The Public Opinion Context for the Anti-Muslim Turn in the 2016 GOP Nomination Race

In the immediate aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks carried out by radical Islamist groups in European, Middle Eastern and African countries, various calls for policies restricting the rights of Muslims in the United States and/or limiting Muslim immigration into the United States permeated the recent political discourse. In particular, the 2016 Republican presidential nomination race quickly became a hothouse of proposals targeting Muslims here at home.  

Rhetoric and attitudes based on the suspicion that the practices of Islam poses an inherent threat to the United States, or are inherently un-American, are not new developments. The trope that Barack Obama is a crypto-Muslim has had a surprisingly long half-life, even allowing for the likelihood that the belief that the President is a secret Muslim lies somewhere between an actual perception of fact and an expressive response to a politically loaded question. More recently, prior to the Paris attacks, Presidential candidate Ben Carson mused that a Muslim should be ineligible to be elected president of the U.S.

Polling results exploring Texans’ perceptions of the discrimination experienced by different groups in society illustrate that there there is some sensitivity to the idea that Muslims may be subject to discrimination – though that sensitivity varies depending on partisan and ideological disposition. In the June 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, when we asked Texans how much discrimination different groups experienced, 72 percent said that Muslims experienced "a lot" or "some" discrimination. Muslims were the second of four tightly grouped top responses (with transgendered people (73 percent), gays and lesbians (70 percent), and African Americans (68 percent)). This ranking suggests a clear awareness of the potential for discrimination against Muslims more than a decade after September 11, but prior to the recent surge in ISIS and Al Quaeda-linked attacks.

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Group"A lot" or "Some""Not very much" or "None at all"Don't know
Transgender people70%24%7%
Gays and lesbians69%26%4%
African Americans67%30%4%

There are significant partisan differences within this seemingly widespread awareness of actual and potential discrimination against Muslims. Results in Texas resemble those of earlier national surveys that found Republicans less likely than Democrats to see Muslims as subject to discrimination relative to other groups. Texans' perceptions of discrimination also contain such partisan differences between Democrats and Republicans in the extent of perceptions of discrimination against Muslims – 87 percent and 61 percent respectively – though the fact that a majority of Republicans still perceive some discrimination is notable.

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A lot of discrimination61%41%20%
Not very much5%11%24%
None at all4%9%12%
Don't know/No opinion4%9%3%

However, further parsing of the results reveals a marked difference in partisan intensity: Most of the Democrats, but only 20 percent of Republicans, say Muslims face “a lot” of discrimination. The less prevalent perception of discrimination is driven by the strengths of conservative and Tea Party identification among Texas Republicans. Among those who identify as either “extremely conservative," or who identify with the Tea Party when given the opportunity elsewhere in the survey, perceptions of discrimination against Muslims are less frequent and much less intense.

A majority of those who identify as extremely conservative (55 percent) see Muslims as subject to "not very much" discrimination or "none at all."

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categoryLeaning conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
A lot of discrimination25%25%12%
Not very much21%21%29%
None at all7%12%26%
Don't know/No opinion4%3%3%


Similarly, the numerically larger group of Tea Party identifiers are evenly split, with only 14 percent seeing Muslims as subject to "a lot" of discrimination.

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
A lot of discrimination62%29%14%
Not very much3%19%31%
None at all5%10%18%
Don't know/No opinion4%3%1%

These patterns in attitudes among Republicans in the most active corners of their party – the self-identified conservatives and Tea Party Republicans that GOP campaign professionals know are the most likely primary voters – provide telling context for the seemingly extreme rhetoric on Muslim rights and immigration that has dominated media coverage of the campaign since the Paris attacks.  

The quick inclusion of anti-Muslim rhetoric into responses to the Paris attacks merges easily into the prevailing convergence of negative views of the effects of immigration with perceptions that Christians in the U.S. are under siege in an ever-more secular country, a development which we wrote about in the immediate wake of the Paris attacks. In a different political environment, the full-throated rhetoric regarding Muslims voiced by candidates seeking to attract conservative primary voters might be more immediately recognized as discordant with the Constitution, the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and the country’s history of hard-fought but still deeply-rooted religious pluralism. That is, in the shorthand of some of the media discussion, “outside of mainstream politics.”

Established patterns in attitudes among Republican voters working in concert with the sense of immediate crisis in the aftermath of Paris are surely enabling the surprising vehemence of the illiberal rhetoric and ideas that are so at odds with the civil libertarian culture of the country. But the vehemence of this approach and its centrality to the current political debate are the results of political choices, especially those of the candidates vying for the GOP presidential nomination.

The contrasting Republican example of George W. Bush’s response in this area provides some perspective. The man who named the War on Terror and made water boarding a household term – it’s not like he was especially soft on the Muslim world – also made repeated public efforts to prevent the metastasizing of anti-Muslim sentiment at home in the wake of the 2011 attack on the continental United States. Neither the perception of foreign threats to national security nor a latent wellspring of suspicion of Islam among their partisan constituency automatically requires Republican leaders to adopt the toxic tone so in evidence among the 2016 candidates. The reactions thus far in the GOP primary have not been determined solely by attitudes among the public, but by the choices of candidates as they attempt to grab the attention of the primary electorate. Expect more choices of this type, especially in the absence of viable candidates who, for reasons of temperament, intellect, or even conscience, might choose a path less dictated by the vicissitudes and short-term payoffs of next year’s primary elections.