Recent conversations about the Jewish vote are gripping the Sunshine State’s politicos. Once again reporters, and political analysts are buying the Republican hype that we heard in 2004 and 2008 that the Republicans can make significant inroads into the Jewish vote particularly in southeast Florida. This vote which was captured only once by a Republican Presidential candidate in modern history (Ronald Regan in 1980) is according to some pundits up for grabs in 2012. Jewish voters accounted for 5% of Florida’s electorate in 2008 but could account for as much as 6 or 7% this time. Obama won 78% of Florida’s Jewish vote in 2008.
Republicans do have some reason for optimism this year as leading propagandists on the right have misrepresented Barack Obama’s record on Israel and Mideast policy. While President Obama has struck a balanced policy towards the region, his administrations support for Israel be it at the United Nations or in other international disputes seems to be easily forgotten by those seeking political gain in this year’s election. In fact many Europeans I speak to (working in soccer I speak to Europeans regularly) feel Obama has been too protective of Israeli interests with respect to the shifting winds of Mideast politics. They believe, probably wrongly that he has done little to push forward the Mideast peace process. But it demonstrates the differing perceptions of Obama’s policies and governing style between American conservatives and European liberals.
Facts can be stubborn things with regards to Israel for those looking to undercut Obama’s re-election chances. The President is of course responsible for the death of Osama Bin Laden and over 2/3 the al-Qaida leadership. This President, unlike George W. Bush is not responsible for destabilizing the Middle East and installing regimes friendly to Tehran in places where Iran previously had minimal influence. The Bush Administration’s policies led directly to a stronger Iran with more influence over the Middle East and Central Asian regions. The result of these policies was a less safe existence for Israel.
The Romney advertisement embedded above does more to solidify the GOP base vote in the Jewish community than to win over Democratic Jews. Public opinion polls and previous exit polling data has shown approximately 13 to 18% of Florida’s Jewish voters do list Israel as their biggest issue when casting a ballot. However, many of these voters are firmly in the Republican column. The voters that do primarily focus on Israel, those from the Orthodox and Conservative synagogues abandoned John Kerry in 2004 in favor of George W. Bush and voted for John McCain in 2008. Many of these voters first cast a ballot for a Republican in 1998 when Jeb Bush and his Democratic allies blatantly misrepresented Buddy MacKay’s Congressional voting record on Israel to make inroads into the southeast Florida community. In many cases it was unprincipled local Democrats who had been frozen out in the Chiles/MacKay administration or were allied with sugar who skewered MacKay and helped elect Jeb Bush.
As someone who has worked extensively in the Jewish communities of Palm Beach and Broward counties I have a sense of what motivates these voters around election day. The caricature of Bill Clinton’s character in primary colors, who pandered endlessly to Jewish Democratic voters by talking about the State of Israel is not an accurate reflection of Jewish Democratic voters in the condos and single family developments of southeast Florida.
The vast majority of Jewish voters in southeast Florida are concerned about domestic issues particularly religious freedom and social justice. They are on an ideological scale the most liberal voters in the state. When it comes to Presidential politics, the perceived rightward drift of the GOP’s rhetorical themes ( even if in practice the Republicans are not as conservative as they claim to be) has solidified southeast Florida’s Jewish vote with the Democrats in increasing numbers since the 1988 election.
The Republicans continued emphasis on divisive social issues and the “war against women” make their efforts to pick up large chunks of Florida’s Jewish electorate untenable. If Mitt Romney and his big spending allies are serious about splitting Jewish voters from their party of choice, they will emphasize their willingness to tolerate divergent points of view within their party and minimize discussion of issues such as abortion, school prayer, school vouchers, civil rights, and health care.
It can be argued that some extremists on the left are helping the GOP in their efforts to recruit Jewish voters. We can save that discussion for another day but rest assured it is highly unlikely to be successful because of the vast gulf in between the view of domestic policy among Jewish voters and the GOP.
When push comes to shove and despite consistent efforts by the GOP at a minimum 65 to 70% of Jewish voters in Florida will vote for Obama. Most Republican strategists know this but feel shaving any amount of previous Obama voters away from the President could make a difference in a close state. Or it could be an entirely meaningless exercise that takes focus away from the GOP’s efforts to reel in more attainable voters.