Posted on September 20, 2004 in Washington Watch

Arab Americans are John Kerry’s “canaries in the coal mine.” In days gone by, coalminers brought canaries into the mines in which they were working. Because they feared releasing pockets of odorless but deadly natural gas, the canaries served as an alarm. As long as the canaries were singing, the miners knew that all was well. When the canaries went silent, the miners knew there was danger and would take action. From that time on, the expression, “canaries in the coal mine” has been used as metaphor for any warning sign that portends danger.

And so it is with Arab Americans in the 2004 election.

The most recent Zogby poll of Arab American voters in key battleground states shows that while John Kerry still leads George Bush, his lead has been cut almost in half. In July, for example, Arab American voters gave Kerry a 54 to 24 point lead over the incumbent President. By September, that lead had shrunk to 49% for Kerry and to 31.5% for Bush.

Bush’s job performance rating among Arab Americans is up slightly but is still at a very low 31%. And the percentage of Arab Americans who say the President deserves reelection is also at 31%.

In fact, since this election year’s polling of Arab Americans first started in February 2004, President Bush’s support has never been higher than 31%. And so one might reasonably ask two questions: What accounts for Bush’s September increase, and why hasn’t John Kerry improved his standing among Arab Americans since February.

Looking at the polling data, the answer to the first question is simple. Following on the heels of Bush’s successful New York Republican Convention, Arab American Republicans, like many other Republicans around the country, were energized and have come home. In July, for example, only 60% of Arab American Republicans supported Bush for reelection. The rest were divided among those who were voting for Kerry, those who were voting for Nader and those who were still undecided. In September, 75% Arab American Republicans are now supporting President Bush. This accounts for a good portion of Bush’s higher numbers.

Overall, however, Arab Americans continue to give Bush extremely low ratings on almost every issue: the economy, healthcare, Iraq, education, etc. But this weakness has not translated into growing support for John Kerry. What is clear is that almost 70% of Arab Americans want someone new as president, but Kerry has not convinced them, nor has he courted them in an effort to win their support.

And it’s not only Arab Americans who feel this way. Pollster John Zogby finds that nationally, Bush is leading Kerry 46% to 43%. As he analyzes the current state of the campaign, John has noted that the country is almost evenly divided between Bush’s supporters and his Democratic opponents. How is it then that Kerry has a deficit? Simple. It appears that given the events of the past month (Republican Convention, Swift Boat Controversy, miscues by the Kerry Campaign), Republicans have been energized by a candidate who appeals to their concerns, while Kerry’s supporters are suffering from malaise, not feeling the energy or anger that they felt just a few months ago.

Democrats were angry at the outcome of the 2000 contest. They opposed what they saw as a reckless administration that pursued tax reduction and deficit expansion. They opposed the way the Administration misled the nation into war, and the widespread violations of civil liberties that accompanied the war on terror. What they wanted was a challenger with a message as clear as their anger. Some are not finding that in John Kerry’s message. And so it appears that what is happening among Arab Americans is happening among many other potential Kerry supporters around the country. And this is why the Kerry Campaign’s sluggish performance among Arab Americans can be said to send an important warning signal. Recall that Arab Americans gave a slight plurality of their votes to Bush in 2000. Today, almost 70% of Arab Americans want a change in the White House. But if only 49% of Arab Americans see Kerry as bringing the change they want, then there’s trouble ahead.

There are still six weeks to go before the election and a great deal can change. But if Kerry is to energize his base and regain lost ground, then his campaign should pay attention to all the canaries that have stopped singing.

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