Posted on January 20, 2004 in Washington Watch

With the U.S. presidential elections now underway, a new poll shows President George W. Bush losing substantial support among Arab American voters. The poll, conducted in mid-January by Zogby International (ZI) for the Arab American Institute (AAI), surveyed 500 Arab American voters nationwide, and had a margin of error of +/- 4.5 percent.

According to the ZI/AAI poll, if the election were held today, only 28% of Arab Americans would vote to reelect the President. Forty percent, on the hand, would vote for “any Democrat,” while the remaining 32% would either vote for an independent candidate, or are still undecided as to whom they would support for president.

This represents a continuing erosion of support for Bush among Arab Americans. In the 2000 presidential election, Bush won 44.5% of the community’s vote. In a poll conducted in July of 2003, Bush’s support had dropped to 34%; while in this January 2004 poll, his totals have further declined to 28%. This erosion of support is further reflected in Arab American attitudes toward Bush’s overall job performance as President. In October 2001, 83% of Arab Americans indicated approval of the President’s job performance. In July of 2003, this had dropped to 43%. Now, only 38% of Arab Americans approve of the President’s job performance.

According to the ZI/AAI study, the Administration’s Middle East policy is a major reason for this loss of support. When Arab Americans were asked how important the Administration’s Middle East policy was in determining their vote, two-thirds said that it was “very important.” At the same time, when asked to evaluate President Bush’s handling of the Middle East, only 18% of Arab Americans approved of the Administration’s policy in the region, while 78% expressed disapproval.

Another issue of concern to Arab American was the Administration’s policy toward civil liberties and the treatment of immigrants. Over one-half of those surveyed said this issue was important in determining their vote. And in this area too, there was widespread concern with the Administration’s behavior.

On the Democratic side, Arab American voters, at this point, show strong support for former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s bid to become his party’s presidential candidate. Thirty-six percent of Arab Americans indicated their preference for Dean in the Democratic primary. No other Democrat received a double-digit response. Retired General Wesley Clark received the support of nine percent of Arab Americans, followed by Senator John Kerry with six percent. Senator Joseph Lieberman won the support of five percent, with Congressman Richard Gephardt winning four percent. Senator John Edwards and Congressman Dennis Kucinich each received the support three percent of Arab American Democratic voters.

Because the Democratic contest is still in its early stages, one-third of Arab Americans surveyed in this poll indicated that they were as of yet undecided as to whom they will support in the primary.

It is interesting to note that a significant number of Arab Americans who support Howard Dean are those who also say that the Middle East is one of the most important issues in this election. This appears to account for Dean’s strong showing in the community.

While the Arab American community is small in number (about 3.5 million nationally), it is concentrated in several key states, like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. In recent elections, these states have featured close contests between Democrats and Republicans. If the decline in the President’s support, reflected in the recent ZI/AAI poll, continues to hold until the November election, this could result in a loss of tens of thousands of votes for President Bush in each of these key states.

It is this concentration of Arab Americans in these important “battleground states” that accounts for the attention being shown to the community this year. While the Arab American vote won’t be the decisive factor in the 2004 election, the community can make a difference. That is why candidates are seeking Arab American support in addressing their concerns.

What the ZI/AAI shows is that Arab Americans are sophisticated voters. The community includes strong Democratic and Republican support bases, but it also includes a number of voters whose support can be won only by candidates who address key issues. For example, while President Bush’s support remains somewhat strong among Arab American Republican voters (Bush wins 57% of the votes of those who declare themselves to be Republican), among Democrats and Independents, he is paying the price for failing to address the community’s concerns on important Middle East and civil liberties issues.

Much can change in the next ten months. Because President Bush retains the power of incumbency, he can take decisive action in a number of areas that can have a decisive impact on voter attitudes. For example, should the President take a more active role in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace, 37% of Arab Americans indicate that they would then be more likely to support him. Similarly, should the Administration change direction on civil liberties, this too could improve the President’s standing among Arab American voters.

The 2004 election will be a hard fought and important contest. The outcome will have an impact not only on America, but on the world. What is important is that Arab Americans are now fully engaged in this process. For too long, the community was ignored, but no longer. Arab Americans are a recognized voter group. They are counted and courted. They have issues that they want the candidates to address, and as the January ZI/AAI poll demonstrates, it is on the basis of these issues that many Arab Americans will determine how they vote.

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