A new study suggests voters aren’t buying anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric—and it might even backfire

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Catherine LY Sun / YouTube Duncan Hunter Nuclear Weapons Bill Maher...
Catherine LY Sun / YouTube

Anti-Muslim rhetoric seems omnipresent in the conservative far right, but even more worrying is how consistently some of that hate rhetoric seems to be seeping into actual political campaigns. This is especially true since the arrival of open bigot Donald Trump, who has made both crackpot conspiracy theories and virulent prejudice cornerstones of his own political speech and, in doing so, has encouraged other Republican candidates to embrace the same.

None of this is debatable, but the civil rights group Muslim Advocates wanted to measure what has been going on more precisely: The number of candidates who have used anti-Muslim arguments in their campaign speeches and ads, this election season, and whether or not such speech has proven effective.

The resulting report paints a complicated picture. On one hand, eighty such campaigns were identified, including big-name Republicans like Rep. Dave Brat and Rep. Duncan Hunter. But of the campaigns that engaged in anti-Muslim rhetoric this campaign season, all but a bare handful already lost their primaries or are expected to lose in November. This suggests open anti-Muslim sentiment is still used primarily by extremist candidates who have little hope of winning and whose campaigns are premised on rallying a hidden majority of bigots who, in most races, never appear.

There are always exceptions: Tennessee’s Mark Green has been odiously anti-Muslim for a long time and is still expected to win a seat in Congress, which may or may not be directly related to Tennessee being a particular haven for anti-Muslim conspiracy crackpots freaking out about their local mosques and/or something-something-sharia. And it needs especially to be noted that the uptick in hate rhetoric against Muslims pairs with an uptick in violence against American Muslims, so this speech isn’t without consequences even if most of the candidates end up losing. Hearing anti-Muslim rhetoric in political speeches signals to like-minded listeners that their own private bigotries are justifiable and “allowed.”

But there’s some good news, too. An included poll of voter sentiments indicates that anti-Muslim rhetoric in campaign ads is extremely likely to backfire.

Only 8 percent, however, said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who speaks negatively about Muslims. Fifty-eight percent said they would be more likely to vote against that candidate, though it made no difference to 17 percent.

If bigotry is being used as a signal by fringe candidates to rally fringe supporters, the rest of the public is treating it as a signal that the candidate is indeed an extremist. And while these sorts of polling questions are notoriously dodgy—Americans are often reluctant to expose their personal bigotries to pollsters, even anonymously—recent campaign history appears to be backing this up. Anti-Muslim prejudice, like most other kinds of bigotries, is used on the campaign trail primarily as an act of desperation.

What we have to do now is ensure that this remains the case. Using anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant or similar rhetoric on the campaign trail should not merely make it less likely that a candidate wins. It should be treated, by the public, as disqualifying. It must be treated as disqualifying.

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