James Zogby’s Column
1. Bush Loses Support
If the 2004 election were held today President George W. Bush would win the support of just one-third of Arab American voters. Another one-third indicate that they would vote for whomever wins the Democratic nomination, while the remaining third of Arab American voters are as yet undecided. This is but one of the findings in a recent poll conducted for the Arab American Institute by Zogby International (ZI) of New York. 500 Arab Americans were surveyed nationwide in July 2003 with a margin of error of +/- 4.5%. The results have been compared with five earlier polls done by AAI/ZI in 1996, 2000 and in October 2001, May 2002 and October 2002.
The mere 33.5% of Arab Americans who indicate support for the President’s reelection effort represent a significant drop in Arab American support for Bush who, in November 2000, beat Democrat Al Gore by a margin of 45.5 percent to 38%. Green Party Candidate Ralph Nader won 13.5% of the Arab American vote in 2000.
The most significant decline in support for President Bush occurred among the 20+% of Arab Americans who are Muslim. In 2000 they voted for Bush by a margin of 58.5% to 22.5%. The early 2004 poll indicates that this group would now support a Democrat by a 52 to 10 percent margin.
The overall decline in support for President Bush can be seen in the poor job performance rating he is given by Arab Americans. While most polls are showing that Americans as a whole give the President a 60% favorable rating, among Arab Americans only 43% indicate approval for the President’s job performance. Fifty-five percent disapprove. This is the identical rating he received from Arab Americans in May 2002, and is down significantly from the 83% positive, 15% negative rating he received from Arab Americans in October 2001.
While it is still early in the 2004 nominating process, Arab American Democrats and Independents, when asked, indicate preference for three Democratic candidates. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean each received slightly more than 14%, while Congressman Dick Gephardt of Missouri was favored by 10.5%.
2. The Most Important Concerns
It appears that declining Arab American support for President Bush is due to their concerns with two key issues: the Middle East policy pursued by the Administration and civil liberties. Sixty-Eight and a half percent of Arab American voters indicated that a candidate’s Middle East policy was very important in determining their vote. Fifty-three percent said that civil liberties and the treatment of immigrants was also an important issue.
What our July poll demonstrates is that Arab Americans have real concerns with the President’s performance in both areas.
3. Civil Liberties
Thirty percent of Arab Americans report having experienced some form of discrimination in the past due to their ethnicity. After September 11, 2001, concern over this problem has increased, with 59.5% reporting that they are worried about the long-term impact of discrimination against Arab Americans. More than one-third indicate they are concerned about being singled out at airports and a shocking 33.5% state that they haven’t flown since 9/11 for fear of being profiled.
Immediately after 9/11 Arab Americans were heartened by President Bush’s strong display of support for the community. In October 2001 90% said that they were reassured by the President’s support, only six percent were not reassured. By May 2002, those who felt reassured dropped to 54% as opposed to 35% who were not. By October 2002 the ratio dropped further-46% to 38%. In the July 2003 poll only 49% now say that they feel assured by Bush’s sign of support for the community while 38% say that they are not assured.
4. Middle East Policy
The Administration’s performance in Iraq and in the Israel-Palestine conflict has also caused some concern among Arab Americans.
Overall, Arab Americans give the President a 39% favorable, 56% unfavorable score on his handling of Middle East issues. This is up from the 28%-67% score he received in October 2002 and the very poor 24% favorable 73% unfavorable performance rating Bush received in May 2002.
In part this improvement may be due to some of the Administration’s recent efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Overall 74% of Arab Americans support the Administration’s “road map to Middle East peace”.
As in previous polls well over 90% of Arab Americans support the end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. When asked which steps need to be taken first to move the peace process forward-ending settlements, stopping the bombings or both at the same-three quarters state their preference for “both at the same time”, as is called for in the road map. The same substantial group want the President to apply balanced pressure to both Israelis and Palestinians to move the parties toward peace, but only 19.5% of Arab Americans are confident that Bush will maintain such a balanced position. Similarly, while overwhelmingly supporting a two-state solution, only 12 percent are “very confident” in the Administration’s commitment to this goal.
Arab Americans, however, appear to be open minded on this matter, with 38.5% indicating that they would be more likely to support Bush if he takes an active role in pushing both parties toward peace (this includes 29% of those who are Democrats and 42% of Arab American Independents).
On the matter of Iraq, Arab Americans remain divided and concerned with the Administration’s handling of the war. Before the war only 34% indicated support for the effort with 64% opposed. Now after the war, attitudes have shifted somewhat, but 55% remain opposed to the war while only 42% indicate support for the war and its outcome.
The poll results are interesting in several regards. While not a monolithic voter bloc, it is clear that the voting behavior of many Arab Americans is influenced by policies that affect their concerns. Clinton carried the Arab American vote in 1996 by a 51.5% to 31.5% margin. That flipped to a 45.5% to 38% margin for Bush in 2000. In the cases of both Dole and Gore, their core support came from Arab Americans with strong partisan attachments. The even split between Bush and a Democratic candidate in 2004 makes if clear that while a Republican or a Democrat can usually count on winning about one third of the community’s support (once again largely made up of the Democratic and Republican core vote), about one-third remains up for grabs and will be won by the candidate whom Arab Americans feel will be most balanced on Middle East issues and most protective of the community’s rights.
What the poll data further demonstrates is that while the groups most sensitive to these concerns-more recent immigrants and Arab American Muslims-are the ones whose voting patterns show the greatest degree of change, concern with Middle East policy issues and civil rights also affect a sizeable percentage of first and second generation Arab Americans and those who identify as Catholic and Orthodox Christian.
What this means is that 2004 promises to be an exciting and fluid election for hundreds of thousands of Arab American voters who have not yet decided how they will vote and for many others whose votes may yet change as they weight the behavior and performance of the candidates competing for the presidency.
Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.