Thomas Fitzgerald: Courting the Jewish vote
Democrats count on traditional support, but the GOP has made inroads.
When President Obama declared at the United Nations on Wednesday that he would oppose the unilateral Palestinian bid for statehood recognition, he was taking a stand for Israel - and for himself.
"A badge of honor," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it. Obama's strategists no doubt consider the praise a lifeline, a perfect sound bite.
To win reelection in 2012, Obama needs a supermajority of Jewish voters, a key constituency of the Democratic coalition, on board and energized. And that goal has seemed distant lately.
Obama's standing among Jewish voters has dipped amid criticism that he has been hostile to America's closest ally. Republicans recently won a special House election in a heavily Jewish district in Queens and Brooklyn that Democrats had represented since the 1920s, a race that focused in part on the administration's Middle East policy.
Republican presidential candidates have pounced. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, during a speech to Jewish activists last week in New York, accused Obama of "appeasement" of the Palestinians and a "naive, arrogant . . . and dangerous" approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Perry said Israel should have full control of Jerusalem and not be restrained from establishing settlements in areas the Palestinians claim for a state - positions to the right of many Israeli politicians and every U.S. president since Richard Nixon.
To many Jewish critics, the problem is that Obama has seemed to hold Israel and the Palestinians equally to blame for the impasse in the Middle East, an equivalence that they say overlooks terrorism. Obama has called for a freeze on Israeli housing construction on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and said a peace deal should be based on the pre-1967 borders of Israel.
Of course, conservatives have been forecasting the great migration of the Jews into the arms of the GOP for years, and it hasn't happened. The modern high point was in 1980, when exit polls showed that Ronald Reagan took 39 percent of the Jewish vote to 45 percent for incumbent Jimmy Carter, who lost. But George H.W. Bush got 11 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992 and Bob Dole 16 percent in 1996; George W. Bush pushed the needle to 19 percent in 2000.
In 2008, Obama won the vote of nearly eight out of 10 Jews, despite predictions that his Muslim name and lack of foreign policy experience would hurt him. Still, John McCain's 22 percent of the Jewish vote was an uptick for Republicans.
"Republicans are making steady inroads in the Jewish vote," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington, and a Lower Merion native. "We don't need a majority. . . . Taking market share away from Democrats can provide the margin between winning and losing in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania."
His group sent 30,000 direct-mail pieces with former New York Mayor Ed Koch's criticism of the Obama record on Israel into the special Ninth District House election, in which Republican Bob Turner defeated David Weprin, an Orthodox Jew. A Public Policy Polling survey on election eve found that 37 percent of voters considered Israel "very important" in determining their choice, and they overwhelmingly favored Turner.
Democrats point out that New York's Ninth has a large concentration of Orthodox and Russian Jewish émigrés, who tend to be more socially conservative than many other Jews. Frustration with the lackluster economy also was a drag on the Democrat, polls indicate.
But Democrats are behaving as though they have a problem. The party's national committee is targeting Jewish groups and donors with calls and e-mails to counter Republican arguments that Obama is anti-Israel.
"We must repeat them over and over, because message delivery has to be simple and repetitious," the national chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.), told Jewish leaders on a recent call audited by Washington Post blogger Gregg Sargent. "It is absolutely imperative that each of us serve as a surrogate."
Jews make up about 2 percent of the nation's population (and as much as 4 percent of the electorate) but are concentrated in important swing states such as Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio. Jews also tend to be more politically active than many other voters, including as campaign fund-raisers. Democrats know they have to arrest any slide.
In the most recent Gallup polling, Obama's disapproval rating with Jewish voters rose from 32 to 40 percent, and his approval rating sank from 60 to 55 percent. Yet for all the grumbling, his approval rating was still 14 points higher among Jews than among all voters.
Democrats are counting on Jewish voters' historical support of the economic safety net and discomfort with the Christian right wing that has dominated GOP primaries. David Harris, executive director of the nonpartisan American Jewish Committee, said recently, "The more moderate the eventual Republican candidate is, the more likely he will attract new Jewish voters who voted for Obama in 2008."