Washington Watch: Watching the Arab vote

Romney, Santorum and Gingrich have done little discernible to court Michigan’s Arab- American voters.

Republican presidential debate 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed)
Republican presidential debate 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed)
Quite a bit has been written lately about the impact of the Jewish vote in this year’s presidential race, but what about the Arab-American vote?
That will be tested next week in the state with the country’s second largest Arab-American population, Michigan, and a week later in Ohio, which ranks eighth. Unlike Jews, who historically vote 3:1 Democratic, Arab Americans have been less predictable.
Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have done little discernible to court Michigan’s Arab- American voters.
“I see no real enthusiasm for any Republican,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. “Many Arab-Americans of all faiths have been offended by the Islambashing and find the foreign policies of this group to be frightening.” He said there is no polling data but expects a low turnout from the community. “There is some support for Romney, especially among the more established rock-solid Republicans, very little support for Santorum or Gingrich, and a bit more for Paul.”
George W. Bush successfully reached out in 2000 to the Arab community, which had high expectation that his oil connections would bring in an Arabist president. But the ardor cooled in the wake of anti-Arab sentiment following 9/11, the Iraq war, the Patriot Act and restrictions on civil liberties.
Barack Obama benefited from anti-Bush sentiment in 2008 but this year he could run into problems with Arab-American voters because of disappointment with his Middle East policies, tough immigration enforcement and high numbers of deportations.
Many Arab-Americans are small business entrepreneurs and tend toward the GOP. Michigan and Ohio may give some indication of how that loyalty is holding up and the impact of the pro-Israel fervor of Romney, Santorum and Gingrich. While nationally Jews outnumber Arab Americans by at least three-to-one, Michigan is the opposite. The state’s Arab-American population is between 200,000 and 400,000 and growing, according to the Arab American Institute (AAI), which claims there is a serious undercounting. The Jewish population is about 65,000 and shrinking, according to Don Cohen, a longtime Jewish communal professional in the Detroit area.
Most Arab-Americans live in the Detroit metro area; nearly a third of the city of Dearborn claims some Arab heritage, according to AAI. About one-third of the state’s Arab- Americans are foreign born, many coming from Iraq following the Gulf war, the group reports.
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Romney’s hardline views on immigration, like his call for “self-deportation” by undocumented immigrants, could be worrisome even among second and third generation immigrants, and his answer to a Palestinian- American questioner at a Florida campaign event about Middle East peace sounded straight out of Likud: “Israelis would be happy to have a two-state solution. It’s the Palestinians who don’t want a two-state solution; they want to eliminate the State of Israel,” Romney said.
Gingrich has called the Palestinians an “invented people,” and Santorum sounds more anxious to attack Iran than Israeli leaders.
Paul “is the exception,” Zogby said. The Texas congressman is very unpopular in the Jewish community, largely because he opposes any action to halt Iran’s nuclear program and he wants to eliminate all aid to Israel. What’s overlooked is he wants to stop ALL foreign aid, including to Arab states.
Israel is a rallying point for much of the Arab community in Michigan and elsewhere, and is the only consensus topic, but, as for most Jews, it is not their highest priority. The majority of Arab-Americans trace their roots to Lebanon and Syria, and are more focused on Syria, Hezbollah and Iran these days, reports Cohen, who has covered the Arab-American community for the Detroit Jewish News. Sympathy for the Palestinian cause runs high among Arab-Americans, but it is not the highest political priority for most of them – not unlike the Jews and Israel.
A commentary in Detroit’s Arab American News this week said, “GOP candidates need to revise [their] approach toward [the] Middle East.” They have “a one-sided view of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” wrote Ghassan Michel Rubeiz, and their answers in debates are poorly informed at best. He accused Romney, Santorum and Gingrich of “exploiting the fear factor of Islam throughout the country.”
Most Arab-Americans are Christians (63 percent) and one-quarter are Muslim, but that is the faster-growing segment, according to AAI. Estimates of the country’s overall Muslim population range from about 1.8 million (CIA World Factbook) to 2.6 million (Pew Research Center); the State Department says only about one-quarter of them are of Arab origin.
Because American Arabs can trace their roots to 22 Arab countries and are also split between Christians and Muslims, and there are several divisions within those groupings, they lack the political cohesion generally associated with American Jews on foreign policy.
The Arab vote, like the Jewish vote, in next week’s Michigan primary will not be decisive, but it should be an indicator of community thinking on issues of core importance to each and how the GOP candidates measure up.
The writer can be reached at [email protected] and blogs at www.thejewishweek.com