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How Arab Americans Vote

Trends and Projections from 1996 to 2008

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How Arab Americans Vote

An Arab American election volunteer checks in a voter at the Salina School polling station in Dearborn, Michigan, in the Nov. 2004 Bush-Kerry election. Kerry won Michigan, where almost 500,000 Arab Americans live, but lost the election.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Updated September 23, 2008

There was a time when the Arab vote in the United States was not only insignificant. It was scorned. Walter Mondale returned donations from Arab American business leaders made to his 1984 election bid against Ronald Reagan. In 1988, Michael Dukakis rejected an endorsement from the Arab American Democratic Federation. In 1996, Bob Dole refused to meet with Arab-American leaders as the GOP's presidential nominee. In 2000, John McCain and Al Gore were the only presidential candidates to accept, via satellite, an invitation to address the Arab American Institute’s annual leadership conference.

Scorned no more.

Arab Americans are now courted as assiduously as any other substantial minority.

The Arab American Voter: Influential and Engaged

There are about 3.5 million Arab Americans in the United States, with substantial representation in at least 55 congressional districts. [See a state by state breakdown of Arab American populations in the United States.

About 1.5 million Arab-American voters are registered in large battleground states (Michigan, Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania). According to the Arab American Institute, they vote at a rate far higher than native-born Americans—88%. How Arabs vote has a significant impact in, say, Michigan, where half of all Arabs in the United States live. John Kerry won Michigan in 2004 by 164,400 votes. A considerable part of that difference can be attributed to the Arab vote, which went for Kerry over Bush by a 10-to-1 margin.

Michigan’s Arab-American population, according to the 2000 census, was 151,000, although Zogby International, which conducts its independent population surveys, put the number at 490,000 after California’s 715,000. More than 80 percent of Arab-Americans in the United States are citizens.

The 1996 Vote: Pro-Clinton

A nationwide survey of 400 Arab Americans conducted in October 1996 by the Arab American Institute found 42% of respondents identifying themselves as Republicans, 36.5% as Democrats and 21.4% as either independents or as registered with a third party.

But party affiliation doesn’t carry much weight with the Arab voter. The same poll found 43.4% backing Bill Clinton in his re-election bid against Bob Dole, who got just 29.6%. (The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points.) That’s despite the fact that, as Aaron David Miller wrote in The Much Too Promised Land, “Bill Clinton was the most pro-Israeli Democratic president since Harry Truman.” Clinton won reelection by a comfortable margin of 49% to 41%.

The 2000 Vote: Arabs for George W. Bush

They would soon rue their vote. But in the run-up to the 2000 election, George W. Bush enjoyed the support of Arab Americans and of Muslim Americans in general. Al Gore was perceived to be entirely in the pocket of Israel. His mentor on Middle East issues was Martin Peretz, the New Republic’s editor and one of the country’s most rabidly anti-Arab voices. Among Bush’s supporters and fund-raisers in Florida was none other than Sami al-Arian, the University of South Florida professor whom Bush’s Department of Justice would eventually prosecute on dubious charges of supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad. At any rate, Bush won the Arab vote in 2000. A Zogby poll of 505 Arab Americans shortly after the vote found 45% for Bush, 38% for Gore, and a considerable 13.5% for Ralph Nader, who is of Lebanese descent.

The poll reflected the essentially conservative nature of the Arab vote: The more Muslim you are, the likelier you are to identify with the Evangelical side of the Republican Party platform, some of whose provisions could have been inspired by the mullah next door: spend public money on religious education, ban sex-ed, teach creationism, ban abortions, ban gay marriage.

That 2000 sentiment may have reflected a "drop in the confidence Arab Americans" towards the Clinton administration's handling of the Middle East conflict, James Zogby wrote at the time. In January 2000, Clinton's Mideast policies had a 68.5% approval. By November, the number had dropped to 45.5%. By then, Clinton had brought Israelis and Palestinians to the brink of a breakthrough only to see Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat leave Camp David in a huff. The second intifada followed.

The 2004 Vote: Anti-Bush Rather than Pro-Kerry

Bush quickly lost the Arab vote, and trust, following Sept. 11, 2001, when he ordered the rounding up of thousands of Arabs without charges and unleashed his “war on terror,” which many Arabs and Muslims saw as a war on Arabs and Muslims.

The USA Patriot Act, Guatanamo Bay, torture and the use of secret evidence against suspects didn’t go down well with the Arab voter, especially after Bush’s broken promise of 2000. In his second debate with Al Gore that October, Bush had decried the fact that “Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what is called secret evidence. People are stopped, and we have to do something about that.” He did: he institutionalized the practice. Bush’s unwavering support of Israel didn’t help.

In 2004, as I noted above, Zogby polling showed Arab American voters favoring Bush by a 10-to-1 margin, though it was not enough for Kerry to dent the Evangelical vote that tipped Bush into the winning column.

The 2008 Vote: Obama Ahead of McCain by Wide Margin

In September 2008, Zogby International released a poll that showed Barack Obama easily beating John McCain, 54% to 33%. [See details of the polling results.

Muslim Arabs in the sample of 501 picked Obama over McCain, 84% to 4%, with third-party candidates taking the rest. McCain did better among Catholic Arab Americans, most of whom are of Lebanese descent, winning that category by 53% over Obama’s 31%. Among registered independents, Obama and McCain split with 44% each.

Another significant finding by the poll: 46% of Arab Americans are now registered Democratic, the highest rate since Zogby began polling in 1996. Arab Americans registered Republicans have fallen to 20%, the lowest rate since 1996. Independents are at 19%, compared with 23% in 1996.

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