White House hopefuls race for critical 2012 Jewish support

By J Brooks Spector 29 September 2011

Political pundits are addicted to finding the eternally elusive pivot vote – that convenient bloc, grouping or ethnic slab they imagine holds “the key” to an election’s result. Its existence is out there with El Dorado and Elvis – but that doesn’t detract from the value of examining potential shifts in the way groups defined by common skin colour or religious heritage may vote today. After all, in politics, who knows … By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Rob Turner’s recent Republican victory in the special election for New York’s 9th congressional district, defeating a little-known Democratic candidate to succeed the hapless Anthony Weiner, came shortly before a speech by President Barack Obama at the Congressional Black Caucus awards dinner. It followed criticism he paid insufficient attention to African American concerns about the economic situation.

Given the special nature of the election in New York City, this also encompassed the impact of Jewish voters in the 2012 presidential election, as well as how deeply US-Israel relations are interwoven into the American political landscape. As the White House starts a new programme of engaging with potential voters along ethnic lines and issues, and as Republicans gear up their attacks on the Obama administration along very similar lines, iMaverick pauses for the Jewish new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah to contemplate anew the continuing importance of religion, race, colour and creed in America’s electoral system.

Way back in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt reshaped the party’s coalition of supporters so fundamentally that, except for the defection of Southern whites in the aftermath of Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, it has lasted at varying levels of support until today. Fusing a coalition of the economically downtrodden on to the base of southern whites that had supported Democratic candidates since the Civil War, and building on the social changes in America through the 1920s, Roosevelt brought together north-eastern Americans (Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans among others) in the big cities, along with a newly urbanised African-American population that had trekked north and decisively gained the franchise. Added to this mix was a crucial leavening of intellectuals and social activists from unionised labour and America’s small but active socialist-style social and political movements.

Although the civil rights revolution of the 1960s had hived off much traditional Democratic white working-class support in the South, Democrats have become increasingly competitive in the suburbs. And along the way they have added Hispanics and Asians to their ranks of supporters. Nonetheless, in the past three-quarters of a century, the two ethnic groups most consistently identifiable with the Democratic Party have been Jewish-Americans and American Blacks – despite sometimes-fractious relationships between them.

The question now is whether Turner’s victory represents a significant change in the way Jews see themselves in the American political landscape – and could this be an important opportunity for Republicans in 2012? Until this by-election, this congressional district had voted consistently Democratic since 1922. And with nearly 280,000 Jewish voters, the fourth largest of any congressional district in the country, Republican strategists have been arguing that the party shift represented an early harbinger of voter anger over Obama’s economic policies as well as his perceived anti-Israel bias.

This, in turn, is fuelling Republican hopes they can exploit this in yet other congressional races – and thence to the presidential election as well. The question remains, however, if this electoral shift is indicative of larger shifts in the attitudes of Jewish voters. Many of the 9th District’s Jews are members of ultra-orthodox variants of Judaism. And this is the only sector of American Jewry that has a more general affinity with the conservative social agendas of an increasingly right-wing Republican Party. But this shift in support on social agendas – such as opposition to gay marriage – is what has led Mike Huckabee to say this could spell trouble for Obama next year. Huckabee added that what he termed Obama’s mixed message about Israel should lead Jewish voters to lean Republican.

The New York Times, surveying a number of congressional districts where this presumably wavering Jewish vote could be trouble for Democrats, noted: “Not since Jimmy Carter in 1980 has a Democrat running for president failed to win a lopsided majority of the Jewish vote. This has been true during times of peace or war, and even when there has been deep acrimony between the White House and the Israeli government.

“Republicans see a chance to change that in 2012, with President Obama locked in a tense relationship with Israel’s leaders and criticized by many American Jews as being too tough on a close and favoured ally. Tuesday’s Republican upset in New York’s Congressional election, they say, is a sign of bad things to come for Obama.”

Now, no Republican realistically argues the majority of American Jews will abandon the Democratic Party wholesale for a dalliance with a born-again Christian like Rick Perry or a Mormon like Mitt Romney – in spite of their vigorous support for Israel. Nor that a modest shift in Jewish political allegiances could easily sway the results next year. Jews form no more than 3% of the electorate, and that includes the conservative ultra-religious, as well as those brought up Jewish, but non-practicing ones.

Moreover, tracking polls measuring support for Obama say that while nearly 80% of American Jews voted for him in 2008 and general support for him has dropped substantially, it still clocks in at around 68% – substantially higher than just about any other distinct voting bloc.

The key is that Republicans are really betting they can peel away enough Democratic-voting Jews to sway the final results in a baker’s dozen of congressional districts that have been slowly drifting Republican for years, sap the enthusiasm of Jewish voters and financial supporters for the Democratic ticket – and just perhaps influence the winning margin in a handful of key battleground states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The perceived softness of Obama’s support for Israel has been rising in the period between Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington and his near-reverently received speech to a joint session of Congress – and the Palestinian push for recognition at the UN this week. In this trend, Republicans seem to believe their demonstrations of support for Netanyahu and the hard-line policies of some members of his governing coalition would crystallise perception of their party as the one in Israel’s corner, despite deep ties between Democratic politicians, Jews and Israel.

American support for Israel has remained relatively constant for a decade across the broad population, with about half of all Americans supporting Israel while a gradually declining percentage has thrown support behind the Palestinians. Analysts believe this is an effect of the 9/11 attacks, the war on terror and a more general feeling about Arabs and Islam. As The Economist noted nearly half a decade earlier, “the biggest reason why Americans are so pro-Israel may be cultural. Americans see Israel as a plucky democracy in a sea of autocracies—a democracy that has every right to use force to defend itself.”

