Arab-American voters say Yalla in 2016
New York - The surprising victory by Bernie Sanders in Michigan’s Democratic primary defied pollsters’ expectations. Afterwards, it emerged that Sanders, a leftist Jew from Vermont, had scored well with Arab-American voters, among other groups.
African Americans and Hispanics represent significant percentages of the US population, so polling agencies study their voting patterns in earnest. This is less true of the smaller number of Americans of Arab heritage, an estimated 3.5 million people.
The Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington-based lobby group, said this is an oversight. Though relatively small in number, Arab Americans are concentrated in states that will be battlegrounds in the November US presidential election.
In Michigan, for example, they make up about 5% of the population and as much as 2% in other swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, which could have a disproportionate influence on the White House race, said AAI Executive Director Maya Berry.
“In those states, we’re centred in urban areas and tend to be registered in higher numbers and to vote in higher numbers,” Berry said. “When the voting in these states is so close, it’s not surprising that concentrations [of Arab- American voters] can sway the outcome.”
Sanders, a septuagenarian socialist, scored well in Arab-American sections of Dearborn, Michigan, in the March 8th primary, where he took 67% of the vote, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 32%, helping him to win the state.
“Michigan was an eye-opener for many people,” said Sarab Al Jijakli, president of the Network of Arab- American Professionals. “This is a diverse community that is concerned about the future of America and wants to have a role in shaping the country.”
Arab Americans are mostly well-educated Christians and tend to live in urban areas in Michigan, California, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
They are often professionals or businesspeople who care about the same everyday issues as other Americans — money, jobs, education and health care. US foreign policy comes lower down the list, said Berry.
“In the post-9/11 environment, foreign policy ranks pretty high but it’s not a situation where every American is going to go to the ballot box to vote for a candidate based on their foreign policy position,” Berry said.
By tradition, Arab Americans are fiscal and social conservatives and evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and independent voters. In 2000, 44.5% of the Arab- American vote went to George W. Bush, pollster John Zogby said but since the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq war and racial profiling, Arab Americans have swung left.
This election cycle, Republican front runner Donald Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims, Hispanics and Syrian refugees provokes “revulsion”, Zogby said.
“There’s a unity that congeals among Arab Americans when they are attacked simply by virtue of who they are,” said Zogby. “In this election, the Arab-American vote should tilt heavily Democrat.”
According to Zead Ramadan, a Palestinian-American in New York, few from his community would back Trump or his main Republican rival, US Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who said he would “carpet bomb” Islamic State (ISIS) territory.
“We’re split on, you know, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton,” said Ramadan.
Though Clinton is viewed as too hawkish and cozy with Israeli leaders, Arab-American voters may increasingly choose her over Sanders as the Vermont senator’s delegate tally looks ever-more desperate, said Ramadan.
In the coming months, AAI’s voter enrolment teams will start appearing in Arab-American neighbourhoods across the United States as part of an 18-year-old Yalla vote campaign, which takes its name from the Arabic word meaning “let’s get going”.
It is an important scheme, said Ramadan, but has much to accomplish.
“The Arab-American community is still a baby,” Ramadan said. “When it grows up, it will learn to put pressure on congressmen, senators and presidents. Then, it will have more of a voice and policies will change. Until then, we have to keep on practicing the Yalla vote. Let’s go! Come on!”