Arab-Americans could decide presidential race

Community’s high turnout rate, especially in swing states, might bring about Electoral College victory.

A voter fills out her ballot during early voting at ONEOK Field in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US, October 30, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/NICK OXFORD/FILE PHOTO)
A voter fills out her ballot during early voting at ONEOK Field in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US, October 30, 2020.
Approximately 58% of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2008 US presidential election. The Arab-American turnout rate: around 80%.
According to Dr. James Zogby of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, around the same proportion plan to vote this year. This demographic could be the difference between another term in office for President Donald Trump, or a first for Trump’s Democratic challenger, former vice president Joe Biden.
In a poll Zogby’s organization released last week, 59% of Arab-American respondents supported Biden vs. 35% who backed Donald Trump.
Vivian Khalaf, a Palestinian-American immigration attorney in Illinois who serves on the board of the Arab-American Professional and Business Association, is a Biden supporter.
“Many of the issues important to Arab-Americans are the same issues that are important to everyone else: healthcare, education, employment and the economy. We tend to be a progressive community when it comes to climate,” she told The Media Line.
“This election is the most important election of our lifetime in my opinion,” Khalaf continued. “As Biden says, ‘This is the fight for the soul of America,’ regardless of whether you’re Arab-American or come from any other ethnic background. This country was built on democracy and equality, and that is slowly being eroded on a daily basis.”
To win Florida, a state every victorious presidential candidate has won since 1996, Biden needs voters like Wajeeh Demetree, the director of an IT company in Jacksonville.
“Joe Biden has some good policies that I agree with, namely on climate change,” he told The Media Line. “I am leaning more on the liberal socialist side of [Senator] Bernie [Sanders]. But I'll take Joe any day over [Trump].”
While the community makes up just 0.6% of Florida’s population, Biden needs all the support he can get in a state Trump won by 1.3 percentage points four years ago. And this demographic can be counted to show up to the polls.
In Zogby’s survey, respondents were asked to rank issues in terms of importance.
“What surprised me was that the single largest group said the most important issue was the deterioration of race relations in the US. That to me is really quite stunning,” he told The Media Line. “We gave them 14 issues to choose from. Usually they tell us it’s the economy, it’s health care… but 40% said deteriorating race relations.”
However, not all Arab-Americans in Florida back the former vice president.
“Biden supported the invasion of Iraq. Biden doesn’t even know what day it is. The military industrial complex will have a field day using him,” Jimmy Ferrell told The Media Line.
Zogby says the Biden campaign has put a lot of effort into courting the Arab vote.
“No candidate until Joe Biden ever issued a formal statement of [an] Arab-American policy brief on his website, [and it] is pretty extensive on a whole range of issues, domestic and foreign,” he said.
“At the same time, Biden has hired Arab-American staff in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, three key states for us, and had multiple meetings with the community on key issues, and they have been very encouraging,” Zogby continued.
“There has never been a Democratic or Republican candidate that has done as much to reach out to Arab-Americans in a respectful way as this campaign as done,” he said.
The community could be the difference between winning or losing in the Electoral College.
“When you combine our placement in the key electoral states across the country, we happen to be concentrated in 12 states, many of which are really important electorally, and you add the fact that we vote at higher percentages, [then you have] a constituency that can be, in a very close race, a potential margin of victory,” Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, told The Media Line.
This is especially true in Pennsylvania and Michigan, two swing states with large Arab communities where Trump won by tiny margins four years ago. Ohio, another battleground state, also has a large Arab population.
In 2016, Trump defeated former secretary of state Hillary Clinton by 1.2 percentage points in Pennsylvania. In the Keystone State this Election Day, Biden is hoping to turn out Arab-Americans, who represent 2% of the vote.
The same is true in Ohio. They account for 2% of the vote – and Clinton was trounced by 8.6 percentage points in 2016.
And in the key battleground state of Michigan, where Arab-Americans account for 5% of the vote, Biden has invested heavily in motivating people to go to the polls in a race that Trump won by a razor-thin 0.23 percentage points last time.
“Almost 45%, 2.8 million, of Michiganders didn’t vote in the last presidential election,” Zogby told The Media Line.
The Arab population in Michigan has proved it can be a political kingmaker.
“[Jesse] Jackson won Michigan in ’88 and Bernie won in 2016 [in the Democratic primaries]; both candidates attribute Arab-Americans as the reason why they did so well,” he said.
In a typical year, Arab-Americans have a high voting rate: 65 to 70% in presidential elections, according to Zogby, compared to the national average of 55 to 60%.
“Before the pandemic lockdown, we always would do these ‘get out the vote’ rallies the week before the election in different cities, and we would have a band and serve food and we would get the candidates to come and talk, and it would be real exciting,” he said.
“I remember one year in Cleveland,” Zogby relates, “a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer... came to me and he said: ‘Do you do these rallies because your people come from countries where people don’t vote?’ And I said: ‘No, actually I do them because my people came to a country where people don’t vote.’”
Perhaps due to the stepped-up efforts, Arab-Americans are unlike the majority of Democrats in that they will be voting for Biden because they like him as a candidate.
“If you look at the country as a whole, in the Pew poll, 56% of Democrats said that they were voting for Biden because they are ‘voting against Trump,’ [whereas] less than a quarter of Arab-Americans are voting for Biden because they’re ‘voting against Trump,’” Zogby said.
“Most of them are voting for him because they like his issues and because they think he is going to do the best on those issues they care about,” he explained.
Ali-Ashgar Abedi, a New York City comedy writer, is one of them.
“I am voting for Joe Biden,” he told The Media Line.
“This isn’t just a vote against Trump; it’s a vote for Biden,” he said, “because he’s empathetic, compassionate, experienced, competent. Because he understands the struggles of working people.”
