WASHINGTON (IPS) — With less than two months before the November elections, Arab American voters in the United States are poised to vote heavily Democratic, according to a poll released here by the Arab American Institute (AAI).
The poll, which was conducted by Zogby International for AAI, a Washington-based lobby and public education group, found that the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, currently leads his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, by some 20 percentage points among Arab American voters — 54 percent to 33 percent — in a two-man race.
Obama’s lead, however, dropped to 46 percent to 32 percent when the 500-plus respondents who participated in the survey were also given the option of two other candidates — independent Ralph Nader and Libertarian Bob Barr.
Nader, who boasts Christian Lebanese roots, drew surprisingly strong Arab American support in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. Six percent of respondents who participated in the AAI survey said they favored Nader.
With a population of at least 3.5 million, Arab Americans make up a little over one percent of the U.S. population. At the same time, their voter turnout, which is higher than that of most other demographic groups, is expected to reach close to two million this year, or about 1.5 percent of all voters.
Historically, Arab Americans have tended to vote somewhat more Democratic than Republican, although there has been considerable variation among specific groups.
The high-water mark for Republicans came in 2000. In advance of the presidential elections that year, 38 percent of Arab Americans participating in an AAI poll said they considered themselves Republican, compared to 40 percent who declared themselves Democrats.
Eight years — more than seven of which have been dominated by President George W. Bush’s “global war on terror” and Iraq’s invasion — however, the balance has tilted sharply toward the Democrats, according to the latest poll results. Forty-six percent now say they consider themselves Democrats; a mere 20 percent say they are Republicans.
“Republicans dropped one half of what they had in 2000,” said James Zogby, AAI’s long-time president, who is also the brother of John Zogby, the CEO of Zogby International. “That may have an impact on the presidential race.”
Arab Americans are scattered widely across the U.S., but most live in large metropolitan areas in a dozen states. The largest population — approximately 715,000, according to AAI — of Arab Americans is found in California, followed by Michigan (490,000); New York (405,000); Florida (255,000); New Jersey (240,000); Illinois (220,000); and Texas (210,000).
While Obama is expected to win in California, New York, New Jersey, and his home state of Illinois, and McCain is certain to sweep Texas, Arab American voters are unlikely to make much difference to the outcome in those states.
At the same, time, however, both Michigan and Florida are considered key “swing states” where their votes could indeed prove decisive. Indeed, in Michigan, Arab American voters make up a not inconsiderable five percent of the vote.
Three other ”swing states” that are considered up for grabs in the November election are also home to relatively large Arab American populations — Ohio (185,000); Pennsylvania (160,000); and Virginia (135,000) — or between 1.5 percent and two percent of the electorate.
U.S. presidents are not elected by the national popular vote. Instead, the candidate who wins the most votes in each state receives all of that state’s electoral votes. The winner of the election is the candidate who wins a majority of the electoral votes.
“The Arab American vote can be important in several battleground states and a number of critical [Congressional] contests,” said Zogby.
Despite Obama’s strong lead in the poll over McCain, Zogby told reporters here that the Democratic candidate appeared to be ”underperforming,” especially among some Arab American subgroups, notably Catholics — most of them of Lebanese ancestry — and self-identified political independents.
In 2004, for example, the Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry, led Bush among both groups six months before the election. Among Arab American Catholics, Kerry led by a 55-34 percent margin. In the current race, by contrast, McCain is actually leading among the same group by a 53-31 percent margin.
Obama enjoys a slight lead among Arab American Orthodox and a whopping 84-4 percent lead among Arab American Muslims. In each demographic group, Obama receives more support among women and younger voters than among men and older voters.
The poll’s sample consisted of 501 randomly selected Arab American nationwide who were contacted by telephone during the second week of September. Given the relatively small sample, the margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percent.
Reflecting the national Arab American population, about two-thirds of respondents were either Catholic or Orthodox. About one-quarter were Muslim and the remainder were Protestant.
While in 2004, foreign policy — and particularly the Iraq War — was cited by Arab American voters as a top priority in deciding how they would vote, it is playing a much less important role this year, according to the poll.
Asked to cite the two most-important issues in this year’s election, 63 percent named jobs or the economy, while only 37 percent cited Iraq and general foreign policy issues. Among those who cited the economy, 52 percent said they favored Obama, and 34 percent said the favored McCain. On foreign policy, Obama was also favored, but by a narrower margin — 48-39 percent.
Arab American respondents also expressed strong disapproval of Bush’s performance as president. Three out of four said their view of Bush was negative, while only 23 percent said they had a positive impression. On his economic policy, disapproval was even stronger — 79-19 percent. On foreign policy, however, Bush did slightly better: two-thirds said they disapproved of his performance, while 31 percent expressed approval.
Those findings marked a striking reversal from 2000 where Bush’s declaration during a debate that he opposed ethnic profiling of Arabs by U.S. law-enforcement agencies won him widespread support among Arab Americans, a plurality of whom voted for him in the general election that year.
The 9/11 attacks, and particularly the security measures taken by his administration, as well as the invasion of Iraq 18 months later, turned many Arab Americans against him.