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Arab-American Voters Lean Toward Obama, But With Less Enthusiasm

Arab-American voters strongly supported President Obama in 2008, and polls show most are doing so this time around as well. But some of those voters are concerned about the way Obama has handled issues important to their community — even if they still intend to cast their ballots for his re-election.

At the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Arab American Institute, the walls are full of red, white and blue signs in English and Arabic urging people to vote.

AAI government relations manager Samer Araabi, who worked one of the nonprofit's recent phone banks, says he's voting to re-elect Obama. But he and others in his community aren't necessarily cheering Obama's performance.

"I feel like the community is probably a little disillusioned by what Obama actually did in these last four years," Araabi says. "But they're not expecting [Republican presidential nominee Mitt] Romney to do any better. So I feel like a lot of them are probably stuck in a hard place right now."

Araabi says he thinks both Arab-Americans and American Muslims are particularly affected by issues of civil liberties, like the New York Police Department's surveillance of the community, and foreign policy issues, from Israel and Palestinians to Egypt. Araabi says the candidates are virtually indistinguishable on a lot of those issues.

'Disappointment Factor'

The most recent poll of Arab-American voters, conducted by the Arab American Institute at the end of September, says 52 percent of those surveyed support Obama, with 28 percent supporting Romney. There's a 15 percent drop in support for Obama since 2008. It also shows a growing independent base of voters who are split between the two candidates on the economy and tax policy. One in five of them are still undecided, the poll shows.

"Support for the president across the board is down," says AAI President James Zogby, "so there'd be no reason why this community would react any differently. There's a disappointment factor."

The Virginia-based All Dulles Area Muslim Society has hosted town hall meetings for several candidates. Government relations chairman Robert Marro says the nonprofit has tried to help community members hear from both parties so they can make an informed decision.

"Because of some of the sensitivities on the national scene, the Republicans have been somewhat less, perhaps, anxious to come to the community," Marro says, adding that the community has leaned more Democratic in the past several elections. He calls that "kind of an anomaly," but he says some Arab-American voters find it difficult to support a party that, he says, has allowed national figures such as Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to attack Muslims.

He cites a letter Bachmann circulated over the summer urging an investigation into whether the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was secretly infiltrating the federal government.

"There were several prominent people from the [Republican] Party who stood up and denounced these letters, but there were still too many people who did not," Marro says.

On the other hand, he says many of the traditional values of the Republican Party are attractive to Arab-Americans and American Muslims.

"Our community is very conservative, so with things like family values and traditional families and marriage, you know, all of these things are part and parcel of ... our religious beliefs," Marro says.

In fact, last month Romney's campaign announced a national coalition called Arab Americans for Romney, citing the AAI poll that 16 percent of Arab-American voters are undecided and many are based in key swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Virginia.

Community Outreach

David Ramadan, a Republican state legislator from Virginia and one of the group's national co-chairmen, says it is reaching out to the community on several fronts.

"We're reminding them this needs to be a vote based on policy and on the future of their kids and grandkids and the future of the country," Ramadan says, "not based on their feelings."

There's also an Arab American Committee for Obama; Dearborn, Mich.-based co-chairman Ismael Ahmed says he expects his community to come out in huge numbers the way its members did in 2008.

"He gave us hope on the Middle East, seemed open-minded and tried to work for peace and democracy in the area," Ahmed says. "His beliefs and the things he stands for resonate in our community."

The coalition isn't formally affiliated with the president's re-election campaign, but Ahmed says that isn't the point.

"What really matters is that we have a president that will stand with us, and we're going to come out and vote for him," he says.

But Republican Ramadan sees it differently.

"That shows the [Obama] campaign hasn't associated itself with a very important community in the United States," Ramadan says.

The American Arab Institute's Araabi says that regardless of who wins, the campaign has been an amazing opportunity for Arab-Americans to mobilize.

"It's inspiring," Araabi says. "Arab-Americans are actually having a direct effect on the outcome of elections."

The community has, he says, built itself into a very powerful constituency.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.