The Magazine

Arabs, Poles, and Other Key Voters

Ethnic "outreach" could decide who makes it to the White House

Oct 30, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 07 • By MATTHEW REES
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IF GEORGE W. BUSH is elected president, he'll have many people to thank. One of them is Osama Siblani. During Bush's October 5 meeting with Arab-American leaders at the Hyatt Regency in Dearborn, Michigan, Siblani told the Texas governor about two top concerns of Arab Americans: the use of ethnic profiling by aviation officials, which leads many Arab Americans to be held up for questioning at airports, and the use of "secret evidence" by law enforcement, which has led many Arab Americans to be wrongly charged as suspected terrorists. "This is an insult to our Constitution," Siblani says he told Bush, "and a scar on our civil rights."

Fast forward to the second presidential debate, six days later. Jim Lehrer asked Bush and Gore about racial profiling. Both condemned it, but only Bush said we've got to "do something" about airport profiling and the use of "secret evidence," which he said had unfairly demonized "Arab Americans." The comment received little attention in the post-debate spin. But among Arab Americans, who'd never before been singled out in a presidential debate, it was, as one political operative put it, "the shot heard 'round the world."

This is a big deal because Bush and Gore are tied in Michigan -- where Arab Americans make up 4 percent of the electorate -- and each needs the state's 18 electoral votes to win. Since Bush's comment has propelled him to near-mythic status among Arab Americans, his 12-point lead among them, 40 percent to 28 percent, could double. He's just won an endorsement from the Arab-American and Chaldean Leadership Council, an umbrella group of twenty Arab-American organizations, as well as the Democrat-leaning Arab American Political Action Committee and the Detroit-based Arab American News. According to Siblani, the paper's editor, "Bush has captured the hearts of Arab Americans."

That's bad news for Gore, who's so intent on winning Arab American votes he's retained James Zogby, a big shot in Arab American circles, to be his senior adviser on ethnic affairs. He's also issued some mild statements about violence in the Middle East, in hopes of not offending Arab Americans, and even consulted pro-Israel leaders beforehand to see how mild a statement they could tolerate.

But the balancing act failed. Not only does Gore have to deal with Arab giddiness over Bush, but also an energetic e-mail campaign that calls itself "Arab Americans Against Gore-Lieberman." The organizer, a 30-year-old Democrat named Ramzy Kanaan, launched the effort following the second presidential debate, to protest Gore's views on the Middle East. In just a week, Kanaan received over 8,200 favorable responses.

The net effect of all this activity could be to swing Michigan, and perhaps the election, to Bush. Then again, Arab Americans are hardly the only ethnic group being courted by the two candidates. In addition to the traditional outreach to blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, both campaigns are seeking the support of Americans who trace their ancestry to Central and Eastern European nations like Albania, Belarus, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. The logic is simple. In swing states like Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Central and Eastern Europeans represent between 12 and 18 percent of the population.

They are also thought to be up for grabs, as their views aren't perfect fit for either party (largely Catholic or Orthodox, they tend to the right on social and cultural issues and lean left on economics). In years past they flocked to the GOP because of its anti-communism. But as the relevance of that issue has faded, they began voting Democratic again, to the great benefit of Bill Clinton, among others.

This year, neither Gore nor Bush has won their hearts, and there's been some grumbling from ethnic leaders that the outreach from both candidates has paled in comparison with other presidential campaigns ("worse than ever," according to Roma Hadzewycz, editor of the Ukrainian Weekly). The response over the past few months has been a series of gestures, most of them designed to portray Bush or Gore as an unswerving ally of "the old country."