The Growing Convergence of Arab American Political Views

Polling Arab American voters demonstrates that despite the internal diversity of the community, there is an emerging consensus on several issues of importance. Whether born in the U.S. or an immigrant, and regardless of country of origin or religious affiliation, strong majorities in all of these subgroups agree on a wide range of domestic and foreign policy concerns.

As in any community, there are groups on the margins that hold divergent views. There are some recent immigrants who see themselves as exiles, holding onto ideologies imported from their homelands; and there are those in their second- and third-generations who are so assimilated as to have lost contact with their roots. But, in the main, our polling shows Arab Americans displaying a remarkable convergence of views.

It is also the case that Arab Americans display a unity of purpose not seen even in the Arab world. For example, it was not surprising to me that during last year’s Dubai Ports World (DPW) controversy, some of those who took the lead in defending DPW were first or second generation Lebanese Americans. Conversely, it is not unusual to see immigrant Egyptian American Muslims raising money to support the candidacy of a third-generation Syrian American Christian, or to see second-generation Lebanese American Maronites taking the lead in protesting statements that defame Islam. The mainstream community functions as a community, and this is important to remember.

With this as a backdrop, we recently polled Arab Americans in an effort to understand the issues that they would identify as important, and the candidates that they prefer in this early stage in the 2008 electoral cycle. The poll, conducted by Zogby International for the Arab American Institute, surveyed 501 Arab Americans. Their responses were interesting both in the degree to which Arab American attitudes tracked the voter preferences of most Americans, and also on the specific points on which Arab American attitudes were clearly different.

For example, like the rest of America, Arab Americans display a growing frustration with the job performance of the current administration, but to a greater degree. While most polls show President Bush’s job performance rating in the low 30% range among the public in general, among Arab Americans it is an even lower 18%. A significant reason for this, of course, is the war in Iraq. And so it was not surprising that when asked to identify the two most important issues in the 2008 election, 62% of Arab Americans identified the Iraq war – this being significantly higher than the 43% of the general public who rate Iraq as the most important issue.

One reason for this deeper concern with Iraq among Arab Americans is the stronger tie many in the community have with the people involved in that conflict. When asked about their personal connection with the war, one quarter of Arab Americans report "knowing someone from Iraq," and another quarter report "knowing an American service member in Iraq." Another 16% of Arab Americans say they know both someone from Iraq and an American serving in that country – leaving only one-third of Arab Americans without a personal tie to the Iraq war.

A further consequence of this personal connection to Iraq can be seen in what Arab Americans think the Bush administration ought to do next. Recent polls of U.S. voters show roughly one-quarter of the public saying that U.S. troops should withdraw immediately, another quarter saying the U.S. should "stay until victory," with 43% supporting a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. Among Arab Americans, however, only 10% support "staying until victory," 29% want U.S. troops out immediately, while 53% support a phased withdrawal.

At this early juncture, polling about the 2008 Presidential race tells very little about what will happen next November. What has been quite revealing in this poll, however, is its documentation of a growing trend within the Arab American community in terms of political party identification; specifically, the precipitous decline in support for the Republican Party.

When we first began polling Arab American voters over a decade ago, Democrats held a slight edge over Republicans, usually in the 2% range. For example, in the 1990s, about 38% of Arab Americans identified as Democrats, while 36% identified as Republicans. Beginning in 2002, however, the policies of the Bush Administration and the Republican-led Congress contributed to an erosion of support for the Republican Party. In 2002, 39% identified as Democrats and 31% as Republicans, but today it is 39% to 26%.

This declining identification with Republican Party shows up in another way. When we asked for whom they will vote in 2008, 36% say they will definitely vote for the Democratic candidate while only 14% say they will definitely vote for a Republican candidate – with 46% saying their vote will depend upon the candidates picked by the respective parties.

Whether this alienation from the Republican Party continues through November 2008 depends not only upon who is nominated by each party, but what policies they will embrace. Should the next Republican nominee continue this Administration’s approach to the Middle East and civil liberties, given the growing convergence of Arab American community views on these issues, it is clear Republicans will be in trouble in 2008, and possibly beyond.