Does the Jewish vote still matter?


Does the Jewish vote still matter and if so, how? Exit polls indicate that 70 percent of Jews voted for President Obama, compared to roughly 39 percent of white voters overall. However, with California and New York, which have large Jewish populations, guaranteed to go Democratic, the Jewish vote may have mattered only in Florida. 

As usual, most attention on the Jewish community has been focused on whether Obama’s 70 percent Jewish support represents a serious decline from the either 78 percent or 74 percent (depending on the source) that he received from Jews in 2008. We spend so much effort on the beaten-to-death question of whether Jews will ever vote Republican that we miss something more important — the potential role Jewish voters can play in a society that is in profound demographic and political transformation.

The 2012 election may well turn out to be more historic than Barack Obama’s 2008 election. It revealed the flowering of the transformation of the American electorate, a trend that was obscured in 2008 by the hope and change that surrounded Obama’s first campaign, and that brought about a momentary appearance of consensus.  The rough, tough re-election campaign of 2012 clarified the lines of conflict in the electorate.

This is especially true in California, but also nationwide, where the Democratic surge was powered by a new electorate that includes growing cadres of both younger and minority voters. Sleeping giants awoke. Latinos increased their share of the overall vote to 10 percent and broke in huge numbers for Obama, giving him between 70 and 75 percent support. Young voters comprised a larger share of the vote than they did in 2008. Single women, who represented 20 percent of the vote in 2008, comprised 23 percent in 2012 and cast 67 percent of their votes for Obama, according to a study by the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund. In California, these constituencies carried Proposition 30 to an historic upset victory and may have helped to give Democrats two-thirds dominance of the Legislature. Nationally, one swing state after another fell into the Democratic column.

At the same time, Mitt Romney increased — to 59 percent — the Republican share of the white vote over John McCain in 2008. A majority of whites were on one end, especially those who are older and those who live in the South, while communities of color, especially if younger, were on the other.

And then there are the Jews. The overall demographic transformation is so startling that there has been less attention on the Jewish vote this year than in 2008. Republicans have much bigger problems than not winning over Jews, starting with their staggering defeat among mobilized African-Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans as well as among single women. 

Yet Jews voted for Obama in numbers comparable to Latinos, echoing conservative legendary plaint that “Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” (Well, also like single women and also like Asian Americans — 73 percent.) Only the gigantic support of African-Americans surpassed all of these groups.

It’s less important that Jews frustrated Republicans than that Jews, an older, largely white demographic, represent a refusal to be predictably polarized along lines of race, age and class. This block of voters adds a more realistic perspective to the simple assumption that there are two Americas, one ascendant and the other on the decline, one nonwhite and the other white. 

The Jewish vote, whether or not it determines who wins states, offers an important reminder that whites are not a monolithic block of voters. After all, more whites voted for Obama than any single minority community. The 39 percent Obama support among whites, among the more than 70 percent of votes cast, represents roughly 27 percent of all votes. In his 2007 book, “Boomers and Immigrants: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America,” Dowell Myers argued that in order to maintain support for such programs as Social Security and Medicare, the aging boomers, who are disproportionately white, need to be in alliance with immigrants. Bridge building will be essential. Jewish voters never joined the parade of immigrant bashing, and opposed such anti-immigrant measures as California’s 1994 Proposition 187. Nor did Jews turn away, even in political hard times, from the social liberalism on abortion and gay rights that this year became politically popular for the first time.

One underappreciated role of the Jewish vote in American politics is in bridge building. Even in Los Angeles in the mid-1800s, when it was a rough-and-tumble frontier city filled with diverse groups, the small Jewish population was civically active and a positive contributor to local governance.

When American cities were torn apart by racial polarization in the 1960s, a small block of white voters, principally Jews, supported embattled black mayoral candidates in Gary, Ind., Cleveland, Newark, N.J., and Chicago. In Los Angeles, the relationship between African-Americans and Jews flowered into a full-fledged, coalition of equals, with Mayor Tom Bradley drawing from African-American and Jewish supporters. For many African-Americans and for many whites, the black-Jewish coalition became a path across which new friends and allies could be encountered and cooperation nurtured, and also a framework for working out intergroup conflict.

Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have been working for decades with those in minority communities who fight for equality and justice. As communities of color push further into the center of state and national power, the bridge role played by the Jewish community will continue to matter.

