Posted on January 31, 2000 in Washington Watch

Iowa’s Arab Americans made their mark in last week’s caucuses. We organized three separate town meetings in the days leading up to the vote. Hundreds of Arab Americans turned out. They heard from Senator Bill Bradley and were addressed by local Democratic and Republican Party leaders and representatives from other major presidential campaigns. Vice President Al Gore also set time aside for a private meeting with Iowa’s Arab American leaders. He asked for their support and pledged to continue to defer action on Jerusalem until an agreement is reached between the Palestinians and Israelis.

At a policy forum, covered by Iowa’s print and electronic media, I challenged the presidential candidates to deal responsibly with critical Middle East issues and I urged Iowa’s voters to raise Middle East issues in their caucuses on election day.

Arab American organizers in Iowa reported that the community turned out on election day. A number of Arab Americans were elected as delegates and in dozens of caucuses, Arab Americans reported success in passing resolutions on a wide range of community concerns (against discriminatory airport profiling, against the use of “secret evidence”, for a just resolution of the peace process, for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem and for a delinking of economic from military sanctions against Iraq).

As the Iowa experience demonstrates, Arab Americans are energized and ready to participate in the 2000 campaigns.

This involvement is the result of a yearlong effort. Its four basic components have been: voter registration, issue development, engaging the presidential campaigns, and working to mobilize the Arab American community.

While voter registration is a never-ending effort, this year Arab Americans established a national campaign called “Yalla Vote” to focus the community on registration and to expand the comprehensive Arab American national voter data base that would be used to mobilize the community in elections. In previous elections this database has enabled us to phone or visit hundreds of thousands of Arab Americans and urge them to vote. As a result, in the last two elections, the turnout of Arab American voters has significantly exceeded the national average.

Arab Americans have also developed an issue platform to bring into the national elections. We have polled the community to determine their priorities. We have shaped resolutions that reflect these community concerns and we have sent questionnaires to all the major presidential campaigns both to inform them of our concerns and to evaluate their responses on our issues.

This year’s effort has been extraordinarily successful. The four major presidential campaigns have responded to our questionnaires and some of the campaigns have actually asked for our input in developing their responses. While no candidates have fully adopted our views–the fact that they all responded and sought to be responsive was significant.

This year all four major presidential campaigns have sought Arab American involvement. Three of these campaigns have addressed Arab American audiences (Gore, Bradley and McCain). Arab Americans also serve in leadership roles in the Bush, Gore and Bradley campaigns.

This access and acceptance has provided Arab Americans with unprecedented opportunities to become involved in the campaigns of their choice, to form support committees and to run for delegate to the national Democratic and Republican conventions.

Working with the staffs of the various campaigns, we have been able to schedule either the candidates or their surrogates to speak at Arab American gatherings and to get campaign support for Arab Americans seeking to run for delegate position.

In 14 cities this year, Arab Americans will convene “town meetings” to meet the campaigns, discuss the issues, and be trained to run for delegate and mobilize the Arab American community’s vote. These town meetings, together with community television and radio programs and our special election website will enable hundred’s of thousands of Arab Americans to participate in this year’s election preparations.

Already this year, in addition to the very early Iowa results, the impact of our efforts is being felt. In the earliest states that pick delegates (Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland) 14 Arab Americans have been slated to run–this is an unprecedented high number from these states. It is clear that Arab Americans will match the more than 80 Democratic and Republican delegates that the community elected in each of the last three elections. (It must be recalled that in the 1984 elections, before our community organizing effort began, Arab Americans never exceeded 10 delegates in any one year.

But this is not the whole story, because 2000 will be about more than presidential politics.

Not only will all six Arab Americans in Congress be running for reelection, but the community is hopeful about picking up a seventh Arab American member of congress in 2000. Darrell Issa, a prominent Californian businessman, who lost in a Senate bid two years ago, is favored to win a congressional seat. Issa has been active with the Arab American community locally and nationally.

In addition to Arab American Senator Spencer Abraham, who is locked in a close contest in his bid to be reelected to the U.S. Senate, there are a number of other interesting Senate races that are actively seeking Arab American support in 2000.

The community will have its hands full in 2000. But if the small but active Iowan Arab Americans are any indication, Arab Americans appear to be ready to meet the challenge.

From a recent, extensive poll of Arab American attitudes and political behavior, conducted by Zogby International of New York for the Arab American Institute, we have been able to learn a great deal about Arab American political participation. Since the poll covers six ethnic groups, it also provides an opportunity to compare Arab Americans with African Americans, Asian Americans, Italian Americans, Hispanics and American Jews.

For example, the poll shows that Arab Americans are very involved in politics. Almost 90 percent of Arab American registered voters indicate a readiness to vote this year. This is higher than every other group, except for American Jews who indicate a 95 percent vote readiness.

While 39 percent of Arab Americans report that they have contributed to a political candidate, 15 percent say that they have contributed to a presidential campaign. This percentage ranks the highest amongst ethnic groups and is tied with American Jews.

The nine percent of Arab Americans who indicate that they have volunteered time to a presidential candidate ranks second only to African Americans at 11.5 percent. And more Arab Americans say that they have watched a presidential debate or visited a candidate’s website than any of the other five groups polled.
What also comes through clearly in the poll is that Arab Americans are highly motivated swing voters–that is they are not locked into any party, but vote according to their issues and concerns.

For example, Arab Americans lean toward the Democratic party over the Republican party 38 percent to 35.5 percent, and they gave Bill Clinton double the margin of support that he received nationally over Bob Dole in the 1996 election. But this does not mean that Arab Americans will, at this point, simply support any Democrat. If the election were held today, Arab Americans would favor George W. Bush over Al Gore by a 46.5 percent to 33.54 percent margin. But if Bill Bradley were the Democratic nominee he would edge George W. Bush 41.5 percent to 41 percent. Even Republican John McCain beats Gore 46 to 31.5 percent, while Bradley beats McCain 41 to 36 percent. What this points to is the fact that while Arab Americans lean Democratic, at this point, they are not inclined to support Al Gore.

The tendency to vote for candidates based on feelings about their positions and not solely on their party affiliation, is what defines a swing voter group. And of the six groups polled by Zogby International, only Arab Americans and Italian Americans displayed such a strong swing tendency.

What this all means is that Arab Americans are motivated and ready to participate in significant numbers. But they need to be convinced that a candidate will respond to their concerns and earn their support.

Since this year’s key presidential and congressional contests will be fought in what are called “battleground states” (that just happen to be the states where Arab Americans are most numerous), the parties and the candidates can be expected to reach out to work in the Arab American community.
2000 could prove to be a good year for Arab Americans.

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