It's safe to say that the Republican nominee for president, whoever he ends up being, will not be getting too many votes from Muslim Americans. Or possibly any votes at all.
Donald Trump who claimed falsely that thousands of Muslims celebrated the downing of the Twin Towers, and who wants to ban Muslims from entering the United States, is still leading the polls. The one who said that no Muslim should be allowed to be president isn't doing so well; Ben Carson just fired much of his staff and his campaign is obviously melting down. But Marco Rubio, who appears to be on the rise, sent a clear message to Muslims on Wednesday, which we'll get to in a moment.
The point, though, isn't that the Muslim vote will be critical to the 2016 outcome; Muslims make up only around 1 percent of the U.S. population, and many of them are not yet citizens and so aren't eligible to vote. But the rancid Islamophobia on display in the Republican primary campaign is more than a threat to Republicans' showing among Muslim voters, it's a threat to their prospects among all non-white voters. Combine it with the way Republicans have talked about immigration and the way they've talked about President Obama, and you could hardly have assembled a better case to minorities that they should reject the GOP.
Back to what happened this week: President Obama visited a mosque in Baltimore on Wednesday, the first such visit of his presidency. He hit familiar notes in his speech, condemning hate crimes against Muslims and noting the long history of Islam in America. He acknowledged a young woman in the audience, Ibtihaj Muhammad, who will be representing the United States in fencing at this summer's Olympics — in her hijab. "At a time when others are trying to divide us along lines of religion or sect," he said, "we have to reaffirm that most fundamental of truths: We are all God's children."
For Marco Rubio, that statement of unity was just too much to bear. "I'm tired of being divided against each other for political reasons like this president's done," he told an audience in New Hampshire. "Always pitting people against each other. Always! Look at today: He gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims." Indeed, what could be more divisive than a plea for solidarity and understanding?
Donald Trump also weighed in on the president's visit to a mosque, saying, "Maybe he feels comfortable there." Because he might be a secret Muslim, get it? Ha ha!
Think for a moment about how a member of any minority group — African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, Muslim, Jew, Pacific Islander — would view everything that has gone on in this primary campaign, and how inclined it might make them feel to vote for whichever candidate the Republicans nominate.
We often assume that the effect of something like Trump's comments on Muslims or the GOP debate on who hates "amnesty" the most will only affect the opinions of the particular group being targeted at that moment. But everyone else hears those things too. For people who have the experience of being a minority in America, it doesn't go unnoticed when one party communicates that it's actively hostile to people who aren't white and Christian. Even if you're, say, Asian-American and you haven't heard a GOP candidate attack people like you specifically, you'll probably suspect that that's only because they haven't gotten around to it yet. In case you were wondering, Asian-Americans gave Barack Obama 73 percent of their votes in 2012, and they're the fastest-growing minority group in the country.
The other critical fast-growing group is, of course, Hispanics. While we don't yet know who the GOP nominee will be, we know that he'll be someone who spent an awful lot of time condemning undocumented immigrants and trying to get to his opponents' right on "amnesty." And as multiple demographic analyses (see here or here) have shown, if Republicans don't dramatically improve their performance among Hispanics, it will be all but mathematically impossible for them to win.
That's not even to mention African-Americans, the most loyal segment of the Democratic coalition. They were certainly energized by the presence of the first African-American president on the ticket, and do you think they'll be motivated to vote against the Republicans who attack Barack Obama with such venom?
There is the chance, however, that the GOP could have the first Hispanic major-party nominee in 2016. But it's impossible to say how much of an impact Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would have on the Hispanic vote.
Many knowledgeable Hispanic politicos (at least the Democratic ones) argue that it wouldn't change Hispanic voters' feelings much, for three reasons: First, Rubio and Cruz are both Cuban-American, and the ties of solidarity between Cubans and people whose heritage is Mexican or Salvadoran or anything else aren't as strong as some might think (this is even more true for Cruz, who unlike Rubio doesn't speak fluent Spanish). Second, Hispanic voters are keenly aware of the policy differences between them and the GOP, differences that have been heightened during the campaign. And third, Rubio or Cruz wouldn't be able to escape the message of hostility their party has sent to Hispanic voters for years, but especially this year.
They'll have trouble escaping it not only because of the clear record of the primaries — which among other things included Cruz making clear his opposition to birthright citizenship, a bedrock American principle — but because they'll find themselves assaulted relentlessly by other Hispanics who oppose them. Recently, Jorge Ramos, the most influential Hispanic journalist in America, wrote a scorching column criticizing Rubio and Cruz (among others), in which he said, "There is no greater disloyalty than the children of immigrants forgetting their own roots. That's a betrayal." Expect to see a lot more of that in the general election.
You can also expect to see the Republican nominee take a drastically different tone on issues like immigration once the general election rolls around, because he'll have a different audience and a different set of voters to persuade. He'll play down the positions he has taken, and talk in more welcoming, inclusive terms. He'll pull people of all races up on stage with him. The appeals he makes to white resentment will become more subtle and implicit.
In short, whoever that nominee is, he'll try to make everyone forget the ugly rhetoric of the Republican primaries. But by then it will probably be too late.