The Jewish political role will not disappear in local, state and national politics. There has indeed been a noticeable decline of Jews in office in Sacramento, but Jews continue to hold many national offices, especially in the House and Senate, as well as in the states. In Los Angeles, high voter turnout among Jews means that city candidates will continue to consider the Jewish voice in local elections. It will still be important to have candidates and elected officials who are sympathetic to the interests and values of the Jewish community.

There is no question that the Jewish vote still matters. But the future for Jewish involvement may extend even beyond electoral strength to reconnecting with the bridge role that a state and nation of isolated communities may value.


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

From Boca to Delray, Florida’s much-discussed Jewish voters finally have their say


At approximately 10 a.m. on Election Day, a black sedan pulled up to the polling station at the J.C. Mitchell Elementary School.

“He threw Israel under the bus,” said the car's driver, a chatty silver-haired man, as he helped an elderly woman from the back seat.

“You vote your way and I'll vote mine,” she replied, her eyes rolling as he set up her walker and oxygen tank and steered her toward the entrance. “I'm voting for the president.”

Little could better encapsulate the drama unfolding among Jewish voters here in South Florida as the final day dawned on what has been a bitter presidential campaign pitting the Democratic incumbent, Barack Obama, against Republican Mitt Romney.

As in past elections, the bulk of the Sunshine State's more than 600,000 Jews are expected to support the Democrat. But Republicans have shelled out millions to peel off some of that support — mainly by impugning the president's record on Israel — and on the eve of Election Day they were brimming with confidence.

“We're gonna win,” said Sid Dinnerstein, the Republican Party chairman in Palm Beach County, where as of late October, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by more than 100,000. “My Christian friends say to me, 'How could even 1 percent of Jewish people vote for this guy?' ”

For Obama and Romney, Florida is a big prize. According to a New York Times analysis, if Obama wins here, Romney has to sweep all the other battleground states to pass the 270-vote threshold necessary to win the Electoral College and the presidency.

In 2008, Obama won here by less than 3 percentage points, but he won support from approximately three-quarters of Florida Jewish voters, the bulk of whom reside in the state's three most populous counties — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. An American Jewish Committee survey in September found 69 percent of Jewish registered voters in Florida backing the president, with 25 percent for Romney and the rest undecided.

At the Bagel Tree cafe in Delray Beach, there was little evidence to suggest that the president had lost his strong support among the state's Jews.

“If Romney gets in, he will not be president, he will be king,” said Sandy Richter, who was sipping coffee with four friends, all of whom were supporting Obama. “He's a tyrant.”

Across the restaurant, a parallel group of five men finishing their lunch said that they, too, were supporting the president.

“I just don't like to lose any more of our freedoms,” Alvin Wolff said. “My family should be able to do with their body what they want to do with it. I should be able to marry anybody I want to marry. I should be able to pray or not pray when I want to.”

The Bagel Tree is located next to the large and overwhelmingly Jewish King's Point retirement community, the residents of which Dinnerstein called “the most hardcore liberal Jews, maybe in America.” Only one patron on Tuesday admitted to supporting Romney.

“I have eight great-grandchildren in Israel,” said the Romney backer, a woman who declined to give her name but identified herself as pro-choice on abortion and as a Medicare beneficiary. “Obama sat for 20 years in his church with that Rev. Wright. And I feel — I mean I know — he's an Arab lover.”

Such sentiments, however, were rare — or at least rarely voiced — among the Jewish Floridians who were interviewed. Still, for all the solid Jewish backing of the president, there was a palpable lack of enthusiasm for the candidate who electrified the country four years ago with his talk of hope and change.

Even many of the Obama backers agreed with Dinnerstein's prediction that the president would fall short of the level of Jewish support he enjoyed in 2008. In interviews Tuesday with more than a dozen Jewish voters, Obama was not infrequently described as the lesser of two evils.

“I voted against Romney,” Victor Barth said. “I don't think we had too much of a choice. I took the better of the two evils.”

Barth and his wife, Rhoda, cast their votes for Obama on Tuesday afternoon at Temple Emeth, a Conservative congregation in Delray Beach located barely a mile from a mammoth billboard showing an Iranian missile aimed squarely at Israel. The caption: “Friends don't let friends get nuked. Stop Obama.”

