HOLLYWOOD, FLORIDA – During the depths of the Great Depression, Rose Nisenbaum’s
bank refused to allow her to withdraw the $400 emergency fund she had spent her
life carefully saving. So she decided to appeal to a higher authority: she wrote
to the president, Franklin Roosevelt, much to the amusement of her
Eight weeks later, everyone but Nisenbaum was shocked when she
received a response from the White House. She was instructed to take take an
enclosed letter to the bank. When she arrived and rapped on the window of the
locked building, the manager inside waved her off. But when he saw the White
House insignia on the envelope she pressed against the glass, he let her in,
read the missive and promptly gave her the money.
Her daughter, Ruth
Lynn, was with her that day and still remembers it – and its lasting political
message – well.
“To us, president Roosevelt was a wonderful, wonderful
man,” she recalls from her Florida home, “and we always voted
But now, at age 89, Lynn plans to break the family tradition
and cast a ballot against Democratic President Barack Obama this fall. At the
top of her list of reasons is his attitude toward Israel.
Netanyahu when he came,” she said, referring to the prime minister’s reception
in Washington. “That wasn’t presidential. It showed his character, and it was a
The Obama campaign wants to keep Jewish voters like Lynn
in the Democratic fold, and its operatives are undertaking extensive outreach to
Jewish constituents in the Sunshine State ahead of the November
The effort comes amidst expressions of discontent in some
quarters over the administration’s treatment of Israel as well as signs that a
whispering campaign casting aspersions on Obama’s background and loyalties has
re-emerged. The Obama team wants to make sure that 2012 sees the same results as
2008, when similar issues reared their head but 78 percent of Jewish voters
still ended up backing the Democratic candidate.
Though only some 600,000
of Florida’s 18 million residents are Jewish, Jews disproportionately
participate in activism, fund-raising and voting itself – and in a swing state
such as Florida, even a small shift among a core demographic can make a
“Florida is and always has been the most significant
battleground state and will be in 2012,” declares Debbie Wasserman Schultz,
Democratic National Committee chairwoman and a US representative from Florida.
“We’re taking nothing for granted.”
Obama’s team, she says, is “in the
process of standing up the most robust, dynamic grassroots presidential campaign
So far the Obama campaign has 11 field offices operating in
Florida. By its count, staffers and volunteers have held nearly 3,500 trainings,
planning sessions and phone bank gatherings, as well as more than 4,500
one-on-one meetings with potential voters.
“Since 2008 we’ve been on the
ground, and we never really left,” says one campaign official of the Florida
activity. “It’s completely unprecedented.”
This effort spans a wide range
of Florida’s diverse constituencies, but several of the field offices –
including in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward – are in heavily Jewish counties
and there have been special house meetings and training sessions targeted at the
“We look at every voter as critical, if you look at Florida’s
history of close elections, and the Jewish community is a key community,” the
One woman who has been reaching out to many Jewish voters is Shelley Siegel,
herself Jewish and currently the campaign’s Boynton Beach neighborhood team
She runs phone banks, recruits volunteers and occasionally sets
up tete-a-tete sessions for Jewish Democrats vacillating in their support for
Obama as part of her outreach to the whole population.
the general response her office has received as “very positive,” especially
since at this point the campaign is focused on engaging voters already in the
But she notes that she occasionally comes across
concerned individuals, with Israel often the reason.
“We all know it’s an
issue with Jews – Israel and Obama,” says the 63-year-old retired teacher as she
sits among telephones and computer terminals in the Delray Beach office, where a
dozen or so volunteers gather three times a week for phone-banking and data
“I tell people, ‘Don’t listen to the neighbors, don’t listen to
the rabbi,’” she says. “Read for yourself.”
Siegel gives them literature
citing Obama’s many quotes affirming the US-Israel relationship and the high
levels of defense assistance the US has contributed to Israel.
campaign also provides sheets on “myths and facts” that push back against the
charges that Obama has pressured Israel more than the Palestinians in
negotiations, put forward parameters that weaken Israel’s negotiating position,
has not done enough on Iran and other criticisms.
The sheet also includes
a reference to the charge leveled by Lynn, that Obama snubbed Netanyahu in
Washington. The campaign papers refer to Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael
Oren as having called accounts of Netanyahu’s visit “distorted.”
WEXLER, a former congressman from Florida and one of the campaign’s surrogates
to the Jewish community, maintains that the Obama team is even better positioned
to meet the challenge than it was in 2008.
campaign of his opponents will no doubt be consistent with three years ago,” he
says. “The big difference is this time around, President Obama has a clear
record as president of engaging in numerous different ways."
think that record is one they can use to peel away dissatisfied Jewish voters,
Obama campaign officials believe it can be used to bolster their
Once more people are aware of the record, says a campaign
aide, “we really think we can do as well as we did in 2008.”
Democratic voters agree that the criticism of Obama on Israel has been stoked by
“The Republican party has instilled fear or attempted to
instill fear” on Obama’s approach to Israel, argues Barry Shulman, 70, who
praises the president’s performance over breakfast at Jack’s Diner in
Others, such as Diane Finkelstein, 55, who sits on a swivel
stool at the counter, say that their concerns over Obama’s stance on Israel
aren’t enough to shake their support.
“He could have been better [on
Israel],” Finkelstein says. “I’m going still going to vote for him because of
the other issues.”
Political expert Norman Ornstein of the
Washington-based American Enterprise Institute has found no evidence to suggest
Jews are going to abandon their historic political allegiance to the Democratic
party in large numbers this fall.
Predictions that their support will
drop off, he says, are based on “anecdotal” information.
that while it’s natural that a Democratic president would want to mobilize such
a heavily Democratic constituency, he doesn’t foresee Obama’s Florida outreach
having a major impact on the election.
“This is a more systematic and
organized effort than we’ve seen before,” he acknowledges. “It may make a little
difference, but there are a couple of things that are going to matter more, and
one is the state of the economy.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition points
to a recent Pew Research Center survey showing a drop in Jewish Democratic
affiliation – from 72% that belong to or leaned toward the Democratic party in
2008 to only 65% in 2011 – as an indication that Jew are making a significant
shift toward the GOP. But in the Florida Republican primary on January
31, in which only registered GOP voters could participate, exit polls recorded
no increase in Jewish participation.
Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the
Republican Party of Palm Beach County, estimates that Jewish support for the
president will fall some 15% in November to somewhere in the 60s, but he expects
that change will come largely from Independents.
Jewish Democrats have
said they’d vote against the party’s candidate before, he notes, but the ties
ends up being too strong.
“I don’t take them at their word,” he says.
“They’ve lied in the past.”
He continues, “They say they’ll vote
Republican and they realize what an awful president Obama has been… but then
they get to Election Day and they vote Democrat.”