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Arab-American vote looms large
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Arab-Americans, one of the United States' smallest ethnic minorities, could well tip the balance against President George W Bush's re-election, according to a survey released on Wednesday of four key battleground states where the vote could be decided.

The poll, conducted by Zogby International for the Washington-based Arab American Institute (AAI), found that if current opinions hold through November, when the election takes place, Bush could suffer a net loss of one-third (170,000) of Arab-American votes in the four states compared with the 2000 elections, when he won a solid plurality of those votes.

Such a loss could prove decisive in the four states - Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania - where Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry are focusing much of their early campaign efforts precisely because the races are expected to be extremely close.

In the United States, the winner of the presidential balloting within each state receives all of the state's electoral votes regardless of the margin of victory. "Anything that can move thousands - or even hundreds - of votes can have a seismic effect on the [national] outcome," said John Zogby, who conducted the polling.

Numbering at least 3.5 million, Arab-Americans make up a little over 1 percent of the US population. At the same time, their voter turnout, which is higher than that of most other US groups, is expected to hit close to 2 million this year, or about 1.5 percent of all voters.

But the Arab-American population is also disproportionately concentrated in a relatively few states, such as California and New York - where Kerry is expected to win handily in November - as well as the four states surveyed in the latest poll.

Pollsters chose the states, both because of their larger-than-average Arab-American populations, and because they are four of about a dozen states - most of them in the Great Lakes region of the north-central US - where the presidential vote is expected to be particularly close.

The likely Arab-American vote (about 235,000) in Michigan represents slightly more than 5 percent of the overall vote in that state, according to the Zogby poll. With 120,000 likely votes, it would account for about 2 percent of the total in Florida; in Ohio, an estimated 85,000 votes (just under 2 percent); and in Pennsylvania, 75,000 votes, or about 1.6 percent of total votes.

In 2000, Bush beat Democratic candidate Al Gore by 165,000 votes, while Gore defeated Bush in both Michigan and Pennsylvania by slightly more than 200,000 votes in each state. The two fought to a virtual tie in Florida, whose decisive electoral votes were eventually awarded to Bush as a result of a highly controversial Supreme Court ruling.

The poll's sample consisted of 503 Arab-American residents of the four states who were contacted from a random list April 22-24. Given the relatively small sample, the margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

Reflecting the national Arab-American population, about two-thirds of respondents were either Catholic or Orthodox, about one-quarter were Muslim and the remainder were Protestant. Most Arab-Americans are of Lebanese descent. The poll was the latest in a series of surveys of Arab-American opinion dating back some 13 years.

In 2000, Bush, whose outspoken opposition to ethnic profiling of Arabs and Muslims gained him many votes among the two groups, beat Gore among Arab-American voters in the four states by 46 percent to 29 percent, with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who is of Christian Lebanese descent, receiving 16 percent. But according to the latest poll, Kerry is in a position to flip these results completely and would beat Bush 45 percent to 28 percent, with Nader currently running at 13 percent.

When respondents were given a choice between Bush and Kerry alone, and Nader was not mentioned, the gap was 49 percent for Kerry and 34 percent for Bush, with 21 percent saying they were undecided or would vote for someone else.

Support for Kerry was particularly high among immigrant Arab-Americans who, in a two-way race, said they would vote by a margin of 60-19 percent for Kerry, with 21 percent undecided. That compared with a 46-34-21 percent spread for Arab-Americans born in the United States.

Similarly, support in a two-way race for Kerry was highest, at 62 percent, among Muslim Arab-Americans, of whom only 10 percent said they favored Bush. Among Christian Arab-Americans, Kerry's lead was significantly less, at only 46-37 percent.

When asked what issues were most likely to affect their votes, Arab-Americans as a group placed the economy, health care, terrorism/national security, education, foreign policy and Iraq in that order, in percentages that mirror the US electorate as a whole. But, unlike most of the rest of the electorate, nearly three-quarters of Arab-American voters ranked "Israel-Palestine" as an issue that would figure "very importantly" in their choice.

In that vein, Kerry's recent support for the Gaza withdrawal plan of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to have cost him some support among Arab-Americans. Asked which candidate gave them more confidence for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only 22 percent chose Kerry, compared with 16 percent for Bush, who endorsed Sharon's plan two weeks ago.

Forty-eight percent of respondents said neither candidate had their confidence on the question.

Jewish-Americans, who often rate Israel as an important factor in their vote, constitute about twice as many voters nationwide as Arab-Americans, although they are also disproportionately concentrated in a relatively small number of states, among them New York and California. Bush won about 19 percent of the Jewish vote, which traditionally is far more Democratic than any other single ethnic or religious group except blacks, in 2000.

Bush's political advisers have said they hope his strong support for Sharon will translate into 40 percent of the Jewish vote in November, but most analysts think that target is too ambitious. Recent polls suggest a more realistic figure is 25-31 percent, which, in numerical terms, would still fall short of making up for Bush's loss of Arab-American support.

"It's hard for me to see any significant gain for President Bush among Jewish voters," Zogby told journalists. The latest poll "offers evidence that any gains [he makes among Jewish voters] may be canceled out by significant losses among Arab-American voters".

Kerry, according to the survey, enjoys substantially greater support among Arab-Americans who identified themselves as Democrats than Bush enjoys among self-identified Republican Arab-Americans. On both Israel-Palestine and civil-liberties issues in particular, Bush's policies are supported by less than 40 percent of Arab-Americans who call themselves Republican. "These are core issues where his own party doesn't support him," Zogby noted.

(Inter Press Service)

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