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WASHINGTON, Oct 24 2012 (IPS) - With Barack Obama and Mitt Romney virtually tied with Election Day less than two weeks away, Muslim voters could play an unexpected critical role in deciding the outcome Nov. 6.
A poll of 500 registered Muslim voters released here Wednesday found that more than two-thirds (68 percent) currently plan to vote for Obama and only seven percent for Romney. But a surprisingly large 25 percent said they were still undecided between the two main party candidates.
And tens of thousands of those undecided voters are disproportionately concentrated in three “swing” states – Ohio, Virginia and Florida – where the candidates are focusing their campaigns in the last two weeks.
“The Muslim vote could be decisive in several battleground states,” said Naeem Baig, chairman of the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT), which co-sponsored the survey and whose political arm is expected to formally endorse candidates before the election.
The poll, which was conducted during the first two weeks of October, also found large majorities of respondents who said that the U.S. should support rebels in Syria (68 percent) and that Washington was right to intervene with NATO in last year’s revolt against the Qadhafi regime in Libya (76 percent).
Respondents were roughly evenly divided on whether the U.S. has provided sufficient support to the uprisings in the Middle East, known as the Arab Spring.
Precisely how many Muslim citizens there are in the United States – and hence how many Muslim voters – has been a matter of considerable debate. The U.S. Census is forbidden to ask residents their religious affiliation.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), another co-sponsor of the survey and an 18-year-old grassroots organisation that has become one of the country’s most active national Muslim groups, estimates a total U.S. Muslim population at between six and seven million, or about the same as the total number of U.S. Jews.
The Pew Research Center, on the other hand, last year estimated the total number of Muslim Americans at 2.75 million, of whom about one million were children and hence ineligible to vote. It found that more than 60 percent of U.S. Muslims are immigrants, and, of those, more than 70 percent are citizens.
Most native-born Muslims are African Americans, who, together with Arabs, Iranians, and South Asian comprise roughly 80 percent of the total U.S. Muslim population.
CAIR estimates the total number of registered Muslim voters at at least one million. Ohio, according to CAIR’s estimates has around 50,000 registered Muslim voters; Virginia, around 60,000; and Florida, between 70,000 and 80,000.
Historically, Muslim Americans have been split in their voting behaviour, but in the 2000 election 72 percent voted for George W. Bush primarily because his campaign met at length with Muslim organisations and, during a key debate with then-Vice President Al Gore, the former president spoke out against the use of secret evidence in deportation hearings and racial profiling. Four national Muslim organisations eventually endorsed his candidacy.
But, disillusioned with his administration’s harsh response to 9/11, including the detention of hundreds of Muslim men, the passage of the so-called Patriot Act, as well as the war in Iraq, U.S. Muslims abandoned Bush.
In the 2004 election, 93 percent of Muslims voted for the Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry; another five percent for third-party candidate Ralph Nader, and only one percent for Bush, according to surveys conducted at the time.
The Democratic shift continued in 2008 when nearly 90 percent of Muslim voters cast their ballots for Obama and only two percent for his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain.
Whether that level of support will be retained for Obama, however, is unclear, according to CAIR’s executive director, Nihad Awad, who said Muslims were in some respects disappointed by Obama’s inability or failure to fully follow through on some of his campaign pledges to amend or rescind the more onerous provisions of the Patriot Act and close the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba.
Like the general public, he noted, Muslims have also been disappointed by the president’s performance on the economy and reducing unemployment.
In addition, noted Oussama Jammal, who chairs a public affairs committee of the the Muslim American Society (MAS), noted that Obama’s greater use of drones to strike suspected Al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants in Pakistan “is not selling well in the (Muslim) South Asian community”.
Revelations regarding “unprecedented surveillance” of mosques and the use of agents provocateurs by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have also hurt Muslim confidence in Obama, according to Baig.
The 500-person sample on which the poll was based was drawn from a data base of nearly 500,000 Muslim American voters that was, in turn, developed by matching state voter-registration records with a list of some 45,000 traditionally Muslim first and last names prevalent in a variety of the world’s Muslim-majority ethnic groups.
Respondents included 314 men and 186 women across the country. Twenty-six percent of respondents were born in the U.S.; while 71 percent were not. (Three percent declined to answer the question.) Ninety-three percent said they had lived in the U.S. 10 years or more.
Of the total sample, 43 percent said they were of South or Southeast Asian ancestry; 21 percent, Arab; eight percent, European; and six percent from Iran and Africa each, an indication that African American Muslims, who are estimated to comprise about 30 of all Muslim Americans, may have been under-represented.
Half of respondents said they attend a mosque at least once a month.
The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus five percent.
In addition to its findings about presidential preferences, the poll found that a whopping 91 percent of respondents intend to vote in this year’s election. In the last presidential election in 2008, only about 57 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
It also found that the percentage of those who considered themselves closer to the Democratic Party grew from 42 percent in 2006 to 66 percent today, while affiliation with the Republican Party remained roughly the same at between eight and nine percent since 2008. Fifty-one percent of respondents said they considered the Republican Party, several of whose presidential candidates during the primary campaign made blatant Islamophobic remarks, hostile to Muslims.
Asked how important they considered 16 current foreign and domestic issues education, jobs and the economy, health policy, and civil rights were called “very important” by four out of five respondents. Seventy-one percent said they considered “terrorism and national security” in the same category, while two-thirds of respondents named the “possibility of war with Iran”.
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
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