'It's unprecedented that a primary had such an impact'

The Jewish community has also been caught a bit off-guard by the importance of the primary and their votes.

clinton 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
clinton 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
At first glance, Ohio is not the kind of place you'd expect the Jewish vote might make the difference in the tightly fought presidential primary vote being held Tuesday. To the north, this state features industrialized cities and unionized towns dependent on Lake Erie; the east contains the depressed and rugged mountainous terrain of Appalachia; and to the west, sweeping plains hold typical Midwest farming communities. Jews don't tend to feature very prominently in these constituencies, and yet Jewish votes could be crucial for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama to emerge victorious in the Democratic vote. "Ohio is very much a cross-section of the country, so as a consequence, the electorate is very diverse," said William Daroff, director of the United Jewish Community's Washington office and himself an Ohio native. He was speaking Tuesday by phone from Cleveland, where about half of Ohio's approximately 145,000 Jews live. "Every cross-section of society, every religious group, every ethnic group is significant because every vote counts," he said. That has led to a vicious battle for Jewish votes in Ohio, which, along with Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island, went to the polls on Tuesday in what could be a decisive day in determining the Democratic presidential nomination. "The Clinton people are saying they can survive if they just win one of the two [big states] and live on," said Daroff, who used to work with the Republican Party. Clinton is betting heavily on Ohio, where polls show her still leading Obama, as opposed to Texas surveys, which have been much closer going into Tuesday's race. Though she had originally stressed the importance of Texas, Clinton has suggested she will stay in the race even if she only wins Ohio; it's not clear what she will do if she loses both. "Ohio, it appears, will be the make or break state for Sen. Clinton. It's all about the expectations game," Daroff continued, alluding to the fact that Obama's surge of popularity and win in the last 11 contests means the pressure is now on her to perform strongly. "The consequences of a one-vote victory or a one-vote loss are staggering." And since Jews vote, the candidates want to make sure that they get every supporter possible within the constituency. "The Jewish community tends to be more politically sophisticated, more educated. You might say they're leading the way," said Rob Zimmerman, a Democratic city councilman in Shaker Heights, a Cleveland suburb, and a trustee of the local Jewish federation. Daroff pointed to a tradition of civic involvement instilled in the state's Jewish community that has led to over-representation of Ohio Jews in national Jewish organizations, including himself and the four current and previous UJC chairmen and CEOs. That organizational involvement, and ties to the establishment that come with it, originally put many of Ohio's Jews firmly in Clinton's corner, according to Daroff. "They would have been very much in the camp of the establishment candidate," he said. But as elsewhere, that hasn't been sufficient to necessarily keep the majority of voters with her come Election Day. "It's very closely contested in the Jewish community," Zimmerman said, noting Obama's efforts to make inroads with the constituency. "Sen. Obama has had a very aggressive, and I think effective, outreach effort among the Jewish community," he said. While both candidates had events with surrogates in the Jewish community and tried to shore up voters there, Zimmerman gave higher points to Obama's field organization, whether it was public visibility or phone calls from supporters seeking his vote. He said Obama anticipated that, being less well know and facing questions about his stance on issues important to Jewish voters, he would need to take time to introduce himself and answer questions. Zimmerman gave him especially high points for appearing at a meeting with Jewish leaders last Sunday to address their concerns. While Zimmerman said he though Obama had resolved those issues, he said he would still be supporting Clinton because of her long history of involvement with the community and strong stance on issues he cares about. Still, he falted her campaign for not preparing for the battle they would face in Ohio. "This entire campaign post-February 5 has taken the Clinton campaign by surprise. I don't think they had a plan post-February 6," he said, referring to the day after Super Tuesday, when more than 20 states voted. "They have been scrambling - and I mean scrambling - to put an organization together in this state. It's taken it's toll." The Jewish community has also been caught a bit off-guard by the importance of the primary and their votes. "As someone who grew up in Ohio, it's really unprecedented that a primary election here had such impact," Daroff said. "There's a real sense here that Ohio will make the difference."