Trump vs. Biden Is ‘A Very Difficult Dilemma’ for Turkish Americans in Ohio

With President Donald Trump and Joe Biden within a few percentage points of each other in Ohio according to recent polls, a few thousand votes could tip the balance on Election Day. And in Montgomery County, ethnic Ahiska Turks who settled here under U.S. refugee protections two decades ago are split over who to pick. Some want to repudiate Trump’s efforts to curb immigration and roll back refugee programs, while others are pushing back against Democratic support for the Armenian side of a century-long conflict in what was, for many, their former homeland.

Most of Dayton, Ohio’s 2,000 Ahiska Turkish residents arrived between 2007 and 2012, and 99 percent are now U.S. citizens, according to Islom Shakhbandarov, leader of the city’s Ahiska Turkish American Convention Center. The choice between Biden and Trump this election year is “a very difficult dilemma” for the Turkish community, he said.

The Buckeye State is widely considered a must-win for Trump, who took nearly 52 percent of the vote there versus Hillary Clinton’s 44 percent, after voters had largely backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Dayton is the sixth-largest city in Ohio and the county seat of Montgomery County, where Trump had the tightest margin in the state in the 2016 presidential election. At the time, the Dayton Daily News reported that Trump took the county by just under 1,900 votes.

Many Ahiska Turks who are unhappy with the way Trump has targeted immigrants — and gutted refugee programs — may end up voting for Biden, or rather against Trump.

“It’s most likely [that] many of them will vote against” Trump, as immigrant communities feel endangered under the current administration, said Shakhbandarov.

But, he said, a “sizable minority” are likely to support the president for his isolationist foreign-policy agenda and for his friendly relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he added.

“It is appealing that he is not interfering with Turkish affairs,” Shakhbandarov said. For instance, the Trump administration has refused to impose mandatory sanctions on Turkey after it bought a Russian air defense system — a free pass a Biden administration could reverse. Likewise, the Trump administration actively intervened to protect a Turkish bank that facilitated Iran’s evasion of financial sanctions.

Community members are also closely watching the U.S. response to the military conflict along the de facto border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Shakhbandarov said. Tensions reemerged in September between the two nations concerning the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a highland region technically part of Azerbaijan, but largely populated and governed by ethnic Armenians. A previous war over the territory between 1992 and 1994 left at least 20,000 dead, and despite periodic posturing in the years since, the fighting has greatly escalated over the past month.

A majority of the Ahiska Turks now residing in the United States lived in Azerbaijan for several years, and many were in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Shakhbandarov said. As the border conflict has kicked up, traumatic memories have resurfaced and are impacting their vote on Nov. 3, as many find it “unacceptable” that a number of Democratic lawmakers have openly supported Armenia over Azerbaijan, said Shakhbandarov, a self-identified Democrat.

“Because of the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, the number [of Trump voters] is growing, and I’m afraid of that,” he said.

Other members of the Ahiska Turkish community in Dayton said much the same. One, who asked not to be identified, said he voted early for a write-in candidate to protest the way Democrats have taken Armenia’s side in the conflict. Many in his social circle are planning to vote for Trump or for a write-in, specifically because of this issue, he said.

Members of the wider Turkish American community are similarly divided on their plans to vote on Nov. 3. Ali Cinar, a foreign-policy analyst who immigrated to the United States from Turkey 22 years ago, said he sees a 50–50 split, with half supporting Biden’s domestic-policy approach, while the other half prefers Trump’s take on foreign-policy issues.

“The Trump voters think that Biden is not good for the Turkey-U.S. relationship overall,” Cinar said, noting that he has polled Turkish Americans across the country over the past few months to learn who they plan to vote for.

Cinar, who is based in Washington, has also seen increased interest in this election over 2016. More and more community members are voting early and using mail-in ballots, he said. “Because of COVID, it’s more convenient, and they don’t need to wait in line. So I see more turn out; people are interested,” he said.

Foreign Policy Expert on U.S.-Turkey Relations, ME, Security, NATO, Transatlantic / Journalist / 2019 Ellis Island Medal of Honor Recipient