Tellingly, opinion polling data also says while one in five Americans say Obama favours Palestinians too much and only around 6% say he favours Israel too much, roughly half say he has struck just the right balance. And in August and September, 54% of Jewish voters said they approved of the job the president was doing (compared with only 41% of American voters overall).

In fact, Jews continue to be far more enthusiastic about Obama than other Americans and this has been consistent since his election. Gallup polls show Obama’s approval rating among Jews was 68% in May, 60% in July and 54% in September and, while that is a steady decline, its drop has been no steeper or more rapid than the overall decline of Obama’s approval numbers. Despite Republican attacks that Obama is pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab, Jewish Americans have continued to hold more positive opinions of Obama than the average American – some 14% higher.

A few days before Obama’s speech to the UNGA, when secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the US was urging both parties to take advantage of this opportunity to get back to talks, the Obama administration was carefully balanced between not wanting to inflame Arab public opinion by exercising yet another veto in support of Israel as against the domestic political perils of pressuring Israel, thereby presumably alienating some Jewish voters and donors.

But in reality, the competition is more than simply Jewish votes. Republican candidates continue to beat the drum of a pro-Israel stance for the big prize, the votes of the quarter or more of all Americans (and perhaps some 25 million or so voters) who see themselves as evangelicals, charismatics, born-agains and supporters of Israel as part of a theological-political stance. But British historian and observer of the American psyche, Simon Schama, in The Financial Times, recently argued the dangers of such a strategy, appealing to Republican-evangelical politicians: “Next time the temptation to sound off on the best interests of the Jewish state strikes, CAN IT! Israel has enough on its plate without being exploited as campaign fodder by blowhards who, every time they open their mouths on the subject reveal their shocking ignorance of its past history, present political reality and future security.

“According to Mitt Romney, Barack Obama has ‘thrown Israel under the bus’. Was he even listening to the president’s speech at the UN? To what, precisely could even the most hard-line defender of Israeli foreign policy take exception, exactly?

“Or take Governor Rick Perry who lately used every opportunity available, to denounce President Obama’s Middle East policy as some sort of betrayal of the Jewish state. [But] When he upbraids Obama for saying that the starting point of those frontiers ought to be the Green Line of 1967, that has been exactly the position of Israeli and US governments (including Republican administrations) for a long time…. “

And to the evangelicals like John Hagee, Schama adds that the real divide in Israeli politics, just as with Muslims and in the US, is between zealots and pragmatists: “When Perry says ‘as a Christian I have a directive to support Israel’, we know that it’s the Campaign Manager Up There who is whispering in his ear.”

To combat just such Republican efforts, the White House has now set up a special “war room”. “We just have a lot of people lying about the president’s record, and we have to push back on it,” said Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the articulate, forceful congresswoman who is also chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. She insists that, “The president has a rock-solid record on Israel, and because we’re going to convey that in a detailed way, we’re going to get an overwhelming majority again.”

But Republican groups appear just as determined to make Israel a wedge issue – or a way of prizing voters from their previous allegiances. In New York City there are now billboards that show Obama smiling and shaking hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – the not very subtle slogan being Obama is “Not pro-Israel”.

“Not a day passes when I don’t see a string of emails on my BlackBerry from people I don’t know or groups I’ve never heard of, just pounding away that this president is not a friend of Israel, and worse,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee – group not specifically aligned with either party.

The Republican Jewish Coalition now plans to use these tactics in all those other congressional districts that house large numbers of Jewish voters. Matt Brooks, executive director of that coalition told journalists “It’s very easy to extrapolate to the 2012 election and say Obama is going to have trouble with Jewish voters in battleground states like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania.”

Meanwhile, Barack Obama spoke passionately to a big crowd of would-be supporters on Saturday at the Congressional Black Caucus annual awards dinner to rally support. With overall support dropping into dangerous waters, a Washington Post-ABC poll last week showed the proportion of blacks expressing strongly positive views of Obama has dropped 25 points since mid-April – from 83% to 58%.

In his Saturday address, he implored his audience to support programmes that can create jobs and improve opportunity. His speech came in response to complaints from some black political figures that he had given away too much in his negotiations with Republicans over budget issues – and that his administration hadn’t done enough to combat black unemployment, which reached 16.7% nationally.

Motivating this key constituency is crucial. Analysts say that, in addition to the support of smaller groups like Jewish Americans, Obama is going to need black turnout to match its historic 2008 levels if he hopes for victory. In 2008, his appeals could be more general. This time, with his popularity waning, his strategy must be to gather support, constituency by constituency, analysts argue.

Obama has acknowledged that the recession has truly hurt the black community, saying, “So many people are barely hanging on, [even as] so many people in this city are fighting us every step of the way.” The irony, of course, is that many African Americans came late to Obama’s support in 2008, seeing him as a candidate who was outside the historic black experience in America. In this speech, however, he seemed to find the cadence and rhythm of more traditional African American politicians, charging the crowd to “Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complainin’. Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’. We are going to press on. We have work to do” to pass legislation like his new jobs bill.

And then, as it must always be in a country where elections really do cost a fortune, and where Obama campaign strategists hope to raise a $1 billion war chest for the election, Obama departed Washington for California to attend some major fundraising events and press the flesh of would-be supporters, the other must-do, have-to-do duties for any candidate – even a sitting president. DM

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