US Affairs: Reaching for the Jewish vote Florida

With a Jewish population of 600,000, the Jewish vote is key in the swing Sunshine State.

US President Barack Obama 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
US President Barack Obama 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
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 family.
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 Democrat.”
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.
“Obama insulted 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 bad character.”
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 election.
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 difference.
“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 in history.”
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 community.
“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 official says.
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 leader.
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.
She characterizes 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 Democratic party.
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 entry.
“I tell people, ‘Don’t listen to the neighbors, don’t listen to the rabbi,’” she says. “Read for yourself.”
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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.
The 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.”
ROBERT 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.
“The misrepresentation 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."
While Republicans 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 candidate.
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.”
Some Jewish Democratic voters agree that the criticism of Obama on Israel has been stoked by disinformation.
“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 Hollywood.
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.
Ornstein adds 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.”