x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

In pursuit of Arab American vote, US candidates fall flat

The economy is far and away the most important issue for Arab Americans, followed by foreign policy and health care

Arab Americans matter. Well integrated into all spheres of American life, Arab Americans are teachers, medical professionals, auto workers and first responders. In communities across the country, the Arab-American business community is a key to local prosperity. Arab Americans are also a bridge to their countries of origin, providing critical political and business insights into developments unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa.

And Arab Americans have been termed "the weak link in America's civil liberty chain", because the rights of the community are sometimes put at risk by aggressive unconstitutional law enforcement practices.

In an election year, in several areas of the country, the Arab American vote also matters. This is well known in Michigan, where the community is recognised as a key constituency. The importance of Arab Americans has recently been established in northern New Jersey, where they played a significant role this year in helping long-time friend, Representative Bill Pascrell, win a tough primary contest. The community is also courted in key districts in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Illinois and Florida.

And Arab Americans are growing rapidly - immigration data shows that over half a million Arabs were admitted as legal immigrants in the past decade, and almost 900,000 in the past 20 years.

Polling by the Arab American Institute over the past two decades makes clear that Arab Americans vote like most Americans, but with an edge. They are concerned about the economy and its effect on their families. They want the US to be safe and secure and they want their rights as Americans to be protected. They care about the quality and affordability of health care and institutions of public education. But, because of their affinity to the Middle East, they are also deeply concerned, as all Americans should be, about the conduct of American foreign policy in this important part of the world.

Throughout the 1990s, when my institute first began to measure Arab American voter attitudes, the community was nearly evenly divided between those who identified as Democrat and those who identified as Republican. It was during George W Bush's tenure that this began to change, culminating in 2008 with an Arab American landslide for Barack Obama.

As a recent 2012 poll demonstrates, Arab Americans still favour President Obama, but with a level of support that may be somewhat lower than it was four years ago.

While Arab Americans may be disappointed with President Obama's failure to deliver on early promises of change in foreign and domestic policies, this has not translated into support for his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

These are some of the findings of a mid-September poll of Arab American voters commissioned by the Arab American Institute. The poll surveyed 404 voters nationwide and had a margin of error of 5 per cent. What the poll found was that Mr Obama leads Mr Romney 52 per cent to 28 per cent, with 5 per cent of Arab Americans supporting minor party candidates and 16 per cent undecided.

This lead, while large, shows that President Obama still has a way to go to duplicate the 67 per cent to 28 per cent lopsided margin he held over Republican challenger John McCain in 2008 among Arab American voters.

This gap of 15 points between the President's performance among Arab American voters in 2012 and 2008 can be important in a close election. If President Obama doesn't win these voters back it could represent a potential loss of over 100,000 votes in five battleground states.

The economy is far and away the most important issue for Arab Americans, followed by foreign policy and health care. When asked "who will do the better job" on a range of domestic and foreign policy concerns Mr Obama easily bests Mr Romney in every area (although, perhaps not surprisingly, the president receives his lowest rating on dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).

Today, as in 2008 and 2010, the Arab American community favours the Democratic Party by a two-to-one margin. It is also worth noting that there is an increase in the number of Arab Americans who now identify as independent - 24 per cent in 2012.

The poll also helps shine a light on some personal concerns of Arab Americans. Forty per cent of the community says that since September 11, 2001, they have experienced some form of discrimination because of their ethnicity and a somewhat larger percentage say they fear that this phenomenon may become an even greater problem in the future. This problem is experienced by all subgroups within the community, but is most acutely felt by younger Arab Americans (aged 18-29) and those who are Muslim.

This concern with discrimination, however, has not caused them to deny their ethnicity with more than 6 in 10 saying that they describe themselves as "Arab American" and 8 in 10 maintaining that they are proud of their ethnic heritage.

Arab Americans also appear to feel more economically secure than their fellow Americans and more confident about the future. More than 6 in 10 say that they feel secure in their jobs, with one-half expressing some confidence that their children will have a better life.

The bottom line is that Arab Americans are a voting bloc that must be considered by both candidates, especially in a close election.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa