Arab Americans matter. Well integrated into all spheres of American life, Arab Americans are teachers, medical professionals, auto-workers, and first responders. In communities across the country the Arab American business community is a key to local prosperity. Arab Americans are also a bridge to their countries of origin, providing critical political and business insights into developments unfolding in the MENA region. And Arab Americans have been termed "the weak link in America's civil liberty chain" -- because the rights of the community are sometimes put at risk by aggressive unconstitutional law enforcement practices.
In an election year, in several areas of the country, the Arab American vote also matters. This is well known in Michigan where the community is recognized as a key constituency. The importance of Arab Americans has recently been established in northern New Jersey where they played a significant role this year in helping long-time friend Congressman Bill Pascrell win a tough primary contest. The community is also courted in key districts in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Illinois, and Florida. And Arab Americans are growing rapidly -- immigration data shows that over 500,000 Arabs were admitted as legal immigrants in the past decade, almost 900,000 in the past 20 years.
As our experience and our polling over the past two decades makes clear, Arab Americans vote like most Americans, but with an edge. They are concerned about the economy and its impact on their families. They want our country to be safe and secure and they want their rights as Americans to be protected. They care about the quality and affordability of health care and our institutions of public education. But, because of their affinity to the Middle East, they are also deeply concerned, as all Americans should be, with the conduct of our foreign policy in that important part of the world.
Throughout the 1990s, when we first began to measure Arab American voter attitudes, the community was nearly evenly divided between those who identified as Democrat and those who identified as Republican. It was during George W. Bush's tenure that this began to change, culminating in 2008 with an Arab American landslide for Barack Obama. As our first 2012 poll demonstrates, Arab Americans still favor President Obama, but with a level of support that may be somewhat lower than it was four years ago. But while Arab Americans may be disappointed with President Barack Obama's failure to deliver on early promises of change in foreign and domestic policies, this has not translated into support for his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
These are some of the findings of a mid-September poll of Arab American voters commissioned by the Arab American Institute (AAI). The poll, conducted by jzanalytics, surveyed 404 voters nationwide and had a margin of error of ±5 percent. What the AAI poll found was that Obama leads Romney, 52 percent to 28 percent, with 5 percent of Arab Americans supporting minor party candidates and 16 percent still undecided. This lead, while healthy, shows that the president still has a ways to go to duplicate the 67 percent to 28 percent lopsided margin he held over John McCain in 2008 among Arab American voters.
This gap of 15 points between the president's performance among Arab American voters in 2012 and 2008 can be important in a close election. If President Obama doesn't win these voters back it could represent a potential loss of over 100,000 votes in five battleground states.
The economy is far and away the most important issue for eight in 10 Arab Americans, followed by foreign policy and health care. When asked "who will do the better job" on a range of domestic and foreign policy concerns (including: the economy, health care, taxes, civil liberties, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and outreach to the Arab and Muslim Worlds), Obama easily bests Romney in every area -- although it is worth noting that the president receives his lowest rating on dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There has been some slippage in the number of Arab Americans who identify as Democrats -- down to 46 percent from a 2008 high of 54 percent. The Republican numbers are also down to 22 percent, from 27 percent in 2008. The GOP slide continues a trend since 2000 when Arab Americans were almost evenly divided between the two major parties. Today, as in 2008 and 2010, the community favors the Democratic Party by a two-to-one margin. It is also worth noting that there is an increase in the number of Arab Americans who now identify as independent -- 24 percent in 2012 -- and it among voters in this group that the president is under-performing in 2012.
The poll also helps shine a light on some personal concerns of Arab Americans. Forty percent of the community says that since 9/11 they have experienced some form of discrimination because of their ethnicity and a somewhat larger percentage say they fear that this phenomenon may become an even greater problem in the future. This problem is experienced by all sub-groups within the community, but is most acutely felt by younger Arab Americans (18-29) and those who are Muslim.
This concern with discrimination, however, has not caused them to deny their ethnicity with more than six in 10 saying that they describe themselves as "Arab American" and eight in 10 maintaining that they are proud of their ethnic heritage.
Arab Americans also appear to feel more economically secure than their fellow Americans and more confident about the future. More than six in 10 say that they feel secure in their jobs, with one-half expressing some confidence that their children will have a better life.
The bottom line is that while not a giant, Arab Americans are a community that is worthy of note -- especially in a close election.