Interview: Everything you wanted to know about Arab-American voting intentions

Interview: Everything you wanted to know about Arab-American voting intentions
The New Arab Meets: Arab American Institute Executive Director Maya Berry to discuss her community's role in the upcoming US election.
8 min read
02 November, 2020
Most of the Arab Americans polled are planning to vote for Joe Biden [AFP/Getty]
"Arab American voters can be the margin of victory," says Maya Berry, the Executive Director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), on the phone from the United States - where in just one day a crucial election will determine the direction of the nation. 

Berry heads the Washington DC-based AAI, whose recent nationwide poll on the Arab American vote returned fascinating findings.

The poll found that while most Arab Americans eligible to vote in the elections favour Biden, 35 percent could be voting to re-elect President Trump.

More than 80 percent of the Arab Americans polled say they are "very likely" to cast a ballot, and with many of them living in key swing states, the votes of this minority community could come to play a crucial role.

Berry discussed her community's potential impact in the upcoming election, as well as the effects of age, religion and race issues on voter preference in her discussion with The New Arab.

Yalla Vote and political power

As part of its work to encourage the Arab American community to vote, the AAI runs Yalla Vote - a voter engagement project first launched in 1998.

When asked how AAI is encouraging Arab Americans to vote through Yalla Vote, Berry responds: "In every way possible."

Operating year-round, Yalla Vote naturally picks up in the weeks before the election.

"As the election draws near we've had a postcard campaign, we've had a texting campaign, we've been phone banking during the entire month of October," Berry says. 

"There's been a great deal that's been sort of coming at people and we've been trying to maintain positive messaging and energy to encourage people to vote," she says, "reminding them that the 2016 presidential election in some of our key states was won by just a few votes in particular precincts".

So do we have the ability to in certain areas literally be the margin of victory? We do.

"The margin of victory in the state of Michigan was less than 11,000 votes," she recalls from the election four years prior.

"Arab Americans comprise more than 5 percent of the vote in that state. So do we have the ability to in certain areas literally be the margin of victory? We do."

The Arab-American population in the United States totals roughly 3.7 million. While they live and work in every state, the bulk of the Arab-American electorate seems to be concentrated in just twelve states.

Among these are key swing states - such as the states of Michigan and Ohio - where there is a sizeable Arab American community, in this case comprising 5 and 2 percent of the vote respectively. 

"It's a wonderful thing, it really is," Berry says. 

"It actually amplifies the political power of this incredible community. We regularly remind our folks that the fact they live in these key swing states means that their vote is that much more important."

Hotline tackles disinformation

One of the most important things Yalla Votes provides to the Arab-American community is a voter hotline "where voters can call and receive support in both Arabic and English".

During the 2016 election, the hotline had received around 20,000 calls two weeks before the election. This time round, the hotline has already received more than 100,000 calls. 

In discussing the importance of the hotline, Berry draws attention to one of AAI's poll findings - sixty percent of Arab Americans are questioning whether their vote will be counted. 
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"When you look at [this] it makes it very clear that our community is not immune to the disinformation running rampant in our country right now," Berry says. 

"In addition to all our other services, [Yalla Votes] also reassures voters that their vote will count, our election system is safe, and it's critical they participate in it." 

Race relations is the #1 issue

AAI's poll provided a list of 14 policy concerns, asking respondents to identify the issues they feel are most important in determining their votes in this election.

While jobs and the economy, healthcare and the environment all ranked high, 40 percent of Arab Americans said their number one concern was "race relations in the US today".

"I will tell you I think that's one of the most important findings from our poll," Berry says. 

Since starting their polling in 1996, AAI has found Arab American voters' top issues to be jobs and the economy, healthcare and education. 
They are seeing what's happening in communities across this country and they are saying this isn't okay.
"People find it surprising," she says. "We spend a lot of time having to educate others that that's not that unusual at all. At the end of the day, an Arab-American voter is still a person that wants to have a good job [and] wants to provide for their family."

This year's poll marked the first time ever that "we have an issue that trumps - no pun intended - jobs and the economy and its race relations in America", Berry says. "It's really quite extraordinary."

"I'm really proud of my community when I look at this number."

The AAI also found that 70 percent of Arab Americans have a positive opinion of Black Lives Matter protests.

"They are seeing what's happening in communities across this country and they are saying this isn't okay - police violence on black bodies is not okay and it must stop," Berry says.

Support for Trump grows

When asked about support for President Trump, Berry says she has heard anecdotally from her community in Michigan that support for President Trump has increased.

The AAI poll confirms this observation, showing that although Biden has the most support among Arab Americans, the margin of support for him is not as large as it was for Hillary Clinton back in 2016. 

The AAI report concludes that Trump has "galvanised support among Arab-American Republicans and brought home some of those who, during the first two decades of this century, had stopped self-identifying with the GOP".

"I kept thinking to myself what's at play here," Berry says. 

"It is the one issue that voters across the country seem to have given Trump credit for - which is the tax cuts, the economy, the performance of the stock market," she adds. 

"There is this phenomenon, [that] for your basic pocketbook reasons, you are willing to overlook the complete failure on the pandemic, you know the fact that you literally have white supremacy policies emanating from the White House."

Read more: The Arab American Republicans voting for Trump

Economic appeal is one-factor drawing voters to Trump - another is likely to be Republican support. The Arab American community has historically been equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, along with twenty-five support for independent candidates, Berry explains.   

While some Republicans moved away from their party in 2016, Berry thinks that "
what you're seeing today is that those voters, for primarily economic reasons and after seeing judicial appointments that they support, [are] coming back to the party thinking 'Okay, we can support this person because we got this on tax cuts, we got this on judicial appointments'".

"It's difficult to see for sure for some but its not inconsistent with where the community sort of comes down on its party identification."

Who supports who?
The AAI poll reveals interesting insights into how voters vote along religious lines. 

Trump support among Muslim and Catholic Arab Americans is less than among the Protestant Orthodox vote. 

"People conflate Arab and Muslim all the time, it's very frustrating," Berry asserted.

"The majority of Arab Americans in this country are actually Christian and a plurality of Muslims in the United States are actually Black - so these are not interchangeable terms. It's highly misunderstood."

AAI also found that 
Trump does best with native-born Arab Americans while Biden does best with foreign-born Arab Americans.

Berry's take on this is that immigrants, like herself, are more sensitive to the Trump's administration's attempt to "redefine what it means to be American" - a "very specific European white definition", she explains.

The institute's poll also found that voter preference by age is consistent with national polling. 

"Trump is haemorrhaging support among senior citizens and younger people. That's what our numbers demonstrate with Arab American voters as well."

I think people are shocked by the level to which our government has not operated as it should under this administration," Berry says. "We have faith in our institutions, the separation of powers, in our democracy, but that has really been shaken by the past four years."

'Changed everything'

One of the first projects the Arab American Institute engaged in was in Dearborn, Michigan - Berry's home state - where there is the highest concentration of Arab Americans.

"The first thing we did at the time is look at the voter rolls, and realise that [although] there was a huge concentration of Arab Americans in the city they weren't registered to vote," Berry recalled.

Read more: The Arab and Muslim candidates fighting to transform American politics

"Everything changed after those people were registered and became voters. Now in Dearborn, the majority of the council is Arab American, the head of the city council is Arab American."

Berry continued: "The ability to register your voters and ensure they turn out can be transformative in the political empowerment of a community."

To what extent this transformative power impacts on the election is not yet completely clear but all will be soon known, in less than 48 hours.

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