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How foreign conflict can shape an electorate

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Fifteen states and one U.S. territory are voting today for Super Tuesday. And some of those states include places with a lot of Arab American voters, like Minnesota. Just last week in Michigan, more than 13% of Democratic primary voters cast a ballot saying uncommitted, many of them Arab Americans who wanted to send President Biden a message about his support for Israel in the war in Gaza.

ABDULLAH HAMMOUD: The people who are dying, these are our family members and our friends, people who we know directly.

SHAPIRO: Voters like Abdullah Hammoud, mayor of Dearborn, Mich., where up to three-quarters of Arab Americans voted uncommitted.

HAMMOUD: You know, when I have a resident coming to my council meetings, speaking to the fact that he lost 80 family members - that's personal for all of us.

SHAPIRO: Biden campaign co-chair Mitch Landrieu told NPR the president has received that message.

MITCH LANDRIEU: He actually sent a team of high-ranking officials out to, of course, Michigan to talk to folks about the very difficult issue that the president and the United States is confronting in the war between Israel and Gaza.

SHAPIRO: Now, most of the time, American voters don't cast their ballots based on foreign conflicts. But there is a long history of these events shaping the voting patterns of immigrant communities, and sometimes these changes can last for generations - like with the Cuban American community, which votes far more Republican than other Latino groups. In 1983, Ronald Reagan appealed to those voters by reminding them of the Communist regime they left behind.

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RONALD REAGAN: Cuban Americans understand, perhaps better than many of their fellow citizens, that freedom is not just the heritage of the people of the United States. It is the birthright of the people of this hemisphere.

SHAPIRO: Michael Bustamante is a professor at the University of Miami, and he joins us. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHAEL BUSTAMANTE: Thanks so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So immigrants are not a monolith, but what can you broadly tell us about how much foreign policy tends to weigh on immigrant voters' minds when they cast ballots in the U.S.?

BUSTAMANTE: Generally speaking, not that much - polling that's been done I think pretty consistently shows that immigrants tend to think most about the issues that most Americans do - the economy, health care, gun violence, etc. Where I think the dynamics can change is sort of in the midst of crisis moments, right? When there is something happening in the country of origin that an immigrant is from and that immigrant feels that the United States should do something about it, that certainly has the greater chance to kind of impact their vote. But broadly speaking, foreign policy is not at the top of people's minds when they go to the ballot box.

SHAPIRO: And so there are, I suppose, two questions about the Arab American vote today. One is, will this shape the way people cast their ballots in November? A second is, will this be a long-term generational shift? We don't know the answers to those questions right now, but you have studied a long-term generational shift in Cuban American voters. I mean, this is a group with a strong history of voting Republican. Can you tell us what the GOP did to win those votes initially in the 1960s and '70s?

BUSTAMANTE: Yeah, the GOP were very strategic and effective, I think starting particularly in the mid-'60s to the late '60s, to sort of capitalize on what they argued were the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' failures to unseat Castro. Cubans arriving in the United States in the 1960s arrived fleeing the Cuban Revolution. And ironically, perhaps, while the Kennedy and Johnson administrations facilitated their entry through very generous refugee policies, Republicans sort of took advantage of a kind of a bitterness that had settled in by the late 1960s that somehow the Democratic administrations hadn't been able to oust Castro and, in fact, had started to pay more attention to a conflict very, very far away in Vietnam. I mean, the irony is - of course, is that Republicans weren't successful either in this, and they haven't been. But somehow that narrative kind of stuck, and it set in motion a long-term kind of party alignment that really congeals after Reagan's election.

SHAPIRO: The long-term aspect of this is what I find so fascinating because even all these decades later, younger Cuban Americans may be less likely than their parents to vote Republican, but they are still notably more conservative than other Latino groups in the U.S. So what keeps Cuban American voters loyal, even when we're talking about voters who may never have lived in the country that their parents or grandparents came from?

BUSTAMANTE: Yeah, I mean, spend any time in Miami in the heart of the Cuban American community, and in some sense, it's as if these things from 60 years ago had just happened yesterday. I mean, the stories' legacies are kept alive. That sense of kind of inherited generational trauma is very, very strong. And so even when Cuban Americans who are born in the U.S. and didn't sort of experience exon (ph) migration or the Cuban Revolution directly, they are growing up in a world where the experiences of their parents and grandparents are shaping their worldview. And that's where I think the long-term effect is so important, both for immigrants and their sort of U.S.-born descendants, right? It's not so much that foreign policy is sort of at the top of the mind necessarily when people go to the ballot box, but it informs a broader worldview that immigrants and their descendants then map onto sort of their assessments of political choices in the United States.

SHAPIRO: Any historical parallel is going to be imperfect. And there are lots of reasons that the story of Cuban Americans may or may not map onto the story of Arab American voters today. But one big difference that stands out to me is that there are so many examples of American politicians fighting over Cuban voters and saying, I represent you; I'm waving the flag for the values that you align with. And the protest vote among Arab Americans right now doesn't seem like an opportunity that any other politician is taking advantage of. It's not as though Donald Trump is out there saying how he would handle the situation in Gaza differently.

BUSTAMANTE: Yeah, I think that is a key difference. It has to do with how the parties are aligning on the issues that are at stake here. In the case of Arab Americans, I think unfortunately, from their perspective, both political parties tend to have dominant positions that are, you know, more pro-Israel than they would like them to be, which leaves them in, you know, maybe a weaker position from the point of view of leverage. In the Cuban American case, I mean, the Cuba policy issue has become a political football between Republicans and Democrats, and Republicans have built a very, very deep bench of political leaders from the community who are advancing that message. And so when Cubans are sort of calling on an administration to do something or not do something, they've got a voice in the political system that's going to argue their case and continue to do so. And that seems to be a really strong difference.

SHAPIRO: And I was just looking back at the results of the 2000 Bush v. Gore election, which Bush won in Florida by a little over 500 votes, according to the official count, out of some 6 million votes cast. And that won him the presidency. I think it shows how few votes can actually swing a national election right now.

BUSTAMANTE: Yeah, absolutely. I've seen some comments coming from Democratic Party leadership in Michigan that suggest that they're not too fazed by the scale of the uncommitted vote, but there's plenty of examples in recent history where the margins have been really, really slim, razor sharp. And so I'd be wary of being sort of too callous about that, right? I think this vote does matter. It's certainly a shot across the bow for the Biden administration that I think they would do well to take into consideration.

SHAPIRO: And so, as someone whose research has focused on Cuban American voters and the shift in their voting patterns, how worried do you think the Biden campaign needs to be about the votes of Arab American voters in 2024 and, going forward, the Democratic Party needs to be about this voting group broadly?

BUSTAMANTE: You know, I'm in less of a position to comment on the immediate implications for 2024. But I think you're right. The longer-term implications here are as significant in terms of sort of sedimenting (ph) long-term party alignments. I think in the case of the Arab American vote, given the lack of an alternative on the Republican side, what I worry about most is political disengagement, period. And that's not healthy for our democracy, you know, any way you cut it.

SHAPIRO: So it's not that people are going to vote for Donald Trump, who implemented a immigration ban affecting largely Muslim majority countries over Joe Biden. It's that they're just not going to cast a vote at all.

BUSTAMANTE: Yeah, I think that's the risk - that people will sit it out. And I think in Michigan, the question is - how many Never Trumpers are just going to sit out a Trump v. Biden? And, you know, that's arithmetic that I certainly don't envy anyone having to try to calculate.

SHAPIRO: That's Michael Bustamante, a professor at the University of Miami and author of the book "Cuban Memory Wars." Thanks so much for your insights.

BUSTAMANTE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.