Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and Florida Jews

In 1992, Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts mounted a strong campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The pundits considered him a brainy guy who was willing to take on the sacred cows of Social Security and Medicare. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, by contrast, seemed like a flawed candidate. Tsongas stung Clinton by calling him “pander bear.”

Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary. With the wind at his back, he headed south to Florida. And there, like an alligator in the Everglades, waited Bill Clinton.

Clinton took Tsongas to the woodshed, running a devastating television campaign that highlighted the threat Tsongas’ plans posed to the entitlement programs so revered by Florida’s Democratic Party electorate. Florida was Tsongas’ Waterloo. His campaign never recovered.

I was reminded of that 20-year-old electoral watershed when I heard that Mitt Romney had selected Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his vice presidential candidate.

Romney has been working hard to break the Democratic hold on Jewish voters. As Dan Schnur pointed out recently (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 12), since Obama already has a lock on New York and California, the Jewish vote really matters strategically in only three battleground states for the presidential race: Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Florida is the most important, and it has held some opportunities for Romney.

Florida’s Jews, concentrated in three southern counties of Broward, Palm Beach and Dade, represent 3.3 percent of the state’s population, but their turnout share is as high as 4 percent of the statewide vote.

Jewish voters in Florida, especially those who are elderly, preferred Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in 2008, although they voted in a strong majority for Obama in the general election. Generally, Obama has done better with younger than older voters, and this is true among Jews as well. And the Florida Jewish electorate is comparatively elderly.

Florida had 613,235 Jews in 2010 according to a North American Jewish Data Bank report by Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky. Florida held the top six places in the country in proportion of the Jewish population older than 65 years of age, led by South Palm Beach at 62 percent and West Palm Beach at 57 percent. By contrast, the elderly Jewish population of Los Angeles is only 21 percent.

Israel is the one issue that gives Republicans a chance with Jewish voters, and Romney’s recent trip to Israel enabled him to run commercials in Florida that noted that Obama has not yet visited the Jewish State. There is also discontent about political conflicts between Obama and the Israeli political leadership. Republicans have been gaining with older white voters, even as they struggle with young and minority voters.

But expecting older Jewish voters to go to the next step of voting for a Republican is not a given. Romney still has had to convince those who might be skeptical of Obama that he is a safe choice, and that he won’t be a tool of the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. And here is the problem. What Romney needed to do in his selection of vice president to unite his party is exactly the opposite of what he needed to do to make inroads among Jews.

Had he made a safer choice, Rob Portman of Ohio, for example, he might have been able to reassure some Jewish voters that his ticket would be a safe harbor for their discontent with the incumbent president. For these voters, boring would be good, especially if boring meant no change to Medicare and Social Security. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Florida has 3,390,801 Medicare recipients, 18 percent of the state’s population. According to the AARP, one in five Florida residents received Social Security benefits in 2006. Strikingly, for three out of 10 Floridians older than 65, Social Security provided their sole source of income.

Ryan’s plans for a full or partial privatization of Medicare and Social Security will be anathema to older voters. These ideas are so unpopular — and to many people so unfathomable —  that the Democrats have had to struggle to convince voters that anybody would actually propose it. Now Romney’s selection of Ryan as his running mate clearly aligns him with Ryan’s plans.

If the debate turns to Medicare and Social Security, the debate over Americans’ relationship with Israel may become less compelling. And certainly older voters in general will be paying very close attention to what happens with entitlement programs.

Although there is no guarantee that the famously undisciplined Democrats, prone to scattershot campaigning on numerous fronts, will press the advantage, but if they do, the Romney-Ryan ticket could mean that their prospects could be very bright, not just in the presidential campaign but in congressional elections nationwide as well. Romney’s selection of Ryan likely will have the unintended consequence for the Republicans of shifting the debate from focusing on insufficient jobs for Americans of working age to the otherwise dormant questions of health and income security for the high participation, retired senior citizen voters.

It is hard to imagine more difficult terrain for the Republicans in an election year that for them began with so much promise.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.