Romney eyes gains among Jewish voters
What actually could make this White House campaign different, the first one in the post-Citizens United era, is just how hard-fought and expensive the battle for what is only three percent of the electorate ultimately could be.
Even though Republicans haven't cracked 25 percent of the Jewish vote since 1988, GOP backers of Mitt Romney -- who arrives in Israel Saturday -- are mounting what likely will be the most aggressive effort yet in dollars and cents to woo one of Ohio and Florida's most pivotal constituencies.
And Democrats, alarmed by the drumbeat of news about how much money Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is donating to the Republican cause, are responding by forming their own operation to spend millions defending President Barack Obama on Israel.
And that's just the outside groups.
Even before Romney's weekend visit -- a trip highlighted by meetings with top officials in Jerusalem and a speech reasserting his commitment to the Jewish state, both aimed at domestic political consumption -- Obama sought to disrupt the presumptive GOP nominee's carefully planned courtship.
"I have made it a top priority for my administration to deepen cooperation with Israel across the whole spectrum of security issues," the president said Friday in an Oval Office ceremony convened for him to sign into law a measure expanding U.S. financial aid for Israel's defense and bolstering cooperation between the militaries of both nations.
What makes GOP officials optimistic this year are the new financial rules of campaigns and perceptions about Obama among some Jews.
The Republican Jewish Coalition has committed to spending more than $6 million on an ad campaign that seeks to tap in to "buyer's remorse" among Jews who supported Obama in 2008.
And GOP sources say ultimately it could be significantly more than that thanks to Adelson, whose top concern is the security of Israel and who has told associates that he's willing to keep tapping his multibillion dollar fortune to help Republicans this year. With no caps on how much he can give to outside groups, the Las Vegas gambling tycoon is free to bankroll an unprecedented campaign for the RJC -- and any other group he wants to seed.
Further, with concern about a nuclear Iran rising, some of the most Israel-focused Jewish voters, "AIPAC Jews," may be looking for a harder-line approach from a White House that has done little to mask its frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"What underlies a lot of the angst on the part of the American Jewish community is this administration's treatment of Israel," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. "It's almost unfathomable how the relationship started, with President Obama going to Cairo and speaking toward the Arab world in open and welcoming terms but demanding Israel stop construction in Jerusalem."
Some Jewish voters will certainly move to Romney over Israel, just as some older Jews in 2008 were skeptical about a political unknown who had defeated a Clinton and had "Hussein" for a middle name. But even then, Obama still claimed 78 percent of the Jewish vote.
The question looming now is whether, in what's shaping up to be a much tighter race than 2008, Romney can pull enough Jewish votes away from Obama to eke out a victory in mega-swing states Florida and Ohio.
"Republicans don't need a majority of the American Jewish community, but if we could just gain some Jewish voters that could flip the election," Cantor said.
The House leader, the most prominent Jewish Republican in American politics, said he thinks Romney can come close to matching Ronald Reagan's 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980 -- the high water mark for GOP White House candidates in the modern era.
"I think Mitt Romney can do the same," Cantor said, likening Obama's slippage among Jews to that of Jimmy Carter.
Obama backers doubt that, but even some prominent Jewish Democrats concede that Romney will improve over John McCain's 21 percent when it comes to the Jewish vote. The question is where Romney picks up Jewish votes: If he wins over Orthodox voters in Brooklyn, but not less-religious Jews in South Florida, the impact for Obama will be negligible.
Obama will "drop off a bit but he'll still be in the high 60s - at least in the high 60s, if not over 70 percent after Jews have had the chance to assess the Republican candidate," said Martin Indyk, the former ambassador to Israel under Bill Clinton.
Obama allies argue that even if he has to battle criticism on Israel, the list of issues that tie Jewish voters to their party is longer and deeper than just Mideast policy. Whatever Romney says and does in Israel this weekend, it won't change the reality that his views on any number of subjects -- from abortion to health care to Social Security and Medicare -- separate him from the largely liberal Jewish electorate.
And even the GOP's positioning on the Israel issue is not necessarily a political slam dunk with American Jews, since many Jewish voters here are not as conservative and hardline on defense issues as Netanyahu.
"The national home for Jewish voters in the United States is the Democratic Party because Republicans have absolutely nothing in their agenda that reflects the values or the ideals of the Jewish community," said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz . "You can't name a single domestic issue [where] Jewish voters embrace Romney and the Republicans."
Ticking off a series of pro-Israel Obama policies, including sanctions on Iran, military aid and boycotting the Durban conferences, the Florida congresswoman said Republicans are "lying and distorting and misrepresenting the president's record on Israel ... to shave off a few points in Ohio, shave off a few points in Pennsylvania, shave off a few points in Florida."
Indyk questioned whether Romney's message on Israel -- "saying that he would subcontract his Middle Eastern policy to the prime minister of Israel" -- would resonate with American Jews, or whether courting them like a single-issue group was wise to begin with.
"Jews, as a broad generalization, are progressives. That puts them in the Democratic camp. Some small minority will vote the Israel issue, but most of them will make a broader judgment," Indyk said. "And the things they care about, as well as Israel, are things like health care and the kinds of progressive policies that President Obama stands for."
Some Democrats aren't taking any chances, though.
A group of prominent Democrats, including film mogul Harvey Weinstein and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are hoping to raise a few million dollars to promote Obama among swing state Jewish voters, The Washington Post reported earlier this week.
Republicans say there are enough such Israel-driven voters in a place like Florida, which both sides believe will be tighter than it was when Obama carried it by less than 3 percent in 2008, to make a difference.
"The Israel issue is just one of many issues that influence someone's perception of a candidate and I think it's a pretty small number of people where that's their top issue," said Noah Pollak, executive director of the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel. "But in general, I think for Jewish voters and non-Jewish voters alike, it's pretty puzzling to them why this administration has treated Israel like it's a problem to be confronted. ... That very well, in a state like Florida, could be influential."
Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster, said Romney's numbers among Jews could bump up, but it will be contingent on more of the community voting on Israel.
"To the extent that Jewish voters are driven by concerns over Israel rather than domestic issues, Romney's got a reasonable shot to get to 30 or even 35 percent," said Ayres.
RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks agreed. "I think any message targeted to the Jewish community is beyond a one-note message."
"It's also about economic issues and we're in a really, really difficult economic time right now," he said. "I think we're going to pick up support from people who, Israel might not be their first, second or even third issue."
Romney's own credibility as a messenger among Jewish voters remains a big unknown. In theory, Jewish voters have certain attributes in common with some of Romney's friendliest Republican constituencies: They tend to be somewhat more educated and affluent than the average voter, as well as more secular than most of the GOP base.
The former Massachusetts governor has focused his campaign around a set of economic concerns, moreover, that cut across party lines.
Romney backers believe that images of the Republican breaking the fast of the Jewish day of mourning Tisha B'av in Netanyahu's home -- "showing his support in a very public way for Israel's leaders," as aide Dan Senor put it -- and speaking from Jerusalem will offer an important introduction to many Jewish voters just focusing on the presidential race.
"The speech is really focused on the themes that he feels are definitional of the U.S.'s relationship [with Israel], which is that these are two countries which share values, which share interests, which in many respects share history," said Senor. "The challenges and threats of Israel are the challenges and threats that face America."
Martin reported from London; Burns from Arlington, Va.