Nov 29, 2023 - Politics & Policy

How Arab American voters' backlash could imperil Biden's 2024 campaign

Women gather to pray at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia, on October 31, 2023.

Women pray at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., on Oct. 31. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Arab American and Muslim American anger over President Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war could be endangering his re-election in the majority of 2024 swing states.

Driving the news: Michigan, Virginia, Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania all have notable pockets of these populations. There aren't reliable statistics on how many are registered voters — but even tiny shifts of support in any of these super-tight states that Biden won in 2020 could make a difference.

Why it matters: It's another case of Biden facing possible defections from heavily Democratic groups that in 2020 helped him take down former President Trump, Biden's likely opponent again next year.

  • Like with young voters, Biden faces the prospect of having to devote time to saving part of his base in addition to courting swing voters.

Zoom in: An Axios review of 2020 results in these crucial states shows that if even a sliver of the Arab American and Muslim American vote were to stay home or defect to Republicans, Biden could be in a deep hole.

  • In Michigan, for example, Biden won in 2020 by 154,000 votes. Census estimates put the state's Arab American population around at least 278,00o.
  • Biden won Arizona by 10,500 votes. The Arab American population in the Grand Canyon State is estimated to be 60,000.
  • Biden took Georgia by 11,800 votes. The Arab American population there is at least 57,000.

The intrigue: The Arab American Institute believes those state population figures are low, noting that the U.S. Census doesn't have a category for Arab Americans on its forms.

  • The Census Bureau estimates there are about 2 million Arab Americans in the U.S.; the institute says the number is closer to 3.8 million.
  • The Muslim American population — which can include Arab Americans, Black Americans and Asian Americans — is about 3.45 million, according to the Pew Research Center. The Census doesn't collect data on religious affiliation in its demographic surveys or its once-a-decade counts.

Zoom out: Since Israel responded to Hamas' deadly attack on Oct. 7 with bombings that have killed thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, Arab Americans have criticized Biden for his strong support of Israel. Many say he hasn't shown enough sensitivity to the deaths of innocent Palestinians.

  • Arab American leaders say Biden and other U.S. officials have long ignored the inhumane treatment of Palestinians who live under an Israeli-imposed blockade that limits travel, medical supplies and job opportunities.
  • For some, the recent attacks on Gaza have provoked traumatic family memories of 1948, when sectarian fighting forced 750,000 Palestinians to leave their homes in what later became Israel.

What they're saying: "It has been numbing to us. I feel very depressed," Samia Assed, a Palestinian American peace activist in Albuquerque, tells Axios.

  • Assed said she worries some Arab Americans might not vote in 2024 and swing crucial congressional seats to Republicans — even if it helps Trump, who's very unpopular among Arab Americans because of his efforts to ban Muslims from migrating to the U.S.
  • Osama Siblani, publisher of The Arab American News, the largest and oldest Arab American newspaper in the United States, based in Dearborn, Mich., tells Axios he's calling for that.
  • "I'm telling Arab Americans not to vote for the top two candidates. Vote down-ballot, but don't vote for Biden, and especially not for Trump," Siblani said. "Biden lost our vote, and you're going see Michigan and Georgia change."

State of play: The angst comes even after the Biden administration released a plan to combat Islamophobia before Hamas' attack last month, and after Biden appointed several Arab Americans to his staff.

  • As the fighting escalated in Gaza, White House senior staff hosted a listening session with Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian staff members, a senior White House official told Axios.
  • Biden also met with Arab American leaders to hear their thoughts and those conversations are ongoing, the senior White House official said.
  • Biden has said he'd like to see the 2030 Census include MENA (Middle Eastern/North African) as a demographic category so the U.S. government could collect better data on Arab Americans.

Yes, but: Those outreach efforts haven't stopped the public anger from Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, at least for now.

  • "Unless Biden turns into Jesus Christ and brings some Palestinians back from the dead, we're not supporting him. It's over," Siblani said.
  • The Arab American Institute estimates from its own polling that about 59% of Arab American voters supported Biden in 2020, but says its polling indicates that percentage has dropped dramatically in recent weeks.

Flashback: Arab Americans and Muslim Americans showed their political muscle during Trump's presidency when he instituted the Muslim ban.

  • They crowded airports and marched outside government buildings in coalition with some Jewish organizations, then campaigned in large numbers for Biden in 2020.

What's next: It's unclear if the war in the Middle East will be a defining issue in the 2024 election, which is nearly a year away. But many Arab Americans say it will remain fresh on their minds.

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