Cover Story

Splintering bloc

"Splintering bloc" Continued...

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

A September poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee found 69 percent of Jewish voters in Florida supporting Obama. That’s a drop of 7 percentage points from the support Obama received from the same group four years ago, representing a likely gain of between 30,000 and 40,000 votes for Romney in Florida—the state Al Gore lost to Bush in 2000 by 537 ballots.

Steven Windmueller, a political analyst at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, said Jewish support varies by election and candidate. Although John McCain only received 23 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, Ronald Reagan picked up a relatively high 39 percent in 1980.

Jews have maintained an “embedded loyalty” to the Democratic Party since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Windmueller said. “He was seen as a figure that brought confidence and stability to the economy and to the country.”

Nowadays, many Jews are rethinking their families’ liberal commitments, labeling themselves independent or, more rarely, conservative. Windmueller said he’s heard from many Jewish people who say it has become difficult to have dinner table conversations about politics because of polarized views: “It’s gotten messy. Friendships have been broken.”

Bruce Marks, a former Pennsylvania state senator and now an attorney in Philadelphia, is one of the more independently minded Jewish voters. Though Marks served as a Republican senator in 1994, he comes from a family of “liberal Democrats” and voted for Al Gore in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008. His hopes four years ago that Obama might reinvigorate the economy evolved into disappointment with stimulus spending and the healthcare overhaul. “I’m also disappointed with his record in the Middle East and his absence of a really coherent policy to address Iran,” Marks told me. “The bloom is clearly off the rose.”

Along with other former Obama supporters who now back Romney, Marks appears in a video ad posted at MyBuyersRemorse.com, a website the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) created to prod other independent-leaning Jews into supporting the Republican ticket.

The RJC conducted its most extensive election effort ever this year, spending $6.5 million to identify and reach Jewish swing voters. In September the group recruited volunteers to target Jewish neighborhoods in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida with phone calls and campaign literature that emphasized the problems in the Middle East.

Windmueller said Obama could lose this year 9 percent to 12 percent of Jews who voted for him in 2008. That prediction looked roughly on track as of September, when Gallup polling showed 70 percent of Jewish voters nationwide favoring Obama.

For Jews concerned about the Middle East, candidate Romney seeks to cast himself as the stronger ally of Israel. Obama has repeatedly stated he will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Romney, during his July trip to Israel, announced a stricter policy: preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapon “capability”—a policy he reiterated in a Sept. 20 conference call with around 3,000 Jewish leaders and rabbis.

The definition of “capability” is vague, though, and could refer to one of several thresholds Iran would have to cross on the path to building a nuclear bomb. It’s a purposeful semantic distinction that gives Romney the flexibility to support a preemptive Israeli air strike against Iran to disrupt the country’s enrichment program. It’s also the kind of position Netanyahu failed to convince Obama to take in September.

Netanyahu claims to be neutral on the U.S. election, but it’s probable a Romney win would increase his clout at the White House. Last year Obama angered Netanyahu by publicly calling on Israel to revert to its 1967 boundary lines in negotiating peace with the Palestinians. Romney, on the other hand, suggests he’d defer to Netanyahu on such matters: In a primary debate in Iowa last December, Romney criticized Newt Gingrich for making an inflammatory comment about Palestinians being “an invented people.” Romney said, “Before I made a statement of that nature, I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, ‘Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?’”

In voting this November, American Jews will decide between a president who keeps Israel’s prime minister at arm’s length, and one who views him as a Middle East advisor.

Iranian leaders will test the winning candidate: During his CNN appearance, Netanyahu claimed that, “In six months or so, [Iran] will be 90 percent of the way” toward enriching the uranium needed for a nuclear bomb. That’s a prospect worrisome for more than just Jews.

For profiles of Jews who have abandoned their liberal upbringings to embrace shades of conservatism, see "Right moves," Oct. 11.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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