(photo credit: AP)
Most of America's Jews will be heading to the polls on Tuesday, making what could be a decisive contribution to the presidential nominating process.
Though a small proportion of the voting public, Jews are located in large numbers in strategically significant states - New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois, Massachusetts - in the "Super Tuesday" primaries. The 20-plus states voting on February 5 contain two-thirds of the country's Jews, as well nearly half of the delegates to this summer's national conventions.
While it was originally expected that the one-day vote, also dubbed "Tsunami Tuesday," would largely decide the nominees for both parties, the plurality of competitors and tight races on both sides have made the day important but unlikely to determine the final outcome all on its own.
Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain is leading former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in most polls, and has picked up a plethora of political and media endorsements since his victory in Florida. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, is doing well in states with heavy Evangelical populations and could help put McCain over the top by splitting the conservative wing of the party with Romney.
On the Democratic side, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton continues to lead nationally, but she has seen her once sizable margins over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama whittled down considerably.
Jewish voters could play a big part in deciding who gets the nod, especially since they tend to vote at higher levels than the general public - being both an older and more politically active constituency. They also heavily lean Democratic, which is the closer race. Republican Jews are expected to largely back McCain, since they tend to vote more moderately than other Republicans and appreciate the war hero's strong national security credentials.
Among Democrats, the Jewish communities in the home states of Obama and Clinton are expected to predominantly support the local candidate - Obama in Illinois and Clinton in New York.
In one of the few available opinion surveys assessing the Jewish vote, New York's Siena College found that Jews in the Empire State preferred Clinton to Obama by 51 percent to 16%, with 25% undecided. (The poll, conducted in mid-January, also found 8% backing former senator John Edwards, who has since dropped out of the race; it polled just 70 Jewish voters out of a larger general sample.)
Steven Greenberg, spokesman for the Siena College poll, estimates that 11% of New York's voters are Jews - more than their share of the population - and that in Democratic primaries they account for 16% to 17% of voters. New York, third in overall population to California, has the country's largest Jewish population, while California has the second-largest.
New York Jews should be particularly significant because the state's delegates to the national convention are apportioned according to voting in each congressional district, with certain districts weighted to receive more delegates because of their high Democratic turnout in past national elections. Jews are overrepresented in those districts.
Clinton's standing in New York is also likely to help her in the bordering states of Connecticut and New Jersey, though the races there are tighter.
One key factor in all of these places, though, is identity politics. Black voters have been increasingly jumping onto the Obama bandwagon - helping to give him a victory in the South Carolina primary and making him competitive in many urban areas. In the New York Democratic primary, the black vote could outpace the Jewish vote by a few percentage points, according to Greenberg.
While Romney, significantly trailing McCain here, seems to mostly be giving New York a pass, Obama supporters have held some events here and in New Jersey. But his campaign has focused heavily on California, with strong outreach there to to Jewish voters. Obama, who has pulled nearly even with Clinton in Golden State polls, could well agree with the state's nickname if he continues to pick up momentum. Though Clinton has also been appearing personally in the state, the Obama campaign has made it a major focus, including holding a major rally with Oprah Winfrey in Los Angeles on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Clinton and McCain have been making efforts to shore up support here. McCain-backer Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew from Connecticut, has appeared in the tri-state (NY, NY and CT) area. McCain is also aided by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's demise in Florida, since many Jews had supported him and now find themselves looking to McCain as a similar political figure.
"One could certainly conjecture that McCain would benefit more than Romney from Giuliani dropping out, particularly since Giuliani endorsed McCain" after quitting the race, Greenberg said.
And Clinton surrogates, including Jewish actress Fran Drescher (best known for her role as the "Nanny"), have been touring the area as well. The push will be capped off by a Clinton "town hall" meeting televised on purchased time on the Hallmark Channel on Monday night. It will be filmed live in New York and broadcast to the entire country.
New York's Jewish political establishment - senators and representatives alike - has backed Hillary, and in exit polls from two previous state votes, Nevada and Florida, Jews have chosen Clinton over Obama. But the attributes that likely helped in Florida last week (where the primary held didn't actually award delegates) - older, more conservative Democratic voters - could put her on the wrong side of the surging interest in this race among Jews and non-Jews alike. Growing support for Obama is being powered by young, well-off and independent voters. While New York voting is open only to registered party members, unaffiliated voters can participate in California.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm for Sen. Obama in a lot of communities," Greenberg said. "It's going to be a very spirited race in New York, but it looks like Hillary Clinton will win her state."
He noted, though, that even a losing Obama would probably come away with many delegates. Since the Democratic votes in most states aren't winner-take-all, most of the candidates stand to rack up large numbers of delegates, whether or not they prevail in individual contests. That makes it hard to see one clear candidate emerging as the nominee at this point.
"Nobody thinks Obama can win in New York, but the irony is that he sort of doesn't have to," said one Democratic strategist. "He doesn't need 51% of the vote. He needs 43% or 44% to get as many delegates - and bragging rights that he got as many delegates."
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