The role of demographics in current elections
We all belong to something, whether it's a religious group, an ethnic category, or some kind of community. With the August 7 primary election right around the corner, and then the general election in November soon after, candidates of all stripes and persuasions are busy targeting and appealing to various groups, looking to coalesce a demographic base around themselves.
Whether Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, African American, Chaldean, Indian, Asian, Armenian, or some hybrid, candidates running for office as both Republicans and Democrats have focused, often with laser-eyed accuracy, on how to get you to vote for them.
“To some extent, candidates for office have always looked for blocks of votes they could count on or take advantage of,” noted David Dulio, Oakland University professor and chair of the political science department. “Years ago, it would be their ethnicity, like Italian or Polish, and they'd know their ethnic group – like, 'Hey, I'm Italian, so they'll vote for me.'
“Today, it's done on much more of a micro level with the ability of campaigns to micro-target,” he continued. “Where these different attributes and characteristics can be targeted through media and online media, whether through websites and Facebook ads that targeted individuals see, and are specialized just for them – think of your Kroger coupons, customized just for you.” The same thing happens with campaigns, he pointed out. “And the same things happen with ethnic groups in order to target their message. And, like Kroger coupons, we don't ever see it. It's done deep in the weeds of campaigns.”
For decades, candidates have shown up during election time at churches to appeal to congregants, stressing the similarity in their backgrounds, values and morals, and that they would carry them forward when they got in office. Black churches have been a notable location for candidate appeals, from presidential to mayoral candidates, but they're not the sole target. It is widely believed that if Hillary Clinton had made more visits to the city of Detroit in 2016, notably to African American churches, she would have likely won the state of Michigan, rather than Donald Trump – who won the state by approximately 10,000 votes – because African American voters did not turn out for her as they had for Barack Obama in 2012. While Clinton won Wayne County, she won it with 66 percent of the vote – while Obama carried it with 80 percent over Romney in 2012, and the result was more than the 10,000 votes by which Trump took the state.
"The Clinton machine relied so heavily on old relationships to deliver them a win ... They didn't realize there was a new set of voters out there with no loyalty to them," said Rev. Charles Williams, pastor of King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit and president of the National Action Network of Michigan in 2016.
It's a lesson to politicians of both parties, to never rest on their laurels, and to never take any voter loyalty for granted. Similarly, when a candidate comes from a religious or ethnic community, there is a direct appeal to that group – to vote for “one of us.”
“A politician who appeals to their religious group – it's easy for them because they can appeal directly,” said Rachel Bitecor, assistant director, Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. “It's easier to get your message across if you're attending mass or services.”
“Any good candidate worth their salt will have a picture of themselves in their church or temple reaffirming their commitment to their community,” said Dennis Darnoi, a Republican political strategist and principal with Densar Consulting. “Many campaigns will have a grassroots manager or a coalition builder, a point person reaching out to different parts of the community, to different parts of the district, to connect. They'll have someone connecting to the Jewish community, to the Chaldean community, the Catholic community, to conservative women in the Republican Party. There is not one community that is powerful enough to ride it all the way in these larger (congressional) races.”
But just because someone falls into a “box,” it can't be assumed they'll vote like the rest of their ethnic or religious group.
“Not everyone with a shared background will vote for someone,” Dulio said. “Voters aren't dumb. They're very good at making the right choice for themselves. They can sort it out pretty well for themselves and/or their family. Just because someone has a clear ethnic or religious background, they may or may not align with that district – like Fayrouz Saad, (a Democrat who is Muslim) or Lena Epstein (a Republican Jew),” each running to represent their party going forward to the general election in November for the 11th Congressional District, which includes Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, part of Rochester Hills and then meanders through the west Oakland area and into parts of western Wayne County. Dulio feels each woman is out-of-sync with the majority of their religious/ethnic community, and therefore may have trouble prevailing in their race, with Saad, of Northville but having grown up in Dearborn, running in a district with a much smaller percentage of Muslims than in her original home district. As for Epstein, her far right, pro-Trump alliance is out of sync with most Jews in the district, who trend Democratic, according to data.
