After two years of watching Donald Trump stump on bigoted rhetoric and win over adoring crowds, the received wisdom in some quarters of the GOP these days seems to be that hate sells. And many midterm candidates are capitalizing on Trump’s “new normal” by using the podium to attack immigrants, people of color, women, and particularly Muslims.
However, although the Trump era seems to have triggered a collapse of basic civility in politics, it remains to be seen whether hate-mongering can be a winning formula for this year’s crop of right-wing “populist” candidates. A new survey of anti-Muslim campaign messaging shows that, while anti-Muslim political messages are indeed ubiquitous across the electoral map, it also turns out that stumping on hate is not, after all, a winning strategy.
According to the study, published by Muslim Advocates, campaigns that go heavy on anti-Muslim hate tend to fail. The analysis examines campaign media messaging in the 2017–18 election cycle, surveying public responses to campaigns featuring anti-Muslim rhetoric (such as linking Muslim immigrants to terrorism or religious extremism). Tracking 80 state, local and federal races in 33 states, from school board to senate, the analysis shows that, in most races, anti-Muslim rhetoric has limited voter appeal beyond a bigoted fringe. Of the 80 candidates in the study, “only 11 to 14 percent were elected or are safely projected to win their elections.” Though it is impossible to determine exactly how much such rhetoric factors into individual races, the researchers found that, even in Republican primaries, anti-Muslim candidates tended to lose.
The candidates were generally not fringe figures; two-thirds were considered seasoned politicians, many with presidential endorsements. Though most hate-peddlers were Republicans, anti-Muslim campaigning was geographically diverse: Texas led the country, with eight anti-Muslim candidates. But Democrat-dominated New York had three anti-Muslim campaigns, on par with Georgia and South Carolina.
The imagery of campaign advertising follows a macabre playbook of stereotypes. One advertisement highlighted in the report, for Virginia State Senator Bryce Reeves’s (ultimately failed) bid for lieutenant governor, is a mashup of urban-crime and jihadi-invasion tropes, “featuring masked and black-clad ISIS terrorists invading and burglarizing a home in Northern Virginia, with the blonde mother of a young family witnessing in shock.” Another ad, sponsored by the Congressional Leadership Fund (one of the few Super PACs listed on the public record), targeted the opposing candidate’s past stint as a substitute teacher at a Saudi Embassy school, casting her as a potential security threat who had “cashed ‘terror high’ checks.”
Although 2016 has been dubbed a “Muslim blue wave,” with 90 Muslim candidates running nationwide, a tide of racist reaction has swelled up in response. Candidates have often faced smear ads or even threats of violence from right-wing activist groups. When Gregory Jones, a Muslim community activist in Alaska, filed to run for Congress as a Democrat, right-wing media painted him as a member of a “jihadi cult.” A joint campaign event for two Muslim female congressional candidates, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, was
crashed by an anti-Muslim activist who called them “jihadis” and screamed numerous conspiracies about Muslims, incest, and genital mutilation and claimed that mainstream American Muslim groups are terrorist organizations.
To Scott Simpson, public-advocacy director at Muslim Advocates, the data present a grim snapshot of an increasingly reactionary political landscape, but also a streak of hope. The organization aims to upend the self-perpetuating feedback loop of hateful rhetoric stirring up public rage and in turn encouraging politicians to keep feeding the media right-wing red meat.
“We desperately want this rhetoric to stop,” Simpson says. “At the same time, we’re also dealing with a conventional wisdom out there that’s really problematic for us…that vilifying Muslims is popular.” The data showing the poor results of campaigning hard on anti-Muslim sentiment affirms the real-life experience of Simpson and other community advocates, who feel that in the wider public, “most Americans don’t hate Muslims.”
The goals of the study go beyond cleaning up election campaigns to staving off social violence across society. Researchers have previously revealed a correlation between anti-Muslim political rhetoric, like Trump’s supercharged vilification of Muslims as terrorists, and incidence of harassment, violence, and vandalism. The apparent unpopularity of anti-Muslim rhetoric, Simpson argues, could help candidates “recognize that, not only is this leading to hate crimes, but it’s also…a losing strategy.”
The hard data might persuade ambitious politicians to see anti-Muslim rhetoric as more of a potential liability than an asset when trying to win hearts and minds. Moreover, the analysis suggests that in the general election brazen anti-Muslim hostility is unlikely to attract mainstream voters who might be more focused on, say, local tax policies than the specter of sharia law. Besides, more voters might be deeply alienated, or outraged, by a candidate’s offensive statements, which might drive active opposition.
“Backlash matters a lot,” Simpson says, especially for candidates seeking mainstream appeal. When candidates go low, “We’ve seen [initiatives for] recall elections, we’ve seen candidates withdraw, we’ve seen unquestionable losses even in GOP primaries, even in conservative places…. And this isn’t just Muslims who are speaking up [but also] people of conscience of all backgrounds who think there isn’t a place for this.”
Yet the report is also a reminder that the hate in politics has ramifications far beyond the ballot box. Perhaps candidates already know they’re unlikely to win, but are running anyway as professional right-wing activists, angling for notoriety and airtime. Their broadcasting of bigoted messages aren’t just electoral strategy, but part of an underlying agenda of promoting right-wing and racist ideologies (predictably, the anti-Muslim sentiments in mid-term campaigns parallel other racist and xenophobic messaging). As the researchers conclude, “This rhetoric isn’t just bigoted fanaticism.… behind many of these seemingly inane rants is a sophisticated effort to deny basic religious freedoms and protections to American Muslims by casting the community as outsiders and even attempting to redefine Islam as something other than a religion.”
As powerful as the anti-Muslim rhetoric seems in electoral politics today, the study elucidates the public’s ability to look past these ideas in the voting booth and base their choice on issues that actually matter to them. In the end, their vote will more likely reflect concerns about their concrete economic and social issues. Or it may even speak to their sense of moral justice—even when so many politicians don’t.
When practicing democracy, Simpson says, ”We shouldn’t assume the worst of this country.” And occasionally, the best of this country turns out on Election Day.