US Affairs: Let the synagogue-chasing begin

Though Jews usually vote Democratic, the GOP senses an opportunity to peel off disaffected voters.

obama makes point 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
obama makes point 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Boca Raton retiree Alan Bergstein calls himself an "umbilical cord" Jewish Democrat. "I was raised to be a Democrat, and to believe that the Democratic Party was the party that the Jews had to support," he explains. "That they were inseparable." Bergstein was making good on that upbringing by the age of seven, when he stood outside his elementary school handing out leaflets in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet for the first time in his 73 years, this fall the former junior high principal will be voting for a Republican: John McCain. "I'm convinced now that [Barack] Obama is going to be a disaster not only for the American people, but especially for the Jewish people and Israel. I think that he will sell Israel down the river," charges Bergstein, citing, among other issues, Obama's ties to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright - who has attacked Israel and honored Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan - and the candidate's willingness to meet with leaders of Iran who threaten Israel with destruction. A fellow Jewish-Floridian Democrat, who would not give her name, offers a more succinct reason why, despite supporting Hillary Clinton, she will vote Republican now that Obama has tied up the Democratic nomination. "I will not have the leader of the free world named Barack Hussein Obama," she states. "It's a Muslim name, and I'm not ready for that." These are just two voters, but they both say they know others just like them. And they happen to live in a state - Florida - where Jewish voters, and Jewish skepticism about Obama, could be fateful, come fall. While most of America's Jews live in states such as New York, California and Massachusetts, where the Democrats are expected to win easily, significant pockets reside in some of the key swing states - Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and potentially New Jersey. Though Jews usually vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and Obama has done well among Jewish voters in many primary states, the Republicans sense an opportunity to peel off disaffected voters like Bergstein. ROB ZIMMERMAN is a Democratic city councilman in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, a state whose votes made the difference in placing George W. Bush over John Kerry. He noted that Ohio could come down to 1 percent of the vote once again - the same as the number of Jews (150,000) there are in the state. "If the election is very close, that could be important," he says of the Jewish vote. And already, he adds, he has seen signs that the McCain campaign is thinking that way, as he recently received a call from a pollster questioning him about his Jewish observance, his opinions on Middle East politics and whether, accordingly, he might support the Republican nominee. After he got off the phone, he recounts, "I called my friend [and] told him, 'It's on.'" A Clinton supporter who is now undecided, Zimmerman can understand McCain's appeal to some Democratic Jewish voters, not least of which because he has the endorsement of former Democratic vice presidential candidate and Orthodox Jew Joseph Lieberman, an independent senator from Connecticut. Lieberman has been one of McCain's busiest surrogates, and has been making a special push to win over Jewish voters. His presence is one sign that the McCain campaign isn't writing off the Jewish vote. And with good reason, according to Frank Luntz, a veteran GOP pollster. "It's pretty clear it's going to happen," he says of McCain's picking up more than the usual percentage of the Jewish vote. "But it's impossible to know what percentage it will be." He mentioned a recent Gallup poll as a ballpark estimate - Obama got 61% of the Jewish vote to McCain's 32% - but many Democratic strategists dispute the relatively low Jewish support for Obama, since it was conducted before the primary competition was finished. Indeed, Luntz notes, "Jews were always Democratic and always will be Democratic." Even with gains for Republicans since 1992 (from 11% to 24% of the Jewish vote, according to exit polls), the GOP is still well below the Democrats' numbers - but it's growing. "A greater and greater number of Jews are coming to the Republican Party, and McCain has a very good record [on Israel], and I think that will help him considerably," Luntz predicts. THE MCCAIN campaign signaled its intention to push the issue, which it sees as one of the candidate's key selling points. "The Jewish vote is very much up for grabs. Sen. McCain is well positioned to fight for each of these votes," said campaign spokeswoman Crystal Benton, who pointed to McCain's appearances in Florida and New York, as well as outreach by surrogates and a coalition of Jewish supporters and fund-raisers. Though Luntz said that it's younger Jews who are most open to the GOP - the same demographic most likely to be swayed by Obama - older voters are the ones with the most reservations about Obama's record on Israel, putting many votes in play. It also isn't good news for Obama that so many Jews backed Clinton, who just went through a hard-fought primary campaign that left many of her voters bitter. A CNN poll of Clinton supporters found that only 60% would vote for Obama in the general election, though analysts say that number will grow as November approaches. When it comes to the Jewish vote, political scientist Ken Goldstein thinks that Clinton could potentially help Obama more than hurt him. With Clinton pledging to work to make sure Obama is elected, one way in which she could assist him would be by appealing to the Jewish community. "The Obama campaign has some work to do," Goldstein says of the "angst" that some Jewish voters are feeling about the Democratic nominee. But the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, who tracks the Jewish vote, is confident the campaign can do it. Obama's campaign acknowledges it has to "get the facts out" about the Illinois senator - including his repudiation of Wright's statements about Israel, the reverend's praise for Farrakhan and other issues that have troubled some Jewish voters. Obama has made three recent appearances before Jewish audiences - at a Boca Raton synagogue, at an Israeli Embassy reception for the state's 60th birthday and at the AIPAC conference the day after he clinched the nomination - in which he has stressed his staunch support for Israel, and the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. "Those with concerns are having those concerns addressed," says a campaign adviser. He argues that the AIPAC speech, which was well received by the audience, is "another step toward securing a very strong voter for him in the Jewish community in November." For Jewish Democrats to vote for Obama, Goldstein says, "There has to be some threshold level of comfort, and I think Barack Obama will meet that threshold pretty comfortably." And once that's done, he continues, Obama has the advantage. "[McCain] will do a little better than a normal Republican, but the fundamental factors are very much with the Democrats," he says, referring to a nation unhappy with the incumbent Republican administration, which feels the country is headed in the wrong direction, and which is worried about a tanking economy. He adds that most American Jews don't vote solely on Israel, and that, "to the extent that most Jews are going to vote on foreign policy, they're going to vote on the war - and most are against the war." That favors Obama. Taken as a whole, Goldstein thinks any changes in Jews' historic commitment to the Democratic party will come at the margins. "The Jews are going to support Obama. The question is whether it's 70% or 80%." And even if it's the former, he questions whether that will affect the national race, since Jews mostly aren't located "in places that matter, except in Florida," and even there it's not clear how competitive the state will be in the general election. But Luntz counters that by saying that with so many divergent trends, nothing should be taken for granted. "It's just the weirdest election we've ever had, and that puts a lot more groups up for grabs," he assesses. "And the Jewish vote is worth fighting for."