WASHINGTON: Arab-Americans, one of the US' smallest ethnic minorities, could well tip the balance against President George W. Bush's re-election, according to a survey released Wednesday of four key battleground states where the election could be decided.
The poll, conducted by Zogby International for the Washington-based Arab American Institute, found, if opinions hold through November, Bush could suffer a net loss of a third of Arab-American support - or 170,000 votes - in the four states compared to the 2000 election which won a solid plurality of the Arab-American vote.
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 race in each of those states is expected to be extremely close.
In the United States, the winner of the presidential balloting within each state receives all 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.
With a population of 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 American groups, is expected to hit close to 2 million this year, or 1.5 percent of all voters.
But the Arab-American population is also disproportionately concentrated in 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.
The four states were chosen both because of their larger-than-average Arab-American populations and because they are four of about a dozen states - most of them, like Michigan and Ohio, in the Great Lakes region in 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, the Arab-American vote in Florida is about 2 percent of that state's total. In Ohio, the Arab-American vote is estimated at 85,000, or just under 2 percent; in Pennsylvania, it is estimated at 75,000, or about 1.6 percent.
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. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percent.
Reflecting the national Arab-American population, about two thirds of respondents were either Catholic or Orthodox, about one quarter Muslim and the remainder 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 a margin of 46 percent to 29 percent, with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who is of Christian-Lebanese descent, receiving 16 percent.
According to the latest poll, however, Kerry is in a position to completely flip these results by beating Bush 45 percent to 28 percent, with Nader running at 13 percent.
When respondents were given a choice between Bush and Kerry alone, 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, healthcare, terrorism/national security, education, foreign policy and Iraq, in that order, at the top in percentages similar to 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.
Kerry's recent support for the Gaza withdrawal plan of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, however, 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 to 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 African-Americans, in 2000.Bush's political advisers have said they hope his strong support for Sharon will translate into his getting 40 percent of the Jewish vote in November, but most analysts think that target is too ambitious. Polls suggest a more realistic figure is between 25 and 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," said Zogby. "(The latest poll) offers evidence that any gains (he makes among Jewish voters) may be cancelled 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. Indeed, on both Israel-Palestine and civil liberties issues in particular, Bush's policies are supported by less than 40 percent of Arab-Americans who consider themselves Republican. "These are core issues where his own party doesn't support him," Zogby said.