Arab and Muslim Americans entered the calculus of the 2008 presidential race in an unprecedented way with the candidacy of Barak Obama, who has attracted vastly more support from the two communities than his rival John McCain.
And with sizeable chunks of the electorate in key battlegrounds states the direction they head in may make a difference in the outcome of the race.
America’s 3.5 million Arab Americans make up a bit more than one percent of the American population but are expected to turn out in higher numbers to vote than the general electorate. The nearly two million Arab Americans expected to vote this year will represent about 1.5 percent of all voters and overwhelmingly support Democratic candidate Barak Obama.
Arab Americans now support Democrats over Republicans two-to-one and favor Obama over McCain by a three-to-one margin, representing the greatest support ever recorded for a Presidential candidate among Arab American voters, according to a Zogby poll release Tuesday.
“In the last month there has been a shift in identification from independent to democratic,” Nadine Wahab, public affairs manager of the Arab American Institute, told AlArabiay.net. “I think it has to do mainly with the fact that economy is tanking, and that’s a natural shift in almost any segment in the population.”
The economy ranked as the most important election issue among Arab-Americans as it does among the general electorate. Recent polls of Arab Americans show that its attitude toward the election and important issues generally differs little from the attitudes of the broader electorate. U.S. President George W. Bush gets approval ratings in the low to mid-20 percent range among both Arab Americans and the public as a whole.
Arab Americans, once pretty evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, have been migrating to the Democrat side of the aisle in the wake of post-Sept. 11 policies that scapegoat and profile them.
In a dramatic reversal from eight years ago Arab and Muslim Americans overwhelmingly favor the Democratic nominee in this year’s election.
In 2000 Arab Americans split nearly evenly down the aisle with 40 percent identifying themselves as Democrats and 38 percent Republican. Bush won support following his declaration during a debate that he opposed ethnic profiling of Arabs by law-enforcement agencies. But by 2008 only 20 percent identify as Republicans and 46 percent as Democrats, according to James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.
Zogby attributed the shift in Arab voter attitudes to the negativity and “anti-Arab stuff” that emerged as the campaign progressed.
“What surprised me is we’ve always had this two to three point margin always leaning Democrat, but if you look at numbers on trend line the Democrat numbers after 2002 continue to go up and Republican numbers continue to go down and I think if that stays much longer you’ll end up with people being locked in on the Democrats,” said Zogby.
Muslim Shift Left
The reversal has been even more pronounced among Muslim Americans, who were staunchly Republican and voted overwhelmingly for Bush in 2000 (42 percent compared to 31 percent for his Democrat rival Al Gore according to a Zogby International poll).
But after three years of Bush’s ‘war on terror’ Muslims have also left the GOP in droves with a mere seven percent saying they would vote to re-elect Bush compared to 68 percent who backed Democrat John Kerry, according to another Zogby poll.
Both Arab and Muslim Americans have sought to harness their electoral power this year through get out the vote (GOTV) drives and voter activism. About a quarter of U.S. Arabs are Muslim and the rest Christian (two-thirds Catholic or Orthodox, the rest Protestant), which is reflected in their voting patterns.
Wahab told AlArabiya.net that the difference between Muslim and Christian Arab-Americans “speaks less to religion than immigrant status” since “immigrant and ethnic groups tend to identify as Democrats.”
“There’s a certain swing vote component, the longer you’re here in the country the longer you have to identify with a particular party,” Zogby explained to AlArabiya.net, noting that Muslim Arabs tend to have immigrated more recently.
For the first time in its eight-year history the Muslim American Republican Caucus in Texas did not endorse the Republican presidential nominee.
Aftab Siddiqui, a member of the Texas Democratic Muslim Caucus, which held its first meeting this summer, told the The Nation that the Republican party shunned the Muslim American community after Sept. 11 and "wanted to have nothing to do with us." He noted that second-generation suburban Muslim professionals were reliable GOP supporters prior to 2000 but have now turned towards independents.
"It’s very hard to find Muslims who say they are Republican now," Siddiqui told The Nation. "Now they say they’re independent. When you meet a Muslim who says he’s an independent, it means he used to be a Republican."
But Muslim and Arab have become slurs in the 2008 campaign and Obama, who is Christian Baptist, classified the rumor that he is Muslim as a “smear” on his website and in a 60 Minutes interview he said the rumor encouraged “fearmongering” and was offensive to American Muslims.
"A lot of us are waiting for him to say that there’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim, by the way," Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison told the New York Times in June.
And earlier this month when Colin Powell, former Secretary of State for Republican President George W. Bush, endorsed Obama he wanted to know why it even mattered if the candidate were Muslim. “He is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian,” the former General said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America."
The Pew Research Center estimated the Muslim population in the United States at 2.35 million in 2007, the most recent U.S. Census at 3.5 million and the Council on American Islamic Relations puts it closer to 7 million.
Of the 3.5 millions Arab Americans, most live in large metropolitan areas in a dozen states, including a few key battleground states like Florida and New Jersey, each with about a quarter million. California, with 715,000 Arab Americans, is considered a sure bet for Obama while Michigan, where about five percent of the population is Arab American, is a swing state where Arab votes could prove decisive.