Fundamentally Freund: Oy-bama!

American Jewish support for the Democratic candidate is on the decline.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
Is American Jewry finally waking up from its love affair with the Democratic Party? That, at least, is the question that comes to mind when one considers some very interesting polling data that emerged recently. As odd as it may sound, Republican presidential candidate John McCain may just be poised to capture a significant percentage of the Jewish vote. Early last month, you'll recall, headlines blared in the US and Israeli press trumpeting the results of a Gallup survey conducted back in April which found that American Jews preferred Democratic hopeful Barack Obama by a margin of 61 to 32 over his GOP rival. For many observers, it seemed to confirm the time-honored tradition that American Jews continue to remain solidly in the Democratic camp. After all, a two-to-one margin represents a fairly compelling advantage. BUT HERE'S something the mainstream media has not, and likely will not, tell you: Obama's support among US Jewry is on the decline. This became apparent in another, more recent Gallup poll published on June 5, which showed that the race for support among American Jews has begun to tighten, with Obama now leading McCain by a margin of 57 to 35. That represents a narrowing of the gap from 29 to 22 points in just one month. And it comes despite the free ride, and the fawning coverage, that Obama has been getting from much of the American press. Moreover, this latest poll was conducted after it had become clear that Obama was set to be the Democratic nominee, whereas the previous survey took place when Hillary Clinton was still very much in the race as well. In other words, now that American Jews are confronted with the stark choice between Obama and McCain, a noticeable shift has begun to take place towards the Republican contender. THE REASONS for this shift are not too hard to identify. Clearly, the controversy surrounding Obama's contentious pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, hurt him among US Jews who might otherwise have supported him. Many are also wary of his connections with people on the far-left anti-Israel scene, and suspect that his inexperience will hinder his ability to perform as president. Moreover, Obama's stated willingness to court dictators such as Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad raises serious question marks about whether he is up to the task of defending Israel and the West in an increasingly dangerous world. His grand flip-flop on Jerusalem earlier this month will only serve to add to those concerns. Just one day after his rousing speech at the AIPAC conference in Washington, where he said he supports Israeli control over a united Jerusalem, Obama unceremoniously back-tracked in order to appease Arab anger. That will only exacerbate the growing unease that many Jews feel over where he really stands on core issues of importance to them. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly apparent that many US Jews, after taking a closer look at the senator from Illinois, are now scratching their heads and declaring "Obama? Oy-bama!" SURE, YOU might be thinking, but he is still getting 57 percent of the Jewish vote in the latest poll, and that is still a healthy majority. That may be true, but consider the following: both Bill Clinton and Al Gore each won approximately 80 percent of the Jewish vote when they sought the presidency. And even the dour and uninspiring Democratic candidate John Kerry was able to take home 75 percent in the 2004 contest. So if Obama is slated to capture just 57 percent of American Jewish ballots, or possibly even less, that would nonetheless constitute a dramatic failure on his part. How much does this really matter? Quite a lot, actually. According to a 2001 study by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, some 30% to 35% of American Jewish voters "can be lured by any party depending on its position." Sprinkled among key battleground states in the campaign, that large group in the middle "adds up to a swing vote representing up to 2% of the electorate in states like Florida and Pennsylvania," the report noted. And in the 2000 cliffhanger election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which hinged on the outcome in Florida, that Jewish "swing vote" might have made all the difference. "A shift of that amount," the study found, "would have changed the result in that state and, in all probability, singlehandedly crowned the American president. Put another way, the Jewish swing vote, mobilized behind a particular candidate, would have given him the 2000 election." THIS SIMPLE fact of electoral life hasn't changed all that much in the intervening eight years, meaning that a historic opportunity may be at hand for Republican John McCain. If he continues to court the Jewish vote, and underline his opponent's obvious weak points when it comes to Israel and the Middle East, McCain could very well make further headway among American Jews and draw more of them into the Republican column. By stressing bread-and-butter issues, like the security of the Jewish state, its right to self-defense, and the need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, the Arizona senator might conceivably match, or even surpass, the 40 percent of the Jewish vote that Ronald Reagan won back in the 1980s. While that won't necessarily guarantee him victory in the race for the White House, it might just tip the scales in his favor in a close contest. And, just as important, it could seal growing Jewish support for the GOP in the years and decades to come.