As the 2004 presidential election draws near, recent polls indicate a sharp decline in popularity for President Bush among a segment of the population that was pretty equally divided in 2000: the nation's Arab-American voters.
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Recent polls of Arab-American, as well as Muslim voters, demonstrate how the war in Iraq and the ongoing crisis between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East has had a negative effect on a voter demographic that may have helped Bush against Al Gore.
“He is not the president he promised to be in 2000," said Samer Hanini, a 29-year-old architect. "He failed us in areas of Mid East peace, foreign policy and the economy. I’m embarrassed I voted for him.”
Although it may seem like a small segment of the population, there are more than 1.5 million Arab-American voters in the battleground states of Michigan, Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania who could influence the outcome if the election shapes up into a nailbiter as many expect.
Looking for a change
“Among Arab-Americans,there is an extra dissatisfaction with George Bush’s policy toward Iraq, the Israel-Palestine issue, his treatment of Arab and Muslim immigrants through the Patriot Act and civil liberties problems since 9/11,” said James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute which recently conducted a poll of 502 Arab-Americans living in sizable Arab-American communities within Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
“A trend in this election is that Arab-Americans feel alienated from this White House. They want someone new,” Zogby said.
He believes the dissatisfaction could turn out to be a factor.
“Nationally the Arab-American vote is only about 1 percent of the country, but overall, if you look at key states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, it is important,” Zogby said. “I think a community that has 100,000 or so votes in a state can make a difference.”
Change in mood since 2000 election
The 2000 election proved to be a different ball game in terms of support for Bush.
A separate poll by Zogby International -- run by James Zogby's brother John -- indicated that Bush won 44.5 percent of the Arab community’s vote in the 2000 election, but the same poll suggested that if Arab-Americans were to vote today only 28 percent would vote to reelect Bush.Video: Arab American Institute
In addition, a recent poll of 1,700 American Muslims -- including Arab-Americans -- conducted by Zogby International for Georgetown University's “Muslims in the American Public Square," showed Muslims backed Kerry by a margin of 76 percent to just 7 percent for Bush, marking a stark reversal from the 2000 election when Bush commanded 42 percent of the Muslim vote versus 31 percent for Al Gore.
“Many Arabs are unhappy with [Bush’s] conduct in the war on terror, his handling of the war in Iraq, his biased handling of the Palestine-Israel conflict and he recently approved legislation targeting Syria. All of these factors have shifted the view on Bush,” said Sarab Al-Jijakali, 28, co-founder of The Network of Arab American Professionals in New York.
“I voted for Bush believing he would be a promoter of Peace,” said Nina Ayyad, a 28-year- old mother of three. “He has done nothing but elicit war and he continues to ignore the Mid-East conflict.”
Anything but Bush?
Kerry may end up winning more Arab-American votes than Bush, but it is not necessarily a ringing endorsement of him as a candidate.
According to the poll conducted by the Arab American Institute (AAI) in September 2004, approximately 50 percent of Kerry’s Arab-American voters are motivated by anti-Bush sentiments and not necessarily by strong support for the Massachusettts senator
“Arab-Americans will be voting against Bush because of his policies, so Kerry gets these votes. It is the ‘anybody but Bush’ idea,” Al-Jijakali said.
Some feel that Kerry has not a put forth a real effort to address the concerns of the Arab community.
“This election is defined in Arab-American circles as a mandate on George Bush,” said Zogby. “Arab-Americans are not sure what Kerry’s positions are. He has not yet gone out and done the outreach work with the community to get the support.”
The Arab American Institute's September poll suggested the community feels that Kerry and Bush are similiar in their policies on Iraq and the Palestinian-Israel conflict. But, aside from those elements of foreign policy, Kerry is substantially favored over Bush in the areas of health care, taxes and civil liberties.
“I’ll vote for Kerry because aside for not wanting Bush in office, Kerry does take a stand on some issues that concern me,” said Amal El Sheemy, 25. “His concept of foreign policy is better than what Bush has displayed and I hope he’ll do a better job with the economy.”
Republican Arab-Americans not giving up hope
Not all Arab–Americans agree. Sherine El-Abd is chair of the Arab American Republican Caucus and serves on the Steering Committee to re-elect President Bush in New Jersey.
El-Abd believes that many Arab-American voters have been sidetracked by the chaos in Iraq at the moment and believes they will come back to recognize the hope Bush represents for the Arab region.
“Come Nov. 2, they will not only be voting for President Bush, but they will be saying thank you President Bush, because in spite of the state of confusion and anarchy in Iraq at the moment, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And we want nothing more for people of the region than for them to have a good life with dignity, respect for human rights, and hope for a better future,” El-Abd said.
El-Abd, who was born in Egypt and moved to this country in 1965, believes that there is a difference between Bush supporters and those who may vote for Kerry. Bush voters “believe in what he’s doing and their support is staunch,” while Kerry voters are simply exercising an ‘anti-Bush’ vote, according to El-Abd.
Mobilizing Arab community
A big concern now is the effort by Arab-Americans to mobilize their community and make sure people show up at the polls.
“A fear may exist among some Arab-Americans to voice their political opinions or to express strong opposition or support of a candidate,” said Al-Jijakli, but “we are moving forward by engaging in the political process.”
Statistics show that over the last three elections, the Arab-American turnout is actually higher than the country as a whole.
“In the political arena, we have not seen a backlash from 9/11,” said Zogby. “Politicians have come to us and the community has responded in an aggressive way.”
In an attempt to ensure a strong turnout, community leaders are going to great lengths to better explain the voting process and work to educate those who have seemingly thrown in the towel.
“The Network of Arab American Professionals and other Arab organizations conduct direct election outreach in Arab neighborhoods,” said Al-Jijakli. “We are out there every weekend to educate on the electoral process, election issues, and to encourage voting by registering voters.”
What is clear is that Arab-Americans are eager to make their opinions known on Election Day.
Mona Zughbi is an editor on the NBC News Foreign Assignment Desk.