Biden losing Arab-American voters in swing state

Mohamed Raed Abu Hussain
Mohamed Raed Abu Hussain

President Joe Biden's response to the Israel-Hamas war has sparked anger in a state that helped deliver him victory in 2020. Will there be a political cost?

Nadia Ayoub is desperately scrolling through social media, looking for 18-year-old Mohamed Raed Abu Hussain among images coming out of Gaza.

"I zoom into these horrible graphic pictures - I look to see is he in the background, is he somewhere? Are they searching for him? I'm just trying to find any clue that leads to him," she says.

Mohamed is instantly recognisable - he wears large black glasses and is missing a leg.

In 2018, he spent five months with Nadia and her husband Mike, in Dearborn, Michigan, to receive medical treatment. A local facility gave him a prosthetic leg.

"He's the cutest sweetest little kid," Mike says. "I will always love him like a son."

They kept in touch after he returned home to Gaza, and last week the Ayoubs - who are Lebanese Muslims - received a WhatsApp message in which he said he was heading to Jabalia refugee camp in the north of the territory.

"Don't worry about me," he wrote. And since then, nothing.

On a crisp autumn day, the couple joined dozens of people at an outdoor food truck market to fundraise for civilians in Gaza.

They are angry with President Joe Biden over his strong support for Israel's actions in Gaza in the aftermath of the attacks by Hamas on 7 October.

This has been made worse for them by the US vetoing a UN call for a ceasefire.

More on Israel-Gaza war

Hamas gunmen killed more than 1,400 people and took 241 hostages in the attack. Since then, Israel has been carrying out retaliatory strikes on Gaza, in which 10,000 people have been killed, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

"President Biden has blood on his hands," says Mike. "He had my vote - he's lost it forever," Nadia adds.

It's a sentiment that's widespread across the city, where more than half the population is of Arab heritage. The local Arab American News newspaper is blunt, accompanying a picture of the president with the headline: "He lost our votes."

In a swing state like Michigan, the numbers will really matter in 2024.

Donald Trump won the state in 2016 by 10,000 votes. President Biden took it back from him by about 154,000 votes in 2020.

Given there are about 200,000 Muslim American voters in Michigan, to many it's clear that he needs their votes. But people in Dearborn feel betrayed, says local official Sam Baydoun.

"How can they vote for the president when they see these atrocities on live TV, and he is the one who is enabling this by sending more weapons?" the county commissioner asks.

Mosque in Dearborn
Mosque in Dearborn, Michigan

President Biden's staunch support of Israel is not new, but Mr Baydoun says he is surprised the president visited Tel Aviv during a war and met the Israeli cabinet.

A summit with Arab leaders in Jordan was cancelled after a strike on a hospital in Gaza.

"We need an immediate ceasefire. If the election was held today he would not get the Arab vote," Mr Baydoun says.

The Arab American Institute, an advocacy group, says that since the start of the conflict, support by Arab Americans for the Democratic Party has plummeted from 59% in 2020 to just 17%.

That would be the first time in nearly 30 years that the Democrats were not the party of choice for Arab American voters.

Mr Baydoun is a Democrat, and says the war has made his job tougher: "How can I tell someone today to vote for President Biden?" he asks.

The dilemma for many in Dearborn is that the alternative is Donald Trump - an unpopular choice given he signed an executive order when in office that briefly barred travellers and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.

"I'm not going to tell people to vote for Trump. Obviously, I will not vote for Trump," the commissioner says.

Political analyst Larry Sabato says Mr Trump was in some ways a more pro-Israel president, infuriating Arab states by moving the capital to Jerusalem.

But that could mean Arab Americans stay at home, even if that benefits Mr Trump, Mr Sabato says.

Biden and Netanyahu
Shoulder to shoulder - Biden and Netanyahu

New polling by Siena College for the New York Times suggests Mr Biden loses out to Mr Trump in swing states like Michigan on the question of who is more trusted to handle the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Nada Al-Hanooti's job is to turn out the Muslim American vote in Michigan, and he can sense a change in mood.

"I'm hearing friends, and colleagues from other institutions that they're either voting third party or they're staying home."

Ms Al-Hanooti is executive director of Emgage, a civic engagement group that says it was instrumental in helping Mr Biden win Michigan in 2020.

"We made a lot of calls, sent a lot of text messages, did a lot of voter registration, as well as signing people up for absentee ballots. Biden needs the Muslim vote in order to win Michigan."

Now she says she doesn't know what Emgage's strategy will be for 2024.

"The president's job is to be the moral compass of the nation. And right now he's lost trust and credibility with a lot of the American public."

The election is about a year away - a lifetime in politics - will this feeling fade? "We will not forget," Ms Al-Hanooti say. "This is deep heartbreak."

Front page attacking Biden
Front page attacking Biden

Israel has described the attack by Hamas as "our 9/11". Many in Dearborn who remember the World Trade Center attacks say the aftermath for Arabs reminds them of that time.

The fatal stabbing of a six-year old Palestinian boy in Illinois, days after the attack in Israel, has deepened that sense of unease. The boy's landlord is accused of attacking him and his mother because of their religion.

In recent days, President Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris have launched the country's first national strategy to counter Islamophobia.

Some in Dearborn have welcomed that but most want Biden to call for a ceasefire in Gaza - only then will he win back their support. For others, though, the damage is done no matter what he does.

In a local coffee shop, Lexi Zeidan - who is Palestinian Christian - says she's even stopped calling Mr Biden the president.

He had my vote in 2020 but no longer, she says. "Why would I ever claim him to be a president - one that doesn't stand up for what's right, that doesn't stand up for a group of people that are defenceless."

Nada Al-Hanooti
Nada Al-Hanooti

The White House has said a ceasefire would enable Hamas to regroup and instead they want a pause in Israeli bombardment to enable humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. This US stance is echoed by the UK, Canada and the European Union.

Larry Sabato says it's easy to dismiss the anger clearly evident in Dearborn as heat of the moment, but the Middle East goes to the heart of Arab Americans' priorities as it does for many Jewish Americans.

And while Mr Biden can't afford to lose Michigan, Mr Sabato points out that neither can he afford to lose the growing Jewish vote in other swing states like Arizona or Georgia.

Nearly 1.1 million Muslim voters cast ballots in the 2020 election, and according to Pew Research, there are about 5.8 million Jews in the US.

While data shows the Jewish vote is more diverse, with an increase in those voting for Republicans in 2020, polls suggest most back Democrats and are a base constituency for the party.

There isn't any definitive poll so far that tells us how Jewish American voters feel about Biden's handling of the Middle East war but Mr Sabato thinks it will matter.

"A Democrat really has to do well with Jewish Americans and Arab Americans in order to win," he says.

"Honestly, the only way around it for Biden is for this war not to be on the front burner a year from now."