Posted on December 18, 2000 in Washington Watch

The results of a recent poll of Arab American voters in the 2000 elections yields a fascinating portrait of the community.

They reveal a growing consensus among Arab Americans on important Middle East issues and establish that the trauma resulting from the current violence raging in Palestine had a substantial impact on the voting preferences of many Arab Americans.

Commissioned by Abu Dhabi Television and conducted by Zogby International, the poll sampled 505 randomly selected Arab American voters who were called from November 27 to 29, 2000. The poll results have a margin of error of + 4.5%.

The initial finding of the poll was that Arab Americans supported the candidacy of Republican George W. Bush over the candidacy of Democrat Al Gore by a margin of 45.5% to 38%. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won 13.5% of the community’s vote.

But a closer examination of the results of the poll reveals a number of insights into Arab American voting patterns and the community’s performance in the 2000 elections.

The Abu Dhabi/ZI poll showed that the Bush victory occurred despite a 40%-38% Democratic edge among Arab American voters. The Bush margin of 7.5% over Gore when compared with Clinton’s 20% margin over Republican Bob Dole in 1996 represents a dramatic shift of almost 28%–with approximately 390,000 Arab American votes moving between the Democratic and the Republican and third party candidates from 1996 to 2000.

I. The 2000 Vote and Party Loyalties
For the most part, Arab Americans display strong party loyalties in their voting behavior. While Arab Americans are divided 40% Democrats to 38% Republicans (22% consider themselves independent), a majority of those are consistent in supporting their party’s candidates. Only about 25% of Arab Americans are swing voters, i.e., shifting their votes based on candidate preference and issues.

The sub-groups that display the most consistent party affiliation are those born in the United States, with immigrant Arab Americans being more likely to change party affiliation from election to election. A comparison of this year’s results with those of the 1996 election, for example, shows that immigrant Arab Americans supported Clinton by a margin of 54.5% to 26% in 1996 and then swung to a 41% to 34% Bush vote in 2000. Even with this swing, however, it is important to note that the vast majority of Arab American voters, Democrats and Republicans, continued to support their parties’ candidates in 1996 and 2000.

A comparison of these results with those of earlier elections also makes clear that other sub-groups of Arab Americans, e.g. Muslims, men, Egyptians and Palestinians are more likely to swing vote than other sub-groups of Arab Americans.

II. The Lieberman and Nader Factors
While Bush captured the support of 86.5% of all Arab Americans who called themselves Republican, Gore was only able to attract the vote of 75% of Arab American Democrats. Bush also won 40% of the independent vote, with Nader receiving the support of 30.5% of the independents and Gore only attracting 24.5% of this group.

Almost half of those Democrats who abandoned Gore said that their decision to do so was influenced by the presence of Senator Joseph Lieberman on the Democratic ticket. Many of those swing Democrats voted for Nader. It is important, as well, to note that for 69% of those Arab Americans the concern with Joe Lieberman was his stance on issues. At the same time, only 33% of Arab Americans who voted for Nader indicated that his Arab American background motivated them.

III. The Importance of Middle East Issues
Because this election took place against the backdrop of escalating Israeli violence against Palestinians, the trauma produced by that conflict apparently influenced the votes of a number of Arab Americans.

When asked to rank a number of issues (like Palestinian rights, sovereignty of Lebanon and Jerusalem) from most important to not important, Arab Americans graded them almost exactly as they have done in earlier polls. While recent immigrant Arab Americans, in fact, show greater intensity of concern about these issues, the depth of concern of the first, second and third generation Arab Americans is impressive and is increasing.

An indication of the change in Arab American attitudes brought about by the current unrest in Palestine is the significant decline in support shown for the Clinton Administration’s peace efforts. In the January 2000 poll, for example, 47% said the United States’ Middle East policy was evenhanded, while only 36.5% said it was not. In the November Abu Dhabi/ZI poll, on the other hand, only 35.5% said US policy was evenhanded, while a substantially larger 60.5% said it was not.

