Democratic firewall in Pennsylvania relies on high Jewish turnout

Volunteers knocking on doors to get out the vote.

November 6, 2016 03:07
4 minute read.
Clinton AIPAC

Hillary Clinton addresses AIPAC in Washington DC. (photo credit: screenshot)

WASHINGTON -- The last poll publicly released of Pennsylvania entering election day reveals a statewide tie between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump– a frightening prospect for Democrats counting on their ability to hold the state and its 20 electoral college votes.

Trump, the GOP nominee, has several narrow paths to the minimum 270 votes needed to secure the White House without winning Pennsylvania. But that task becomes far easier for him if he picks off this state, which has not broken for a Republican since 1988 but has in recent years been a close race to call.

Democrats are fighting to maintain historic margins in the state's old steel mill country in its southwest and northeast, where lower to middle class white voters dominate the political landscape. But as in elections past, maintaining healthy margins in unfriendly regions will not be enough to secure victory. The party's real challenge will be winning battleground counties by driving up the turnout of their base.

Those battlegrounds in Pennsylvania are Montgomery, Chester and Delaware counties– the suburbs of Philadelphia. And winning performances in these counties relies on near-perfect turnout among Jewish Pennsylvanians.

Lower Merion, Abington and Cheltenham municipalities within Montgomery County– the third most populous county in the state– all have Jewish communities that amount to 10 to 20% of the voter population, said Marcel Groen, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, in an interview.

"It's a strategically located group," he said. "All of these municipalities have significant Jewish communities, and they represent our base, to a large degree– not exclusively, but its a critically important component."

Groen describes the Democratic firewall in Pennsylvania as reliant on three pillars: Suburban women, African Americans and Jews. High turnout amongs these demographics will determine the outcome in this massive swing state, he argued.

"We know the areas where turnout is important, and where the margin of victory is made, and they're going to be hit like crazy," Groen added. "The election in Pennsylvania will be largely decided in the suburbs, and there are significant Jewish communities in the suburbs. They represent a significant portion in our constituency."

One volunteer, Jill Goldenberg ,a travel coordinator for the grassroots group Jewish Women for Hillary, drove down to Philadelphia with a friend from Connecticut on Friday to knock on doors.

"​At this point in the race, we are going to win if we get out our Hillary voters," said Goldenberg. "So the Jewish community is very strategically deploying our resources where our voters are, in the Philadelphia suburbs​."

Goldenberg's efforts are the bread and butter of a solid campaign ground game. These volunteers are knocking on doors of houses they already know are likely to lean Democratic, and asking their inhabitants what their plan is for voting on Tuesday. If residents say they don't have time, volunteers will offer ways to expedite their transportation to and from their nearest polling station.

"We ask them if we can get them a ride, if they know how to vote," Goldenberg said. "I've been involved in campaigns for a long time, and I'm just so impressed by the campaign organization."

In Pittsburgh, an old friend of the Clintons from their days in Arkansas has made a case to his community for Hillary by describing her in personal terms.

"I talk about my relationships with them back in Arkansas, where my father was really the only rabbi there," says Lazar Palnick, who was a teenager when his family first developed a relationship with the political couple. "He took care to cover all the Jewish services. We knew Hillary and Bill had terrific relations with the community in Arkansas, and I met them at the first Bar Mitzvah ever in Fayetteville, Arkansas, when he was a young professor at the law school. They had many Jewish friends, and Bill co-officiated weddings with my father."

Palnick, who works in voter protection in Pennsylvania, says he is "quietly confident and publicly nervous" for Tuesday, given the stakes of the race.

"I'm confident that Jewish voters here will turn out in droves– always have, always will," Palnick added. "They care about America's place in the world, and so I think the Jewish community will turn out in the high percentage numbers that we always do and that the vast majority of Jews in Pennsylvania for my friend."

Groen estimates that roughly 3 to 4% of Pennsylvania's total voter population is Jewish, and believes that 75 to 80% of those voters will turnout for Clinton. But his certainty in this community's support for Clinton is not reflective of his confidence in the race statewide.

"You're either scared or you're stupid," he said. "It's a difficult season."

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