“Terrible,” Rhoda Barth said. “It is shameful. It should not be up there.”

“My biggest problem with both parties is the money they spent on this campaign could have floated a Third World country,” Victor Barth said. “It's a crime.”

Jewish Obama supporters tended to emphasize Obama's stands on social issues — notably abortion rights and gay rights — as well as his policies toward the poor while dismissing charges that the president has been insufficiently committed to the security of Israel. Romney's Jewish supporters talked mainly about the Republican's commitment to Israel and, secondarily, his ability to steer the economy out of the doldrums.

Debbi Klarberg, a Boca Raton resident who described herself as “very pro-Israel,” said she had some reservations about the president on that front — but not enough to change her vote.

“Basically his values represent who I am as a person,” she said. “I guess my beliefs are more in line with Democratic values.”

Orthodox Jews, however, appear more inclined to back Romney over the president, polling suggests. Orthodox voters are believed to have given a majority of their votes to the Republican nominees in the previous two presidential elections.

At a kosher restaurant Monday night in Boca Raton, three Orthodox patrons said they were supporting Romney, largely because of Israel.

“I'm voting for Romney, I'm not hiding it,” said a woman who declined to give her name. “The main thing is Romney is better for Israel than Obama is.”

Eytan Marcus, an Orthodox critical care physician who spent part of his childhood in Israel, said there was little difference substantively between Obama and his predecessors on support for the Jewish state. Rather it was Obama's subtle favoring of the Arab states that he feared had emboldened them politically.

“He's enabled the Arab nations,” Marcus said. “He didn't do anything for Israel, but he strengthened the Arabs. It tips the balance.”

Republicans have hammered the president on the issue of Israel in billboards, print advertisements, mailings and robocalls that seem to have disgusted and fatigued Jewish voters of all persuasions. Even cellphone numbers haven't been immune this year. And perhaps more pertinent, many voters claim to be ignoring the persuasion efforts.

“I had to take the phone off the hook, I had to turn off the answering machine weeks ago,” said one Jewish voter in Boca, who nevertheless expressed regret that it had cost her the thrill of having Barbra Streisand's voice on her machine. Streisand is one of several celebrities who recorded calls on behalf of Obama.

As the final day of voting rolled around — Floridians had more than a week to cast their ballots this year — there was a palpable sense of relief that the end was finally in sight. At the Bagel Tree, nearly everyone had cast their votes prior to the actual Election Day. There was one exception, though.

“I'm voting after cards,” Fran Reisfield said. “We're playing canasta first.”

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.

Florida primary is first big showdown for the Jewish vote


With Newt Gingrich gaining ground on frontrunner Mitt Romney, the stage is set for a crucial Jan. 31 Republican presidential primary in Florida. By playing a significant role in that day’s outcome, the state’s large Jewish population might set the tone for the rest of the GOP race.

About 638,000 Jews call Florida home, according to the December 2011 figures from the Jewish Virtual Library—in stark contrast to the relatively small Jewish communities in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, states that have held primaries and caucuses so far.

Up until 2004, Florida held its presidential primaries in March. Now, with an earlier contest—open only to Republican voters—an active Jewish electorate should wield significant influence, said Dr. Terri Susan Fine, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

If a primary is early in the calendar, Fine explained in an interview with JointMedia News Service, that means voters still have a choice of candidates—which is the case in Florida despite the dropouts of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Herman Cain. Fine said voters in early primaries “end up impacting the choice for the rest of the nation, because if [a candidate] drops out because they don’t do well in your state, or if they do very well in your state … the media presents you as if you’re the winner.” With a later primary in previous election years, some names on the Florida ballot were those of candidates who had already dropped out, meaning “the whole tenor of the campaign changed by the time it got to Florida,” Fine said.

The fact that Florida’s primary is closed to voters outside the Republican party means a low voter turnout is likely, which Fine said magnifies the importance of the Jewish population.

“High-turnout groups within a low-turnout electoral environment are going to be very impactful, and Jews demonstrate not only the highest voter turnout compared with any other religion, but at the same time you’re also talking about the fact that the candidates’ recognize this,” Fine said. “So, we see some ways in which the candidates are differentiating themselves from one another, and also distinguishing themselves from President Obama in order to secure that vote from among Jewish voters, particularly in Florida.”