There was a similar drop in the confidence Arab Americans show toward the Clinton Administration’s handling of the Middle East conflict. In January 2000, for example, the Administration’s policy received a 68.5% to 24% favorable rating. In the November Abu Dhabi/ZI poll, however, confidence in Clinton’s handling of the Middle East had dropped to 45.5%, with 42.5% expressing dissatisfaction.

It is worth noting that 80% of those who were dissatisfied in the Administration’s handling of the Middle East voted for either Bush or Nader.

It is also important to observe that the Arab American voters who supported Ralph Nader were those who had the most intense view on the Middle East. In fact, while many Gore and Bush voters also felt strongly about Middle East Isuees, a disproportionately large number of Nader voters did so. On average 90% of Nader voters were strong supporters of Palestinian rights, sovereignty of Lebanon and Jerusalem while Bush and Gore voters averaged 80% and 75 percent respectively. And 76% of Nader voters said that the Middle East was the most important issue in determining their vote as opposed to 46% of Gore supporters and 54% of Bush supporters. Far from being environmentalist “Greens,” it appears that the Arab Americans who supported Nader did so as a protest.

These voters traditionally vote Democratic or Republican but felt strongly dissatisfied with the ability of either Gore or Bush to reflect their views on the Middle East. This obviously hurt Gore the most since more than 10% of all Arab American Democrats voted for Nader, and a substantial portion of the 30.5% of progressive independents who supported Nader might otherwise have supported the Democrats as they did in 1996.

IV. Arab American Participation
This poll did not measure Arab American voter turnout, but anecdotal evidence and press coverage establish that this was a great year for Arab American participation. Both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates made a significant outreach effort toward the community–all of which generated prominent press coverage throughout the 2000 Campaign. From the November 7, 1999, Associated Press’ “Presidential Hopefuls Court Arab Americans” to the October 2000 Newsweek magazine’s “A New Fight for Arab Votes” and the October Economist’s “The Birth Of the Arab American Lobby ”–the community was the focus of press attention this year.

What the poll did measure, however, were two forms of Arab American participation, specifically contributing to candidates (31.5%) and volunteering in a political campaign (23%)–both of which are significantly higher than in 1996.

V. Conclusion
The poll results present important details about the Arab American community. It shows, for example, that are heavily immersed in the American political process and have strong party loyalties. At the same time the poll demonstrates that Arab Americans have strong views about Middle East issues which this year resulted in a shift in voting preferences for more than 25 percent of the over all community.

Both elements, partisan activists and swing voters are important to the future of Arab American empowerment. Partisans ground the community in the process and provide continuity, leadership and access. Swing voters are also an asset since they serve to create competition for Arab American votes.

There are those who do not understand or appreciate the complexity of the overall Arab American community. What this Abu Dhabi/ZI poll and other polls give us is a clear picture of a diverse community, based on ethnicity, that is forming a consensus on important issues of concern. Arab Americans are from many countries, of many religions and many generations–but they still largely agree on several critical questions and identify as a community. What is more important is that in measuring the results of this poll against those of earlier polls, we find that the intensity of concern about issues and the feelings of identification as an Arab American community is, in fact, growing among the generation of Arab Americans who are born in the United States.

It is important to keep all of this in mind as Arab Americans realistically plan their future political work. The important goal is to continue to forge a consensus on issues of concern and not to attempt to force agreement on candidates. Artificial efforts to force a “bloc” vote are destructive, unrealistic and naïve.
Furthermore, it will be important for Arab Americans to continue to resist efforts to divide the emerging Arab American community on the basis of country of origin or religion.

As the 2000 election has shown, Arab Americans are on the right path to political empowerment. The progress made during the past 20 years has been remarkable. There is now a solid foundation, within the community and within the political process on which future generations can continue to build.

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