage that has been done to our community, he will implement a progressive agenda that addresses the systemic inequities that existed long before Donald Trump’s election in 2016."

Most Arab and Muslim voters had initially favoured Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, and the Biden campaign may have Sanders volunteers to thank for mobilising an influx of first-time voters in Michigan earlier this year.

On election day in Dearborn, the uptick of Arab American political engagement was apparent before the results came out. Young and older Arab poll workers and campaign volunteers were everywhere.

Itidal Bazzi and Jenna Chami, both 17, stood in the cold all day outside of a school in Dearborn serving as a polling location to urge people to vote for candidates endorsed by the Arab American Political Action Committee (AAPAC), including Biden.

They said they wanted to do something about the election that will affect their lives despite being too young to vote.

"This election, more than others, will affect our future the most," Chami said. "Climate change is at an all-time low. And I think it's so important that people our age educate themselves."

Bazzi responded: "Our future is in the hands of everyone else."

- This article has been updated to reflect new election data released by the city of Dearborn, Michigan

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