WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (JTA) Both contenders in the U.S. presidential race are reaching out to Arab Americans in an unprecedented way, and the reason is clear: the potential clout of that constituency come Election Day.
On Monday Texas Gov. George W. Bush picked up the support of an American Muslim group, the American Muslim Political Coordinating Council, just a few weeks after receiving a lift from an umbrella group of more than 20 Arab American organizations in Michigan, a key battleground state in the upcoming election.
Arab Americans number anywhere from 3 to 6 million, depending on whom you ask.
While the numbers are small, a bloc vote, like the Jewish vote, could affect the outcome on Nov. 7, especially in key states, where their numbers could provide a swing vote.
The groups endorsing Bush say that while both Bush and Vice President Al Gore have expressed strong support for Israel, they are particulary concerned that Lieberman is, as the Michigan coalition put it, “an activist for and a champion of the Israeli agenda.”
Arab groups also were clearly pleased that in the second presidential debate, Bush said the racial profiling of Arab Americans was unfair and also mentioned the use of secret evidence, or classified information about people suspected of terrorist activity who are detained in the United States.
Though he did not explain his position on secret evidence at the time, Bush was sending a message on national television to the Arab American community, which follows the issue closely. Congress has been considering legislation that would change the rules regarding the use of secret evidence in cases against suspected terrorists.
Shortly after the debate, Gore echoed Bush’s opposition to the unfair treatment of Arab Americans and questioned the use of secret evidence as well.
He has said he would undertake an immediate review of all cases involving people held under secret evidence and that he supports an end to the use of secret evidence as long as national security is protected.
As Arab American groups have become more sophisticated in their organization, their ability to influence public opinion has grown.
The community is not monolithic in its positions, and is in some ways a classic “swing” vote. Some of the more important issues for the community, according to polls of Arab Americans, are health care, education, taxes and the Middle East.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based think tank Middle East Forum, believes the growing strength of Arab American groups may be short-lived but that American Muslim groups will feature more prominently on the political scene in the future.
Arab Americans are concentrated in major metropolitan centers in certain states, including Michigan where both Bush and Gore have campaigned aggressively New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Illinois and southern California. Other states where the Muslim vote can be influential are Texas, Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The Gore-Lieberman campaign’s choice of a prominent Arab American leader as a new adviser is another indication of the importance of the Arab American community in this year’s election.
James Zogby, who has made some controversial statements on Israel, is now serving as an adviser on ethnic affairs to the Gore-Lieberman campaign and will work on outreach to different ethnic communities.
Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, an organization formed in 1985 to represent Arab American interests in government and politics, says the campaign’s effort to reach out to Arab Americans is “unprecedented.”
Gore still needs to make himself better known to Arab American voters, says Zogby. The latest polls for Michigan show 40 percent of Arab Americans for Bush and nearly 30 percent for Gore.
Zogby, who does not have a policy-making role in the Gore campaign, says he is pleased that presidential candidates are finally paying attention to Arab Americans.
As the violence in the Middle East continues, Arab groups are also using their political strength and making themselves more visible by placing ads in major newspapers across the country urging people to contact the White House and tell the administration not to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Arab American groups are building on the influence they have already gained thus far in dealing with the Clinton administration.
Earlier this month, Arab American leaders met with the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Edward Walker, to discuss the Middle East conflict and the peace process.
The administration has been working on ways to better explain their policies to the Arab American community, said Greg Sullivan of the State Department’s Near East Bureau.
“Over the last four years, there has been a marked increase in our desire to engage with Arab American and Muslim American groups,” he said.