At their peak

The 2012 US elections could mark the highpoint of Jewish influence in American politics.

Pro-Israel students on US campus 521 (photo credit: Courtesy  JAFI)
Pro-Israel students on US campus 521
(photo credit: Courtesy JAFI)
In the closing stages of the razor-thin 2012 US presidential election, American Jews suddenly emerged in a starring role in a way they never had before.
In no previous election had the candidates spent so much money and expended so much time and energy in an effort to target and capture Jewish votes. In the short term, some might see this as gratifying. After all, it’s nice to be wanted. But some of the longer term implications are worrying both for the American Jewish community and for Israel.
Traditionally, as is well known, American Jews have loyally supported Democrats through good times and bad, going all the way back to the Great Depression and the New Deal. The only real exception came in 1980 when Jimmy Carter won only 45 percent of the Jewish vote, while Ronald Reagan took 39%. (A third candidate, John Anderson, won the rest).
In the five elections of the past 20 years prior to 2012, Jewish support for the Democratic candidate was remarkably stable – between 76% and 80%, according to exit polls. Barack Obama won 78% in 2008, a fairly typical result. But this year, Republicans saw an opportunity to change that.
Obama’s failure to visit Israel, his public spats with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his call for a return to the 1967 lines with territorial land swaps to form the basis of a peace agreement with the Palestinians alarmed and angered some Jews.
Romney accused Obama of “throwing Israel under a bus.”
Bankrolled by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and other wealthy donors and aided by new campaign finance laws which removed limits on political spending, the Romney campaign and its allies poured $6.5 million into an air and ground offensive to reach Jewish voters in swing states in the final weeks of the campaign.
Hundreds of volunteers manned phone banks and distributed leaflets in suburbs of Cleveland and Philadelphia and in south Florida, calling voters who had been identified through sophisticated “microtargeting” techniques. Meanwhile, ads targeting Jewish voters began appearing in the media. The effort was “unprecedented and historic,” Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matthew Brooks told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
But with the Jewish population of the US pegged at barely 2% of the total, why bother at all? The answer is that Jews punch above their weight in elections due to their extraordinarily high participation. In a country where 60% turnout in presidential elections is considered high, Jews vote at much higher rates – over 90% in some precincts.
According to figures compiled by the University of Miami’s Jewish Demography Project, Jews make up 3.4% of registered voters in the crucial swing state of Florida – but as many as 8% of the actual voting electorate.
In a presentation during the Democratic National Convention, Ira Forman, the Obama campaign’s head of Jewish outreach, estimated that if the president’s Jewish support fell to 65% nationwide, he could lose as many as 83,500 votes in Florida, 41,500 in Pennsylvania and 19,000 in Ohio. Any one of those states could decide a close election.
Most Jews do not vote primarily on the Israel issue unless they perceive Israel to be under threat. Like most Americans, they vote on a whole raft of economic and social issues.
But American Jews do not vote only on their pocketbooks either. In fact, many vote against their own economic interests in favor of social programs, progressive taxation and programs designed to reduce societal inequalities. Many Jews were disappointed in Obama but felt they could never find a home in a Republican Party they perceive as being dominated by Christian conservatives that is profoundly hostile to gay marriage, women’s reproductive rights, religious pluralism, science and the traditional separation of church and state.
A report published in July by the nonpartisan Solomon Project found that Jewish identification with the Democratic Party strengthened after 1992 when “Republican candidates increasingly aligned themselves with the evangelical community, as well as with its social and religious agenda, one that the Jewish community perceives as inimical to its domestic interests.”
A survey of Jewish voters in Florida by the American Jewish Committee in September had Obama leading Romney by 69% to 25%. But that was before the pivotal first debate between the two which Romney won decisively, resulting in a major bounce in the polls.
While some Jewish voters may have basked in the unfamiliar attention lavished on them by both campaigns, others saw the development as marking a disturbing and potentially dangerous politicization of Israel as an issue in US politics.
For decades, Jewish leaders and AIPAC lobbyists have striven mightily and with great success to maintain solid bipartisan support for Israel. Support is still solid in both parties in Congress, where few members dare to tangle with AIPAC – but it is no longer true in the country at large. Poll after poll has shown that while support for Israel is skyhigh among Republicans and conservatives, especially evangelic Christians, it is lukewarm at best among both Democrats and independents. Israel scores better among men than women, old people than young people, and its support is especially weak among minorities, including the fast-growing Hispanic community.
It’s not that these voters support the Palestinians in any great numbers. They do not. But they feel no special connection to Israel, nor do they feel that Israel is sincere in its stated desire for peace. They see the Israel- Palestine conflict as one between two equally guilty, equally intransigent, equally fanatical parties and they think the United States should have no part in it.
We saw an expression of that feeling in the botched handling of the Democratic Party’s platform on the Middle East, which failed to mention Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. When the Democratic Convention, prompted by Obama, hastily tried to correct the oversight by pushing through a voice vote to insert the missing sentence, there was loud booing in the hall.
A longstanding nightmare of Jewish leaders is the fear that Israel might become a partisan issue in US politics, with Republicans becoming the pro-Israel party and Democrats the not-so-much pro-Israel party.
This would obviously place Israel in a vulnerable position because the US is a country in which the pendulum of power is constantly swinging from one party to the other. For example, in 2004, Republicans controlled the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Only four years later, after the 2008 election, Democrats had taken over all three institutions.
Jewish leaders in their contacts with the Romney campaign and the Republican Party, implored him to be sensitive in the way he used the Israel issue. Clearly, Romney had every right to criticize Obama’s performance – but they did not want to see it turn into a general attack on Democrats and their party.
After the Jerusalem fiasco at the convention, that’s exactly what happened.
It is self-evident that Israel needs good friends in both parties, not just in Congress but in the country at large. AIPAC can only do so much. If the voters don’t support Israel, there will be no reason for their elected representatives to do so.
Part of the anxiety around what might happen during a second Obama term centers on the obvious mutual dislike between the president and Netanyahu, headlined by the notorious public lecture the Israeli leader delivered in the White House in May 2011 on the unacceptability of the “indefensible” 1967 borders. As long as Obama was running for reelection, the theory goes, he was constrained in what he could say or do in response. If and when he won a second term, it would be payback time.
There has also been a feeling in Democratic Party circles that Netanyahu and his aides made their preference for a Romney election victory a bit too obvious and that they also played politics with the Iran nuclear issue during the campaign. Netanyahu has clear links to Adelson, who has emerged as an object of both hatred and fear among Democrats.
Some also feared that if Obama lost the election and the Jewish vote emerged as one of the reasons for his defeat, a legacy of resentment would be created that could poison relations in the future and erode Democratic support for Israel even further.
Underlying all this is the slow but steady demographic weakening of American Jewry.
As the general population continues to rise, the Jewish population of the US has stagnated at best. Intermarriage among the non-orthodox is around 50% and birthrates are lower than for the population at large.
A survey by The New York Times recently found that among non-orthodox Jews in the city, 14% of households never attend a Passover seder, almost twice as many as a decade ago. The Reform and Conservative movements each lost about 40,000 members between 2002 and 2011; nearly a third of the respondents who identified themselves as Jews said they did not ally themselves with a denomination or claimed no religion.
Over the long term, it’s going to difficult to maintain the community’s clout in the face of such numbers. We may be moving to a situation where Israel becomes a political football to be tossed about by the two major parties. If this happens, we may have occasion to look back with nostalgia on the great election battle of 2012 as a highpoint of Jewish influence in US politics.
Journalist and author Alan Elsner headed Reuters coverage of the 1996 and 2000 US Presidential elections. He can be reached at and his website is