Some leading Republican presidential candidates seem to view Muslims as fair game for increasingly harsh words they might use with more caution against any other group for fear of the political cost. So far, that strategy is winning support from conservatives influential in picking the nominee.
Many Republicans are heartened by strong rhetoric addressing what they view as a threat to national security by Islam itself, analysts say.
Because Muslims are a small voting bloc, the candidates see limited fallout from what they are saying in the campaign.
“I think this issue exists on its own island,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican political consultant who ran Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “It’s highly unlikely to cause a political penalty, and there is no evidence that it has.”
Since the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris, GOP front-runner Donald Trump has said he wants to register all Muslims in the U.S. and surveil American mosques.
He has repeated unsubstantiated claims that Muslim-Americans in New Jersey celebrated by the “thousands” when the World Trade Center was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Donald Trump is already very well known for being brash and outspoken and is appealing to a group of people — a minority of American voters, but a large minority — who seem to like that kind of tough talk,” said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
Rival Ben Carson said allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. would be akin to exposing a neighborhood to a “rabid dog.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said, “I’d like for Barack Obama to resign if he’s not going to protect America and instead protect the image of Islam.”
Such statements appeal to Republicans who think Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, have not done enough to fight jihadis, Green said. The sentiment also plays well for evangelicals concerned about violence directed at Christians in the Middle East and angered about restrictions their missionaries face in predominantly Muslim countries.
“There’s a religious undercurrent here, aside from foreign policy issues,” Green said.
Carson’s campaign reported strong fundraising and more than 100,000 new Facebook friends in the 24 hours after he told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in September, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”
Campaign manager Barry Bennett told The Associated Press, “While the left wing is huffing and puffing over it, Republican primary voters are with us at least 80-20.”
“People in Iowa particularly, are like, ‘Yeah! We’re not going to vote for a Muslim either,” Bennett said at the time. “I don’t mind the hubbub. It’s not hurting us, that’s for sure.”