Just because Biden has a majority of Arab-American support does not mean that he can afford to let up on his get-out-the-vote work.
Despite all his efforts, backing for Biden is only one percentage point higher than the 58% Clinton had in the same poll of Arab-American support conducted by Zogby four years ago. Trump, however, has boosted his support among Arab-Americans by 10 percentage points.
Nina, an Egyptian-American in Mississippi who declined to give her last name for fear of retribution, is a staunch Trump supporter.
“I really became more disappointed in Democratic policies under [president Barack] Obama. Every Democrat has promised to fix the Middle East crisis, but nothing ever changed,” she told The Media Line.
“Obama was no different than [presidents George H.W.] Bush or [George W.] Bush,” Nina continued. “If anything, it got worse. More wars, more arrests of Muslims in the United States, even the killing of American citizens without due process.”
Another reason she is voting for the Republican is because of “the push toward socialism/communism” within the Democratic Party.
“We don’t want more government control because we know what that looks like and how easy it is to get out of hand once you give your power away,” Nina said.
While the former vice president is neither a socialist nor a communist, Nina says “Biden has adopted the socialist platform. And he’s not going be the one in charge [if he wins].”
While she disagrees with Trump on Israel, she is still an ardent fan.
“Sure, I don’t necessarily agree with Trump on his Israel policy. But at least he’s honest about it,” Nina said. “Democrats always say they’re pro-Palestinian, but when it comes down to the boat, they always vote on the side of Israel. I don’t like hypocrites.”
To be sure, the Arab-American community is not monolithic, and most are not Muslim. In fact, Arabs do not make up the largest group within the American Muslim population; rather, African-Americans do. The leading foreign country of origin for Arab-Americans is Lebanon, followed by Syria.
When it comes to the political proclivities of Arab-Americans, Zogby says that based on his polling, the most conservative group is the Syrians.
Religion-wise, the most conservative are the Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox, who support Biden and Trump in approximately even numbers.
Zogby’s scale from the most liberal to the most conservative Arab-American starts with the “secular, then Muslim, then Catholic then those who are Orthodox and Protestant.”
Adam Beddawi, a policy analyst at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, argues that class plays an important role in some US Arabs’ political leanings. However, Trump’s policies, such as the so-called “Muslim ban” against travel from certain Muslim-majority countries, might alienate traditionally Republican voters, he notes.
“There are many Arabs who are more affluent, so maybe their party preferences would be toward the Republican Party because of issues... like the American tax code,” Beddawi told The Media Line. “But the way that President Trump now talks about Arabs and Muslims, and minority communities in general − maybe that’s a bridge too far. But that also isn’t the case for all...”
Nina is okay with the travel ban.
“I do understand both sides, as there are people who truly need asylum. We aren’t a sponge and we can’t continue to take every person who wants to come here. It comes down to basic math,” she said.
“Same with the border wall [with Mexico],” she continued. “My family came here legally; it took a lifetime to get my sister and nieces their Green Cards and a heck of a lot of money to do it. Why should people get to jump in line because they can walk here?”
Arkan Almaarouf, an Iraqi Christian living in California, falls on the more conservative side of the spectrum and voted early for Trump due to the economy. He does not like Biden’s Middle East policies, which he feels would be a continuation of the prior administration’s.
“I’m an immigrant from the Middle East. The Arab people respect Trump because he is strict. False news CNN does not convey this fact: The Middle East does not respect Obama because he supports Iranian terrorism,” he told The Media Line.
“Islamic terrorism kills Christians in the Middle East. Obama did nothing. On the other hand, he supports abortion and homosexuality, and this is the difference between Trump... and Obama,” Almaarouf said.
The concern for foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, is another factor that distinguishes many Arab-American voters.
“[For some], the fact that both parties more or less have the same stance toward that region in terms of foreign policy is one reason among many for almost a resignation about politics or political participation,” Beddawi told The Media Line.
“For others,” he said, “there’s room to make an impact in foreign policy, whether through organizations that are trying to mitigate the worst effects of American foreign policy in the area or [because] they think that they can actually make some headway in the domestic realm. There is no one answer.”
Youssef, an Arab-American voter in Dayton, Ohio, who also asked that his last name not be used, does not see much of a difference between the main parties on the Middle East.
“The Democrats are not any better than the Republicans,” he told The Media Line.
Khalaf also disagrees with both sides of the aisle on the Jewish state.
“As a Palestinian, I don’t see much difference between Trump and Biden relating to the Palestinian-Israeli [conflict]. They’re both avowed Zionists… which is something I would never agree to,” she said.
Still, she thinks Biden would be more impartial on the issue than Trump.
“I think that Biden is going to bring us back to the status quo with discussions on the two-state solution... whereas Trump has propelled a unilateral movement toward what he seems to think is a peaceful resolution... [with] certain actions taken by the Trump Administration without consultation with the other side of the two-sided conflict, being the Palestinians,” she said.
S., an East Coast scientist and Biden voter who asked to remain anonymous because her workplace does not permit employees to comment on politics, told The Media Line she does not think either party does a good job. Still, she thinks one major area in which Biden can have an impact is global health security.
“A lot of conversations that are happening now in the global health community are about being able to align other industries with global health security, because as we’ve all seen, if the world isn’t healthy or if the world’s isn’t health-secure, then nothing gets to happen,” S. stated. “But I think that there hasn’t been enough of a discussion in terms of foreign policy and what that could mean.”
Not everyone sees the parties as having the same foreign policy.
“Trump did [more for us] as Syrian-Americans [than] any president in the history of the USA,” Kamil Nassrah, a Jacksonville area resident, told The Media Line. “[He’s] not like Obama and Biden and Clinton; they started wars in Syria, Yemen [and] Libya. [We] do not need any more war; we need peace.”
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