Herb Swarzman, vice president of Tampa Jewish Federation and area chairman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), told JointMedia News Service that there is a “great deal” of local interest in Florida regarding the presidential election “because of a general feeling amongst those who do contribute to political campaigns that Israel has not been treated well by this administration.” Jews for whom Israel is an important issue “want to participate to whatever extent they can in the Republican primaries so that they can defeat Barack Obama.”

Swarzman added that “there also is great concern amongst those who are actively involved, for those who read about the issues every day, for those who really care about the possible terrorist threat both in Israel and America, that the United States government is not dealing properly with Iran … and they are looking for a candidate who will be much more aggressive towards the Iranian attempts to create nuclear power.”

However, besides for voters concerned with Obama’s Israel policies, Rabbi David Steinhardt—leader of B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton and Jewish Community Relations Council chair for the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County—told JointMedia News Service that he sees a “growing realization among many in the Jewish community that the early portrayal of President Obama not being a friend of Israel has been changing.”

Following Gingrich’s surprise 12-point victory over Romney in South Carolina, a new Rasmussen Report poll shows the former Speaker of the House garnering 41 percent support among likely Florida GOP primary voters, with 32 percent backing Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and winner of the New Hampshire primary. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who edged Romney in the Iowa caucus, and Texas congressman Ron Paul also remain in the race.

Swarzman said he is supporting Gingrich because he “was the most pro-Israel Speaker in the history of this country and I think that he will declare Jerusalem as the undivided capitol of Israel no matter what the State Department or the Arab countries say, if he becomes the president.”

Steinhardt said his “subjective reading” of the perception of the Republican primary in Florida “is one of disappointment.”

“By in large, I sense that the community feels that the Republican candidates don’t reflect the stature or the vision that they’re looking for in a president of the United States,” he said.

Steinhardt also believes “that the press has sold the Jewish community short, in that the Jewish community is not just a one-issue voting bloc anymore, and I don’t know if it ever was, but maybe we tend to think of it that way.”

“Jews are very concerned about healthcare, and very concerned about social policy, and very concerned about issues of war and peace and national defense and Israel,” he said. “Those are all on the agenda of engaged Jews who are politically aware and somewhat active in the process—certainly active in the conversation.”

With the highest percentage of elderly residents compared to any other state, issues such as Medicare, Social Security and healthcare are critical for Jewish voters in Florida, Swarzman and Steinhardt agreed.

The older nature of Florida’s Jewish voter base has another political impact, according to Fine. She said scholars have found that members of Congress born after 1950 take a different position on Israel than those born before 1950. This is attributed to memories of the Holocaust and World War II, and memories relating to the formation of the state of Israel, Fine explained.

“So, if you didn’t have that experience in your lifetime, or if you had the experience but don’t remember it, then that has an impact on your overall political socialization and that impacts how you function in Congress,” Fine said. “We found, for example, that older members of Congress had to be far more for one state of Israel, pro-Israel, but the other members of Congress are more likely to be more liberal when it comes to the notion of Palestinian rights and the right or return of Palestinians and those kinds of things.”

Looking ahead to the general election, one can easily remember 2000, when George W. Bush’s historically narrow victory over Al Gore in Florida—amid a recount of the vote and a Supreme Court ruling in his favor—essentially decided the presidency. Fine said Florida could have an even greater impact on the 2012 election because the state’s number of electoral votes has increased from 27 to 29, exceeding 10 percent of the total electoral votes a candidate needs to win.

With Florida’s “winner take all” system within the Electoral College, all a candidate needs is one more vote than the closest competitor to gain all 29 electoral votes—and that’s why the Jewish vote matters, said Dr. Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies at the University of Miami.

In close presidential elections, which are usually won by a margin of about 52 percent to 48 percent, candidates are fighting for small percentages and need to appeal to every vote they can get, Sheskin told JointMedia News Service. Although Florida’s Jews amount to 3.7 percent of the state’s total population, well over 90 percent of Jews are registered to vote—meaning they represent a more statistically significant 6-8 percent of Florida’s electorate, Sheskin said, adding that Jews are more likely to vote than other groups.

“[Florida is] very significant because the Jewish population is large here, and Florida is a significant state because of the Electoral College,” said Steinhardt, “so obviously there’s great importance to the Jewish vote here.”

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