Juan Cole: John McCain's Arab-American problem

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

Not long ago, the John McCain campaign dropped a prominent Arab-American businessman from its Michigan state finance committee because of allegations that the man was an "agent" of Hezbollah. The charges, made by a right-wing blogger, were unsubstantiated, but fears of being associated with Arab terror caused Republican knees to jerk, and cost Ali Jawad his position. All politics, even national politics, is local, and Jawad's abrupt dismissal may cost McCain many votes among Southeastern Michigan's large Arab-American community. But more important, Arab-Americans across the country are looking for changes in domestic and international policy that McCain seems unwilling to pledge -- and they are concentrated in swing states that he will need to win this fall. Does John McCain have a problem with Arab-American voters?

Recent polls show a tight race between either Democrat and McCain in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, all states where Arab-Americans account for an appreciable percentage of the vote. Such polls have limited utility with November so many months away, but that it will be a close election in those key states seems clear. In a tight election, the votes of a well-placed minority -- Arab-American votes -- can be crucial....

Arab-Americans are both very likely to vote -- their turnout is 20 percent higher than that of the general population -- and they are concentrated. Two-thirds of them live in just 10 states, including the swing states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, Arab-Americans have made up 2 percent of the electorate in recent elections. That sounds like a small proportion, but in a close race it can make a difference. In 2000, Bush won the Arab-American vote over Gore by 7.5 percentage points. Bush took Ohio that year by only 165,000 votes. He and Gore virtually tied in Florida in the popular vote.

The Arab-American presence is most significant in Michigan. An estimated 300,000 Arab-Americans reside in the southeastern portion of the state. More than a third of Michigan's Arab-Americans have Lebanese ancestry; most of that population is Shiite. Another third of the state's Arab-Americans are Iraqi, and many of those residents are Christian.

In other words, up to 5 percent of Michigan's vote is Arab-American. The Democratic candidate has won the state in each of the last two presidential elections by no more than 200,000 votes. Recent polling suggests that in a head-to-head contest between John McCain and Barack Obama, the two would split the state down the middle. Many analysts believe that the Democrats cannot win in November without winning Michigan....

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John Edward Philips - 5/31/2008

Nader, as an Arab American himself, got a lot of Arab American votes in 2000. Will the Republicans finance him in another run this time around? They might not have anything to lose if the do so.