John McCain’s Arab-American problem

John McCain’s Arab-American problem

Not long ago, the John McCain campaign dropped a prominent Arab-American businessman from its Michigan state finance committee because of allegations that the man was an “agent” of Hezbollah. The charges, made by a right-wing blogger, were unsubstantiated, but fears of being associated with Arab terror caused Republican knees to jerk, and cost Ali Jawad his position. All politics, even national politics, is local, and Jawad”s abrupt dismissal may cost McCain many votes among Southeastern Michigan”s large Arab-American community. But more important, Arab-Americans across the country are looking for changes in domestic and international policy that McCain seems unwilling to pledge — and they are concentrated in swing states that he will need to win this fall. Does John McCain have a problem with Arab-American voters?

Recent polls show a tight race between either Democrat and McCain in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, all states where Arab-Americans account for an appreciable percentage of the vote. Such polls have limited utility with November so many months away, but that it will be a close election in those key states seems clear. In a tight election, the votes of a well-placed minority — Arab-American votes — can be crucial.

Arab-Americans are a highly diverse group of up to 3.5 million persons, according to Arab American Institute figures. About three-quarters of them are Christian and a quarter Muslim. Eighty percent are U.S. citizens. Many are from families that have been in the U.S. for decades or even a century. They come from all over the Arab world, from Morocco to Egypt and Iraq to Yemen, but the traditional core of the community is Lebanese and Palestinian.

Because of their diversity, Arab-Americans face challenges in organizing as a coherent political force. They tend not to give money to political campaigns in the name of Arab-American causes. One activist in the community estimated that since 1990 pro-Israeli groups have outspent pro-Arab ones on political campaigns by about 60-to-1, with the pro-Arab organizations having given less than a million dollars in all that time.

Arab-Americans do, however, have some distinctive concerns in common. They are more likely to care about the Iraq war and the Arab-Israeli peace process than other Americans. They are also particularly sensitive to racial profiling and assaults on civil liberties.

That has put them at odds with the Bush administration and the Republican Party, and has contributed to a hard swing toward the Democrats. After a plurality voted for Bush in 2000, the community favored Kerry in 2004 and has been increasingly trending Democratic. About 40 percent have been consistently Democratic since 2000, but the proportion identifying themselves as Republicans nationally has fallen in the past eight years from 38 percent to 26 percent.

Arab-Americans are both very likely to vote — their turnout is 20 percent higher than that of the general population — and they are concentrated. Two-thirds of them live in just 10 states, including the swing states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, Arab-Americans have made up 2 percent of the electorate in recent elections. That sounds like a small proportion, but in a close race it can make a difference. In 2000, Bush won the Arab-American vote over Gore by 7.5 percentage points. Bush took Ohio that year by only 165,000 votes. He and Gore virtually tied in Florida in the popular vote.

The Arab-American presence is most significant in Michigan. An estimated 300,000 Arab-Americans reside in the southeastern portion of the state. More than a third of Michigan”s Arab-Americans have Lebanese ancestry; most of that population is Shiite. Another third of the state”s Arab-Americans are Iraqi, and many of those residents are Christian.

In other words, up to 5 percent of Michigan”s vote is Arab-American. The Democratic candidate has won the state in each of the last two presidential elections by no more than 200,000 votes. Recent polling suggests that in a head-to-head contest between John McCain and Barack Obama, the two would split the state down the middle. Many analysts believe that the Democrats cannot win in November without winning Michigan.

Prior to the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, the state”s Arab-American voters had traditionally split their vote, with slightly more voting Republican than Democrat. In 1990, they solidly supported Republican gubernatorial candidate John Engler and may have helped give him the margin of victory. But in this decade, like much of the Arab-American population nationally, they have had disagreements with the Bush administration.

John McCain has now exacerbated his problems with Michigan voters by offending the large Lebanese Shiite community. Ali Jawad, president of Armada Oil & Gas and founder of the Lebanese American Heritage Club, had been invited to a $2,300 a plate fundraiser for McCain in Orchard Lake, Mich., in late April, when alarmed calls started coming in for him from the McCain campaign inquiring about his alleged activities on behalf of Hezbollah, activities that he denies.