In 2016, American Jews voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, 71 percent to 24 percent, according to the Brookings Institute, up from 2012, when Jews preferred Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, 69 percent to 30 percent. However, Obama captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 over John McCain.
Bitecor of the Wason Center for Public Policy said that nationally Jews are split 60/40 Democrat to Republican, “with the northeast more liberal. Within the Jewish faith, all Jews are pro-Israel. There are some who are much more hardline; there's no compromising on a two-state issue. What drives Jews to be conservative is the hard line on Israel, not the social issues. It's all the West Bank and settlements.”
Locally, both polling and anecdotal numbers indicate the split at closer to 80/20, with a majority of Jews falling into the Democrat camp, as they traditionally have since Woodrow Wilson and Al Smith ran for office early in the 20th century, and lined up solidly behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt's candidacy for governor and president, said Anna Greenberg of My Jewish Learning. Throughout the 1960s that support continued as a voting bloc, until Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign, “when American Jews deserted Jimmy Carter en masse, many voting for independent John Anderson and some even defecting to Republican Ronald Reagan...Only African Americans have remained as solidly in the Democratic camp as have Jewish Americans.”
“The Jewish community doesn't vote a single way any longer, so it's hard to lump them all together,” noted Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin of Tikvah Fund in New York City. “Most Jewish support for Republicans was in the Orthodox communities, although clearly others are voting that way.
“It's hard to know beyond the Orthodox, and some areas with Russian Jews, because it's hard to get good polling numbers,” Rocklin said, in large part due to the fact that Orthodox Jews tend to live together in similar areas and concentrated in certain precincts, while more secular Jews live in wider communities where polling is not broken down to religious data by precincts. “It's clear the Orthodox Jews are growing and having increasingly been voting Republican in presidential elections – but they are not voting as Republicans down ballot, at least not yet.”
Rocklin said that is often because those races aren't competitive, or an incumbent is known.
“Down ballot there's little question that you're seeing it stay Democrat,” he said, for a variety of reasons. “The Orthodox communities are concentrated in areas that are Democratic.”
In metro Detroit, a majority of Orthodox Jews live in Oak Park and Southfield, longtime Democrat strongholds.
While there are a variety of different subgroups and sects within Orthodox Jewry, adherents live a very conservative, traditional and observant lifestyle, with many choosing to live in areas together and some rejecting modern society. They tend to have a high birth rate.
“When you have uncompetitive races, people will vote for the incumbent. They know the name, and maybe they've done something for them, versus someone they may not know at all,” Rocklin said, in a statement that can apply to any demographic group. “The real test is in a competitive race – then issues are important.”
Rocklin explained that Orthodox Jews first began to veer more conservatively between 2000 and 2004 – because the Republican Party was seen as stronger on Israel and foreign policy.
“They went from Gore to Bush” during that period of time, with 9/11 possibly playing a role. “That support only continued to grow over time, except for Donald Trump versus Romney, when it dipped.”
He pointed out that there are three issues in general that have resonated with Orthodox Jews for the Republican Party – Israel, school choice and religious liberty, “which continues to grow as an issue, because the Orthodox feel it could be a threat to their ability to live their lives religiously.”
The West Bank is sacred to Orthodox Jews, who identify the land as Biblical land given to the Jews, and therefore not negotiable with Palestinians in a two-state solution.
The rest of the Jewish community, comprised of unaffiliated, Reform and Conservative Jews, “have not seen much change, and are Democrats,” Rocklin said. “They are changing, but slowly, as demographics change. We'll see a shift as the Orthodox become a greater proportion of the population,” perhaps in one generation, he said, against more secular Jews continuing to intermarry, be unaffiliated, and have zero population growth, or negative population growth.
Catholics, Bitecor said, are generally split evenly between Democrat and Republican. “Kennedy was a Catholic, as we all know, and with the rise of the Kennedy dynasty, while they were not universally Democrat, but primarily. And they stayed that way until abortion became an issue in the 1970s through the 1990s. It took some time to really become political, in the '80s, with Reagan, and over time it sorted out, that Republicans are ideologically conservative and Democrats are ideologically liberal.”
