Dispatch October 2008

McCain's Armenia Problem

"In the superheated world of ethnic grievance politics, rarely do presidential elections feature such a clear contrast between two candidates. In California, New Jersey, Michigan and Nevada, that contrast could hurt McCain."

Denis Papazian, the Founding Director of the University of Michigan's Center of Armenian Studies, explained that a sizable share of Armenian-American voters considers candidates’ stances on Armenian issues and can be swayed by a pledge to support genocide recognition efforts. For instance, Papazian pointed to the strong support the community offered Bob Dole in 1996. He also estimated that Bush’s letter during the 2000 campaign boosted his support in the Armenian-American community. "If two relatively neutral candidates are running,” Papazian explained, “Armenian American voters will stay within the party [they usually feel the closest to]. But if one of them makes a promise to recognize the genocide, he will get a lot of votes."

Papazian himself fits that description. A Dole supporter twelve years ago, he is now supporting Barack Obama—identifying the Illinois Senator’s stance on recognition as a crucial factor in that decision. Another prominent Armenian-American who has undergone the same transition is Oscar Tatosian, the Chairman of the Diocesan Council of the Armenian Church of America. He, too, was a Dole supporter; he, too, describes himself as an independent and identifies genocide recognition as a primary issue; he, too, is supporting Obama. Both well-connected and highly-involved members of the Armenian community, Papazian and Tatosian professed to knowing many who share their outlook.

Voters like Papazian and Tatosian are giving Democrats hope they can make inroads in  the Armenian community. And while this might simply be due to a coincidental combination of one-time factors—a hostile Republican Administration, an unusually enthusiastic Democratic candidate and an uncommonly skeptical Republican nominee—Armenian-American issues have a decidedly more partisan feel this year.

For one, the genocide question is only one of many issues on which the Bush Administration has attracted criticism from the Armenian community. Stephan Astourian, a professor of history at Berkeley, also lists “Bush’s attempts at cutting the allocation of foreign help for Armenia almost every year, his clear orientation towards oil-based money and pro-Azerbaijan stance”—a reference to Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan over the province of Nagorno-Karabagh.

As importantly, McCain is the first presidential candidate in the past two decades who is on the record as opposing genocide recognition without already being a member of the incumbent Administration. Hagopian, one of the recipients of Bush’s letter in 2000, remains a strong conservative who supports McCain’s candidacy, but he admits his frustration with the Arizona Senator’s positions. “He has not been a friend of the Armenian community,” he said.

In 1990, McCain voted against a recognition resolution that was sponsored by then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. In 2000, campaigning for the Republican nomination in California, McCain confirmed that he would not support such a resolution. "It was not under this government in Turkey,” McCain said. “I don't see what this resolution does to improve this situation one iota." The Senator has stuck to his position in 2008, attracting widespread criticism from Armenian groups. “I think the most dangerous part of Senator McCain is that he is toeing the old Cold War era line that Turkey is this invaluable ally we cannot offend,” warned Areen Ibranossian, the Chairman of Armenians for Obama, a group promoting the Illinois Senator among Armenian-Americans nationwide. (The McCain campaign did not return my requests for an interview.)

By contrast, Obama has pledged that his Administration would recognize the 1915 extermination as an act of genocide. His campaign released two statements on this issue on January 19 and on April 28. “The facts are undeniable,” one statement said. “An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy.” Dennis Papazian predicted that Armenian voters “will shift towards Obama because of their belief that he will recognize the genocide.”

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Daniel Nichanian is an intern at The Atlantic.

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