Arab Americans In The Mainstream

Late last week my Institute released the results of a poll detailing both how Arab Americans are likely to vote in this year’s presidential contest and the reasons behind their preference.

The poll’s headlines were widely reported: "Arab American voters strongly support Barack Obama"; "Arab Americans move away from the Republican Party"; and "Bush Administration gets low grades from Arab Americans".

These were the poll’s more obvious storylines, but there was another conclusion I found interesting. Much of this poll’s data points to a fact, clear to those who know Arab Americans, but surprising to those who do not understand this community: Arab American attitudes, in general, differ little from attitudes of the broader electorate.

For example, when asked to identify the two most important issues in this election two-thirds of Arab Americans point to the economy. (Note: This poll was completed before the latest shocks hit Wall Street.) Next in order of importance was "the war in Iraq/peace/general foreign policy" concerns. This was followed by "the cost of energy", "terrorism/national security", and "education" in that order. In fact, the ranking and the weight given to each of these concerns closely track the responses given to this same set of issues by all U.S. voters.

Asked why they support Barack Obama 40% of Arab Americans point to their perception that he is best able to handle the economy and other domestic concerns – and this, too, is what voters are saying in this election.

Another area where Arab American voter behavior tracks the broader electorate is found in the attitudes among various subgroups. There is a gender gap with Arab American voters – with women more strongly supporting Obama and men leaning toward McCain. There is an age gap – with younger Arab American voters more in Obama’s camp than older voters. And there is a religion gap – with Obama having problems winning the support of Catholic men (not women) in both the Arab American community and the larger population.

Like the rest of the voting population, Arab Americans’ deep dissatisfaction with the domestic and foreign policy performance of the Bush Administration is resulting in a shift in identification away from the GOP and toward the Democratic Party. For Arab Americans this trend began earlier, starting in 2002, spurred by the discomfort with the Administration’s behavior in the post post-9/11 era. The combination of profiling, negative references toward Islam, and abuses of civil liberties took a toll.

The Administration’s handling of the Iraq war, and neglect and failure in the rest of the Middle East, only aggravated this dissatisfaction. Then, shortly after their victory in 2004, the Bush Administration experienced a collapse in public confidence (brought on by a combination of cockiness, Katrina, and Iraq). And now, among Arab Americans and the public as a whole the Bush White House gets approval ratings in the low to mid 20 percent range.

This has had an impact among not only Arab Americans, but also voters at large, who are moving away from identification with the President’s party while swelling the ranks of the Democrats. While this shift is slight, but still measurable across the board, among Arab Americans it has been pronounced. For example, in 2000 the Democratic/Republican split was 40/38; by 2002 it had moved to 39/31. In 2004, the break was 43/32 and in 2006 it was 45/31. Now, in 2008, the floor has fallen out from under the GOP with 46% of Arab Americans declaring themselves Democrats as opposed to only 20% of Arab Americans saying they identify as Republicans.

Finally, there is the question: where is all of this going? Are there any indicators in this, and other polls, that tell us how this election will turn out? While I am loathe to make predictions I think that there are some clear enough signs here that point not only to a large margin for Obama among Arab American voters, but an Obama victory in November.

The Democrats’ lead may be soft now, but a number of factors, I believe, point to its ability to grow.

With Arab American voters saying that Obama is best able to handle six of their top concerns (the economy, war/peace, energy prices, etc.), with the desire for change ranking high as a reason for their vote, and with deep dissatisfaction with the current Republican Administration – barring a significant "game changing" event – Obama could increase his current mid-50% range to winning almost two-thirds of the community’s vote.

Obama’s margin will obviously not be as great among all voters – but with the same constants at work (concern with the economy, dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration and desire for change) – signs point to Obama being able to expand his support before November.

The bottom line here is that the Arab American poll reveals that this community, while unique in some respects and feeling some concerns more acutely than other Americans, is pretty much in the mainstream of today’s electorate.