WASHINGTON — While more than half of the 1.6 million Arab Americans expected to vote in November plan to back President Obama over Mitt Romney, support among them for the president has dropped 15 percentage points in the past four years. One in five Arab American independents remain undecided or plan to vote for a third party, according to a poll released Thursday by the Arab American Institute. And with more than 100,000 undecided Arab Americans expected to cast ballots in the battleground states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the institute’s president, James Zogby, says neither presidential candidate should take this voting bloc for granted.
“The issue is who is going to reach out and get them, or will no one and might they stay home. That’s the concern here,” Zogby said. “The issues are … who is going to make a difference on the Middle East and who is going to be sensitive to the concerns of the community.” The survey of 400 likely voters found that 52 percent of Arab Americans intend to vote for Obama; 28 percent said they plan to vote for Romney.
Polling by the institute in 2010 found that 67 percent of Arab Americans voted for Obama in 2008. Like most Americans, an overwhelming number of Arab Americans consider jobs and the economy the most critical issues facing the nation, according to the survey. Foreign policy is next, followed by health care. More than 80 percent of Arab Americans consider U.S. outreach to Arab and Muslim countries important. The survey, conducted by JZ Analytics, has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Discrimination is another big concern for Arab Americans. Approximately 40 percent of Arab Americans polled say they personally have experienced ethnic discrimination. And three out of four Arab American Muslims are concerned about facing discrimination in the future.
Romney does have an opportunity to potentially pick up some of those undecided voters if he can sell his economic policies, said Michael Franc, the vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. Republicans are reluctant to look at issues through a racial or ethnic lens and instead look at what’s best for Americans as a whole, Franc said. But what Romney can do is look at the economic concerns of the Arab American community and share how his policies would benefit them, as well as other Americans, he said.
Romney can make it a little more personal by sprinkling in details about Arab American unemployment rates.
“You don’t want to fall into a trap of policy-making by ethnicity or policy-making by racial group,” Franc said. “Because that’s treacherous territory which usually leads to very bad policy.”
Many Arab Americans, particularly Muslims, have felt tepid support from the Obama administration. A majority of Muslim Americans feels life in the United States has become “more difficult,” according to a 2011 Pew Research Center poll. Significant numbers of Muslim Americans report being called offensive names. Twenty-one percent reported being singled out by airport security and 13 percent say they have been singled out by other law enforcement.
But Romney’s and other Republicans’ strong statements about the Middle East and Iran lead some Muslim Americans to believe Romney is “more of a loose cannon,” said Jibril Hough, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, N.C. Hough doesn’t plan to vote for either major candidate; he hoped to vote for Republican Ron Paul and still might write his name in.
Hough knows he’s in the minority. “The feeling I’m getting from people who are close to me is that most people feel Obama hasn’t really done anything for them, but they look over at Mitt and say they’re going to vote for Obama anyway,” he said. “It’s more of a lesser of two evils.”