American Catholics voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, 52 percent to 45 percent, a switch from 2012, when Obama prevailed over Romney, 50 percent to 48 percent. When the Catholic vote is broken down to white Catholics versus Hispanic Catholics in 2016, the results vary significantly – evidence of the role ethnicity plays in voter turnout and response. In 2016, white Catholics preferred Trump 60 percent to Clinton's 37 percent. However, Hispanic Catholics overwhelmingly chose Clinton, 67 percent to 26 percent for Trump. Hispanic Catholic voters were even more loyal to Obama in 2012, 75 percent to 21 percent for Romney, while white Catholics chose Romney, 59 percent to 40 percent for Obama.
“Hispanics were pushed to the Democrats via the Republican hard line of immigration that started in 2006,” said Bitecor, noting that Hispanics were split 50/50 when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 against Al Gore. “Bush ran on a platform of immigration reform, as did McCain. McCain had co-sponsored an immigration proposal. When he was getting ready to run for president, as the (Republican) party turned against immigration, he turned on his own immigration proposal. After his failed presidential run, he turned back to his original support of immigration reform.”
Oakland University's Dulio noted that Hispanics are not a monolithic voting group. “Latinos are, by and large, Democrats, but Cubans are very conservative,” he pointed out, with a strong Republican voting record. “Within ethnic and religious groups, there are issues that can split those groups.”
Bitecor noted that evangelical Christians “are very reliably Republican. There was a proportion that were horrified by kids in cages (with the separation of illegal immigrant children from their parents), but they prioritize abortion over everything else.”
White, born-again/evangelical Christians voted for Trump overwhelmingly in 2016, 81 percent to 16 percent for Clinton.
Bitecor said that Michigan has a reliably evangelical portion of the population.
Chaldeans, who are Iraqi Christian Catholics, are very Republican, Bitecor said, but Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce in Farmington Hills, said that is not completely accurate.
“Chaldeans tend to vote on issues, versus a party, so we're not strictly Republican,” Manna said. “We talk about immigration, which neither party has dealt with. We have a lot of issues with social justice, which is more Democrat. We're conservative with regard to religious and family values, and more liberal when it comes to immigration and social justice values.
“Historically, our community is defined by faith, family and food.”
Klint Kesto, a Republican state Representative who has represented West Bloomfield and Commerce Township for the last six years, is currently running in the Republican primary to replace U.S. Rep. David Trott – and proudly is tapping into his Chaldean background for fundraising and community support.
Dulio noted that is a smart strategy. “The Chaldean community, it can absolutely be targeted like any other religious group, Jewish or Catholic,” he said. “So, if a candidate has ties to that group, it potentially can be very profitable to that office.”
Derek Dickow, of Steward Media, a consultant, power connector and Chaldean community leader, said regarding Kesto's campaign, “The Chaldean community has an $11 billion impact annually in Michigan's economy… Our pathway to success is retelling of the American Dream, which began similarly to other ethnic minorities: escaping our native homeland to avoid religious persecution and fleeing to America in pursuit of a better life.”
He noted about half of Michigan's 160,000 Chaldeans live in Macomb County, the other half in Oakland County. “Although Rep. Kesto represents the 39th District, not a week passes without someone from the Chaldean community calling on issues concerning general business, immigration, or other matters. Regardless of where Chaldeans live, they call on Rep. Kesto and say, 'He's Chaldean. He's one of ours.'”
Dickow pointed out there are 30,000 registered Chaldean voters in the 11th District, with five Republicans and five Democrats running.
Darnoi, the political strategist, said, “Obviously, in an area like West Bloomfield, they (Chaldeans) do hold a lot of influence. They band together to raise money for a favorite candidate. They typically hold fundraisers at Shenandoah (Country Club in West Bloomfield), so members of the community can meet the candidate and get to know them. In a state House or Senate race, where turnout is smaller and lower, it can have a sizable impact.
