View from America: Dream teams may test party ties

Pennsylvania's Democratic slugfest may leave Jewish votes up for grabs.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
Despite Sen. Hillary Clinton's decisive triumph in the Pennsylvania primary, when supporters of Sen. Barak Obama look at the totals of pledged delegates elected to the Democratic convention, they know that the Illinois senator's eventual coronation in Denver is still the likely outcome of the Democrats' nominating marathon. Nevertheless, Democratic officials know that the wounds opened up by his slugfest with Clinton may be felt long after the primary is forgotten. Though the dominant theme of post-Pennsylvania analysis has been Obama's failure to capture the affection of working-class Democrats, exit polls here revealed another potential problem for him: the Jewish vote. In many of the previous primaries, Jewish Democrats who are generally part of Obama's favorite demographic - upper income professional whites - either supported the senator from Illinois or split the same way as the rest of the white vote. But Pennsylvania was different. Here, the eight percent of voters who identified as Jewish went 62-38 for Hillary, seven points higher than her overall margin. THOUGH NOT exactly earth-shaking, it was probably enough to give hope to Jewish Republicans who never tire of predicting the end of Democratic dominance of the Jewish vote. They're headed for disappointment. Unless the Democrats nominate Jimmy Carter at their Denver convention instead of Obama or Clinton, there's no doubt that the majority of Jewish votes will go to the Democrats, no matter who wins the nod of the super-delegates. Though polls have shown that some Clinton voters would either stay home or vote for Republican John McCain if Obama is the nominee, Democrats have scoffed at suggestions of mass defections. And no group feels the pull of partisanship during what is surely one of the most partisan moments in American political history more than the Jews. With the majority of Jews critical of the war in Iraq, McCain's pro-life record on abortion (a key issue with Jewish women who like Hillary) and with the economy in a downturn, there are plenty of reasons for Democrats to be optimistic. But the Pennsylvania results should remind us that all it will take to switch the Keystone State from the blue Democratic column over to the red Republican ledger is a small shift in the numbers, not a huge one. Here in Pennsylvania, Jews comprise only about 2.3% of the total population. Yet in the Democratic primary, they accounted for an estimated 8% of the vote. That means that even if the majority of Jewish Clinton backers embrace Obama, should a significant minority of them consider his drawbacks too much to take, that could possibly tip the scales of the overall vote. The same holds true in other states where, like Pennsylvania, the presidential race is likely to be close. And when one considers that polls show McCain being only a few percentage points behind Obama in an otherwise solidly Democratic state like New Jersey, the significance of any sort of shift among Jews (who make up 5.7% of the total population there) would be telling. THOUGH BACKING for the Jewish state has been the GOP's sole wedge issue for Jewish voters, Obama has undercut doubts on that score by endlessly repeating his mantra of support at every conceivable opportunity. Republicans and some Clintonites may question his sincerity, but Israel alone is not going to cost Obama many Jewish votes. Yet Clinton clearly scored at Obama's expense with Jewish voters and others with her willingness to threaten Iran if it acquires nuclear weapons while Obama was still talking about engaging its leaders. Obama had also thought he had put his 20-year association with the radical Rev. Jeremiah Wright to rest in a speech given here in March. His rhetoric convinced most of his fans in the media that it was a non-issue, but Wright's refusal to shut up has exacerbated the problem. The cleric's April 28 speech before Washington's National Press Club made it clear that the notion of his extremism was no media invention. His stated support for Louis Farrakhan, belief that America brought 9/11 upon itself, and that the US government invented the AIDS virus and spread drugs among blacks were every bit as venomous as the sound bytes previously aired on the cable networks. Obama's association with Wright and former Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers are the sort of thing that increases doubts about his judgment and character in a way that is particularly scary to many Jews. Unless Obama stops trying to have it both ways and simply disowns Wright, his former mentor will continue to hurt him badly. Likewise, he is going to have to start sounding tougher on Iran lest he give McCain the chance to make it sound as if he would acquiesce to a situation in which Israel's existence might be endangered. That said, it must still be considered a given that McCain has little chance of matching the modern Republican record for Jewish votes that Ronald Reagan set in 1980 when he won just under 40% against Jimmy Carter. And if Democratic leaders can put a shotgun in the backs of their two candidates and force them to accept an Obama/Clinton "dream" ticket, then they may well be able to maintain their hold on the 75 to 85% of Jewish votes they have generally received in the past. HOWEVER, JEWISH Republicans have their own "dream" ticket in mind. That would mean McCain tapping his close friend Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman, who ran as Al Gore's running mate in 2000, has repeatedly said he won't do it. His standard disclaimer is "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt." But if McCain offered him the nomination, don't bet on Connecticut's sainted junior senator turning him down. Such a choice would enrage conservatives who didn't back McCain, but have nevertheless been demanding that the irascible Arizonan show them a little love. But as political guru Stuart Rothenberg recently wrote on the Web site, Lieberman is the perfect choice to help the Republicans win independents and Democrats in November. He also notes that McCain is also exactly the sort of person who would delight in a pick that would infuriate his two least favorite groups: ultra-conservatives and liberals who see the pro-war independent Lieberman as a turncoat. Lieberman is an unlikely choice for McCain. His stand on Iraq and willingness to make nice with Republicans also means that many Jewish Democrats will probably not follow him. But given the fact that all of the other GOP possibilities have their own serious drawbacks, choosing Lieberman may actually turn out to be the least illogical choice available to McCain. Obama's weakness may be leading Republicans to overestimate their chances this year. But if they get their "dream" ticket, then you can throw all previous commentary about Jewish voting patterns out the window. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. He can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected]