In 2003, Arab-Americans believed they were at a positive turning point. Most of the presidential candidates appeared in person or via satellite before that year's Arab-American Institute's National Leadership Conference. It was a far cry from two decades earlier, when a major candidate, Walter Mondale, very publicly returned donations from a group of Arab-American businessmen, saying it was his campaign's policy not to accept them from the ethnic group.
But 2003 may have been the high-water mark. At the same conference, held in Dearborn, Michigan, last weekend, none of the top-tier candidates from either party showed up. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, was the most prominent candidate to attend.
Several Democrats submitted videotaped messages, but none of the major Republican candidates bothered to send even those. The absence of major candidates from both sides of the political fence underscores the perception among many Arab- and Muslim-American leaders that they've been deemed politically expendable — even as some of the 2008 election's key issues (such as the Iraq War, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the debate over balancing domestic security and civil liberties) are of particular interest to their community.
Arab-Americans constitute a relatively marginal share of the U.S. electorate — just 1.3 million voters, according to independent polling firm Zogby International — but make up a potentially crucial voting bloc in battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. They account for roughly 4% of all voters here in Michigan, home to the highest concentration of Arab-Americans.
They tend to be better educated and more affluent than the U.S. population at large, and in recent years have swung between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. "This is a community that is very much up for grabs, that's waiting to be wooed," says George Salem, a longtime Republican and the Arab-American Institute's chairman. (MORE)