“When you try to expand it out into a congressional race, it has impact – but it doesn't have the same effect,” Darnoi said. “Chaldeans may live in West Bloomfield, and the northern part of the 11th district, but you don't see as many Chaldeans in Livonia, or Redford, or Canton. It's an important building block, but I'm not sure it's sufficient to ride that community to overall victory.”
Yet, he did note that “when you have a huge primary field (like in the 11th District), a candidate can win with just 22, 23 percent of the votes – and that's where having the backing of a community can really help.”
Bernie Porn of EPIC MRA, said that Kesto's community will matter less in the general election or primary “because it will be more diluted. Special groups mean less in a presidential election, than in a gubernatorial election, then senatorial, then congressional.”
Porn also noted that the gerrymandering of districts – where boundaries are manipulated to favor one political party over another – “makes ethnic votes less meaningful. We call them 'stacking and packing' the districts, making a Republican district in the 54 to 55 percent (leaning) range, where they're more likely to prevail, and then it's just wasting votes. When it's an equal district, African Americans (or other ethnic groups) can impact the outcome of a general election, but when Republicans are strong enough that the only impact is in the primary election, then all demographic groups have less of a say in general elections.”
Porn pointed out that “this is why when the Tea Party was really strong, proponents of the Tea Party were stronger in Michigan than their opponents and in other areas of the country, and they could really influence elections – and it's why the state legislature is how it currently is. Now the Tea Party has waned in power, but it still has impact – of 29 to 30 percent (in the general election), but it was 44 to 45 percent of overall voters. In the Republican primary, before, they had 65 percent, 70 percent. The problem is now that many in the state and state legislature still think the Tea Party has that kind of power and impact.”
Dickow said Chaldean operatives have a simple strategy – “the expectation on turnout in the Republican primary is about 65,000 voters. Kesto has the most viable pathway to victory if the Chaldean community votes.”
Some in the Muslim and Arab American community believe they are a classic swing vote, leaning neither Republican or Democratic but focusing on the candidate, but Wayne State University Professor Saeed Khan, of the Department of History and Near East and Asian Studies, points out that there has been extensive polling information done after the 2016 campaign by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS).
“The problem, and the understanding, is that there are a number of different Muslim communities – there are Arab Muslims; southeast Asian Muslims; Hispanic Muslims; African Muslims, who are not African Americans; and there are Arabs who are not Muslims, like the Chaldeans, who are Iraqi Christians, and the Maronite Christians and Lebanese Christians,” Khan explained.
He said that most Sunni Muslims – those from Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Syria, as well as southeast Asia, Africa and China – went primarily for Hillary Clinton and Democrats in 2016, “but the Chaldeans, Lebanese Christians and some Shiite Muslims (from Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon) voted for Trump, primarily because of the issue of Syria.
“Some polls showed that 23 percent of all Michigan Muslims voted for Trump,” Khan said. “That would have been enough to have swung the vote in a state that went with him with 10,000 votes.”
There is a slight history of Arab Americans voting Republican, when they briefly supported George W. Bush in 2000.
“George W. Bush was initially more inclusive, so immigrant Arab Muslims went for him,” Khan said, “until after 9/11 – then they leaned Democratic, which clearly showed with the 2008 and 2012 elections of Obama.
He said the Muslim travel immigration ban is not playing well with the Muslim and Arab American communities, nor with the Chaldean communities. “It is because of the recent Supreme Court ruling, there is now a greater sense of urgency to see if there is way to get legislation, as well as they are seeking to block the Kavanaugh appointment (as Supreme Court justice).
“The community is very much now actively seeking their political literacy and political engagement, not just by running for office, but through understanding political nuance and the understanding of the concepts of checks and balances and the separation of power,” Khan said.
Porn pointed out that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed “is appealing to Muslims, especially in an ad in The Muslim News. But it all comes down to the sophistication of the campaign,” he said. “It's all about micro targeting and number crunching in campaigns, and whether they're collecting data and targeting the right people with phone calls, mailings, emails. Others will do TV ads, direct