x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Obama holds commanding lead in Arab opinion polls

Arab-Americans turn away from Republican Party, and analysts say this electoral shift could be decisive in race to the White House.

WASHINGTON // Arab-Americans, who eight years ago split their political allegiances almost evenly between the Democratic and Republican parties, now identify with the Democrats by an overwhelming margin and strongly favour Barack Obama for US president, according to poll results released yesterday. Forty-six per cent of the Arab-Americans surveyed said they were registered or aligned with the Democratic Party, compared to 20 per cent with the Republican Party. Nineteen per cent considered themselves independent.

The percentage who said they were Republican is about half what it was in 2000, the year George W Bush was elected with the help of the Arab-American vote. That marks an electoral shift that could give Mr Obama - and other Democratic candidates - a boost in key battleground states where there are large numbers of Arab-Americans. In the survey, which was conducted last week by the polling firm Zogby International for the Arab American Institute, Mr Obama bested his opponent, John McCain, in a two-way matchup, 54 per cent to 33 per cent.

The Illinois senator's support dropped off somewhat among the survey's 501 respondents, to 46 per cent, when other presidential candidates were included. In the broader line-up, Mr McCain got 32 per cent of the vote, with Ralph Nader, who is running as an independent, and Bob Barr, who is the Libertarian Party nominee, garnering six per cent and one per cent of the vote, respectively. "There is apparently a softness right now in the Obama support," James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National, said at a news conference in Washington yesterday. The poll was conducted by the company of John Zogby, his brother.

In 2000, in the race between Mr Bush and Al Gore, then the vice president, Mr Bush carried the Arab-American vote, 44 per cent to 38 per cent, with 13 per cent going to Mr Nader. Four years ago, John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, won 63 per cent of the Arab-American vote to Mr Bush's 28 per cent. Mr Nader got eight per cent. But Mr Obama's support this year does not appear to be as strong.

While Mr Kerry led Mr Bush by substantial margins in almost every subgroup of Arab-American voters, including independents and Catholics, that is not the case this year for Mr Obama, the survey found. This year's closely fought presidential campaign could be decided in a small number of swing states, including several where there is a sizeable Arab-American population. Among those states are Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which together have nearly a third of the country's Arab-American population.

The most important issues among those surveyed were jobs and the economy, followed by the Iraq war and peace, health care and petrol prices. Mr Zogby said the gradual - but substantial - shift among Arab-Americans over the last eight years to Democratic identification mirrors an increase in Democratic Party registration nationwide, and has happened in part for the same reasons. "Part of that has to do with this administration's handling of the economy, the handling of the Iraq war and foreign policy in general," he said.

But another top issue for Arab-Americans, he said, has been the Bush administration's handling of civil liberties issues as part of its so-called war on terror. "This has been a party and an administration that has not been viewed favourably by Arab-Americans because they have not viewed Arab-Americans favourably," Mr Zogby said. Mr Bush's overall approval rating in the survey was 23 per cent, even lower than in the general population. Nineteen per cent said they approved of his handling of the economy; just under a third said the same of his foreign policy.

So far, Mr Zogby said, there has been little significant outreach to the Arab-American community by the McCain campaign, whereas Mr Obama has hired Arab-American field staff in critical states such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. "There is a significant amount of energy there, and a lot of work is being done," he said. "My sense is that the McCain campaign will catch up, but they have not started yet."

The poll had a margin of error of +/- 4.5 per cent. eniedowski@thenational.ae