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Can Biden win back Arab American voters?

Nov 13,2023 - Last updated at Nov 13,2023

I have been organising Arab Americans for almost a half century. For the past three decades, my brother John and I have polled the community’s views on a range of political topics. I value polling because it allows you to hear and understand what people are saying and what their views may portend for the future.

We knew Arab Americans would be impacted by the devastation and loss of life from the ongoing deadly violence between Israelis and Palestinians. To understand the extent of the impact, we commissioned a poll to look more closely at the community’s reaction to the conflict, its impact on their lives, their feelings about the Biden administration’s handling of the conflict and what their reactions might mean for the 2024 elections. The results, released this week, were more striking than we could have imagined.

We found a dramatic decline in Arab American support for President Joseph Biden, and that his handling of Israel’s continued devastation of Gaza is the reason for this shift in attitudes.

When asked how they would vote in the 2024 elections, only 17 per cent say they would cast a ballot for Biden, in marked contrast to the 59 per cent who voted for him in 2020. The president’s approval rating among Arab Americans also plummeted from 74 per cent in 2020 to 29 per cent in this year’s poll.

The reason for this precipitous drop in support is clear: Two-thirds of Arab Americans say they have a negative view of the president’s handling of the current violence in Palestine and Israel and two-thirds believe the US should call for a ceasefire to end the hostilities.

The overall impact of the negative views towards the president and his policies shows up in a substantial drop in expected voter support in 2024, and has a dramatic impact on party preference. For the first time in our 26 years of polling Arab American voters, a majority do not claim to prefer the Democratic Party. In 2008 and 2016 Arab American Democrats outnumbered Republicans, two to one. In this year’s poll, 32 per cent of Arab Americans identify as Republican compared with just 23 per cent who identify as Democrats. Steady growth in the percentage identifying as Independents is at the expense of the Democratic Party.

The poll also demonstrates that Arab Americans worry about the domestic fallout from the war including the heated rhetoric. Eight in 10 Arab Americans are concerned that the violence will provoke anti-Arab bigotry, while two-thirds are concerned with the prospect of antisemitism. They have high levels of concern with publicly expressing support for Palestinian rights and fear for their personal safety or acts of discrimination. Six in 10 Arab Americans report experiencing discrimination, an increase of 6 per cent since April 2023, with concern most prominent among Arab American Muslims (70 per cent) and Arab Americans ages 18-34 (74 per cent). One-half of Arab Americans feel concerned about facing discrimination at school, work, and in their local community due to the recent violence.

Finally, the high levels of support for Palestinian rights and high negatives for the president’s policies are shared by almost all of the demographic groups covered in the poll, by age, gender, education level, religion and immigrant vs native born.

In our nearly three decades of polling, only in two other moments have policy issues resulted in such dramatic shifts in Arab American views, and never in such a short period of time. First, during the Bush years, over four years Arab Americans moved decisively against the president’s policies in Iraq and his repressive domestic agenda of violating civil liberties and his party’s negative stereotyping of Arab Americans and American Muslims. Second, in 2016, Arab Americans recoiled in the face of Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric against Muslims. While Arab American attitudes towards President Biden’s job performance have declined on par with all American voters, the precipitous drop over a few weeks in support for his reelection and his party has been unprecedented.

Arab Americans may not be as numerous as some other constituencies, but their hundreds of thousands of voters in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania were actively courted by the 2020 Biden campaign. To win them back in 2024 will be an uphill climb.

 

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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