Arab-Americans make up a small part of the American electorate, but they are fired up and organizing, hoping to make an impact in the 2012 elections.
Community organizers face obstacles like cultural divisions and a sheer lack of numbers, but some think Arab-Americans could be an influential voting bloc, especially on the local level.
High concentrations in states where the contest between President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney is expected to be tight means Arab-American voters “are going to be important this election cycle,” said Emily Manna, head of the Arab-American Institute’s “Yalla Vote,” or “Let’s Go Vote,” initiative.
Yalla Vote organizes voters in the District of Columbia and 10 states, including battlegrounds Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, states that have the highest concentrations of Arab-Americans in the nation, according to Manna.
Some politicians, such as Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-New Jersey, are reaching out to engage the Arab-American community in their districts, “and that’s what we want everywhere,” Manna said.
Mouaz Moustafa, political director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, credited the Arab Spring uprisings with bringing a new civic awareness to Arab Americans. They see an important role for the U.S. in nations struggling to democratize, such as Syria, Libya and Egypt. Moustafa said this vision motivated members of the Arab-American community to travel to Washington, start protesting and learn more about the political process.
Estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey show there are about 1.6 million Arab-Americans in the United States - far fewer than many other minority groups, although Arab-American community leaders and demographers say these numbers fall short due to undercounting.
An AP analysis of the combined population in 10 swing states, based on Census Bureau estimates, shows that just over 0.5 percent have Arab-American origins. Included in the analysis were New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Nevada, and Colorado.
In Mitt Romney’s home state of Michigan, about 1.5 percent of the population is Arab-American. In 2008, President Obama beat opponent John McCain by 49 percentage points in Wayne County, Michigan, which claims to have the largest Arab-American population in the country.
Michigan is still in play this year, however, with the most recent poll showing one-tenth of voters there still undecided. The U.S. president is elected not by popular vote but in state-by-state contests.
Like other generalized populations, Arab-Americans are not a monolithic group. Ancestral and religious divisions prevent Arab-Americans from unifying politically. In Michigan alone, demographers identify more than four groups of Arab-Americans who emigrated at different times and from different countries.
One of the biggest challenges facing Arab-American community organizers this election season is ensuring voters don’t feel disenfranchised, according to Nadia Tonova, who directs the National Network for Arab American Communities. Racial and religious profiling in state and federal agencies has given rise to distrust of the government within her community, Tonova said.
But Tonova remains optimistic. “The great thing about America is that we have the power to make our voice heard in the election,” she said.
It is unclear which party will garner Arab-Americans’ money and votes. Some organizers suggested Arab-American views on immigration are aligned more with the Democratic party, but between 2011 and 2012 the Moroccan American Center for Policy gave 10 percent of its political donations to Democrats and 90 percent to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Rashad Al-Dabbagh of the Syrian American Council said politicians showing support for Palestinians - whether by fully backing a two-state solution or just toning down pro-Israel rhetoric - will capture the support of their community.
“Even if it’s small, it will make a difference on the Arab side,” Al-Dabbagh said.
Capitalizing on concentrations in strategic states might be the Arab-American community’s best chance at gaining political clout.
Jeanne Batalova, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, predicted Arab-American voters could achieve bigger wins at the local level. She doubted their ability to have substantial sway in the presidential race.
“But definitely for members of Congress as well as local elections, they might play a greater role,” Batalova said.