For years, Arab American voters, like most other ethnic communities, leaned slightly toward the Democratic party, but were swing voters in national and local elections. This was the pattern we observed in the early years of our more than two decades of biannual surveys of the community's voting behavior.
But this is no longer the case. Arab Americans have increasingly come to identify themselves as Democrats and vote for Democratic candidates. The 2016 election has accelerated that dynamic: twice as many Arab Americans, according to our October poll, will shun the GOP candidate in favor of Hillary Clinton.
Social conservatives become Democrats
In a book I wrote back in 2001 on the values and voting patterns of a number of ethnic American communities ("What Ethnic Americans Really Think) we found that most ethnic groups (defined by the White House and Democratic party as European and Mediterranean communities (Irish, Italian, Polish, Eastern and Central European, Greek, Arab, Turkish and others) leaned Democrat but shared a value system that ran counter both to the political ideas offered by what were then called "moderate Republicans" and "New Democrats". The tendency of both was to combine fiscal conservatism with social liberalism.
Many ethnic voters, including Arab Americans, on the other hand, embraced beliefs that were the exact opposite. They were fiscally progressive and socially more conservative. They believed that government played a constructive role is society and they were, therefore, supportive of strengthening programs like Social Security and Medicare, investing in public education, and expanding health care coverage. At the same time, they were small business people with extended family networks who believed in building strong communities and, therefore, had belief systems that reflected those values.
Beginning in 2002 and continuing during the next decade, the Arab American community - whose size has been estimated as between 2.1 million (the American Community Survey) and closer to 3.7 million (our estimate, based on a corrected methodology and sampling approach) drifted away from the Republican Party.
There were a number of factors that fueled this drift. Initially, it was the post-9/11 reaction of the Bush Administration that compromised the civil liberties of recent immigrants, followed by the Iraq War, and then the hardline rhetoric that came to dominate the GOP. The first to be affected were those Arab Americans who were more recent immigrants and Muslim. While Arab Americans who had been born in the U.S. had stronger party identification, those who were immigrants were classic "swing voters".
Repulsed by anti-Arab, anti-Muslim rhetoric
But, as our polling this year demonstrated, all parts of the community have been repulsed and felt threatened by the increasingly harsh anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric. In our most recent poll of Arab Americans, 50 percent of all those surveyed said they had personally experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity, while 53 percent expressed concern that they might face discrimination in the future.
Muslim Arab Americans (63 percent) and millennials (65 percent) are the most likely to have experienced discrimination, while older generations (29 percent) and Catholic Arab Americans (35 percent) are the least likely. Arab Americans who are Muslim (78 percent) are the most concerned about facing discrimination in the future.
In reality, it might be said that it wasn't the community that drifted away from the Republicans, it was the GOP that was galloping away from Arab Americans. This parting of the ways especially intensified during the elections from 2008 to 2016, culminating in the nomination of Donald Trump.
The impact of all this can be seen in the results of this year's Arab American Institute (AAI) poll, commissioned by the AAI and conducted by Zogby Analytics
Sixty percent of Arab Americans will vote Clinton
In an October poll of likely Arab American voters, Hillary Clinton smothers Donald Trump, by a margin of 60 percent to 26 percent.
The survey found that the movement of Arab Americans away from the Republican Party has continued. The percentage of Arab Americans identifying as Republicans has plunged from 36 percent in 1996 to 26 percent today, while the Democrats have risen far: from 38 percent of Arab Americans identifying with the party in 1996, to 52 percent today.
Women are more likely than men to identify as Democrats; less than 1 out of every 6 Arab American women identify as a Republican. And when asked which party they prefer to control Congress, by a margin of 54 percent to 27 percent Arab Americans say they favor the Democrats.
When asked why they would vote for either Clinton or Trump, Arab Americans gave surprisingly similar responses. Over 40 percent of Clinton voters said they were supporting her either because of party loyalty or because they liked her domestic policies. Another third said they were, in fact, voting against Trump.
Only one in ten identified foreign policy as the reason they were supporting Clinton, although a majority of Arab Americans (52 percent), and a majority of likely Arab American voters, believe that Clinton is more likely to pursue policies that would be beneficial to improving U.S. relations with the Arab world. By way of comparison, 39 percent of Arab Americans feel the Obama administration has been effective in maintaining trust and close ties with allies and friends in the Arab world.
For Trump supporters, a plurality cite a vote against Clinton/Democrats as a primary consideration. Almost no Trump supporters (2 percent) claim that their primary motivation is that they like Trump as a person. Nearly a quarter of Trump supporters cite party affiliation as their primary motivation, while another quarter cite Trump's domestic policies.
Fifty-one percent of Arab American Republicans cited combatting terrorism as the issue Trump would be best at addressing.
Supporters of both Clinton and Trump identified "Jobs and the economy" as the most important issue in determining their vote. But that was where the similarity ended. While Democrats pointed to gun violence, health care, and Social Security and Medicare as next in importance, Republicans identified combating terrorism, the budget deficit and controlling government spending, and immigration as their most important concerns.
And when asked on which issues they felt Clinton would be best able to address, Arab Americans added improving education and race relations to the mix.
Especially interesting is the fact that the gap that once existed between the immigrant and native born and the Catholic and Muslim components of the Arab American community has, over time, disappeared. Party identification and candidate preferences are now largely the same for all groups. This has meant that immigrants are now more comfortable identifying as Democrats and are less likely to be swing voters.
What emerges is that while Arab American Democrats and Republicans share the basic beliefs of their respective parties, the former is growing while the latter is shrinking. The bottom line here is that while not "in love" with Clinton”—as they were with Obama in 2008— most Arab Americans have come to feel more comfortable voting for Democrats because they feel more aligned with the issues and values of that party.
And as a sign of both how these elections have galvanized the Arab American community, and of the influence of specifically targeted get-out-the-vote campaigns such as #YallaVote, 91 percent of Arab Americans are likely to vote in the Presidential election on November 8th, with 88 percent of Arab American millennials likely to participate.
With Arab Americans taking up small but potentially significant percentages of the total voters in a range of swing states - about five percent of Michigan voters, between 1.5 to two percent in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, and one percent in Virginia – this could be the election where Arab Americans' political power yields real influence.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute.
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