Every four years, a Republican presidential candidate claims he can lure Jewish voters away from the Democratic Party. And every cycle, most of those voters stay put. Mitt Romney isn’t going to win the bulk of the Jewish vote either. But he doesn’t need to. Romney’s latest overture to Israel, a weekend trip to Jerusalem beginning this Saturday, is a bid to peel off enough Jewish votes to carry closely contested swing states like Florida. And there’s a chance that might work.
Throughout Obama’s presidency, the GOP has attacked him for allegedly abandoning America’s foremost ally in the Middle East. In January, Romney said the President “threw Israel under the bus” by calling for a return to pre-1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations toward a two-state solution. Republicans criticize Obama’s calls for Israel to stop settlement activity on the West Bank and note that the President has had a tense relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
These arguments have convinced some longtime Democratic donors that Romney would be a better friend to Israel. “I wrote a couple of checks and voted for [Obama],” says Susan Crown, a Chicago philanthropist. “But a year after he took office, it became clear to me that he’s not the friend of Israel I assumed he was, so I started looking for a new candidate.” Deterred by Obama’s calls for a return to pre-1967 borders, Crown became a Romney supporter. She has hosted four fundraisers for the Republican’s campaign, including one on July 9 in her Aston, Colo., home that raised $2.6 million.
According to a June Gallup poll, Obama’s support among Jewish registered voters has slipped to 64%, a 14-point plunge from the 78% he garnered four years ago. That same poll found that only 29% of Jewish voters support Romney. The former Massachusetts governor is trying to chip away at Obama’s advantage during his visit to Israel, where he will host a $50,000-per-plate fundraiser in Jerusalem on Sunday, meet with Netanyahu and hold a conference outlining his Middle East policy. In his speeches, Romney frequently asserts that there should be “no daylight” between U.S and Israeli interests — a dig at Obama for his argument that it can be healthy for allies to differ, as well as help the U.S. maintain credibility with Arab states.
“One of the reasons that Israel is facing a lot of international pressure is because under the Obama presidency, they perceive daylight between the U.S. and Israel,” says Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “It’s a very untenable situation for Israel on critical issues like Iran.”
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Democrats say U.S.-Israeli relations are closer than ever. The President has spent $3 billion in foreign-military financing — the largest amount of funding for Israel in U.S. history, according to the Obama campaign. Obama opposed the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the United Nations, a move that Netanyahu called a “badge of honor.” In the wake of the Bulgaria bus bombing on July 18 that left five Israelis dead, Obama reaffirmed the U.S.’s “unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security” and condemned the “barbaric terrorist attack,” which Israeli leaders suspect can be sourced back to Iran.
In a conference call this week, Obama campaign aide Colin Kahl said the President plans to visit Israel in his second term if he’s re-elected. “I don’t think this is a really serious policy difference,” Kahl said of criticism of Obama for not visiting Israel in his first term. “It’s basically a distraction.” But perhaps Obama has started to sweat a little; he sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Israel last week to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Obama has history on his side. Since 1976, 54% to 64% of American Jews have identified as Democrats, according to a new study conducted for the Solomon Project, a nonpartisan public-policy group. A meager 8% to 20% identified with Republicans. (Religion seems to pull Jews to the right politically: a Pew Research Center analysis found that Jews who attend weekly worship services are more likely to vote Republican.) Romney’s trip to Israel is an attempt to re-create the success Ronald Reagan enjoyed with the Jewish vote. In 1980, Reagan received the GOP’s all-time-high record of 39% among Jews, leaving Jimmy Carter with an unprecedented low of 61%. “I think there’s a real opportunity for Governor Romney to continue a trend that we’ve seen over the last couple of decades,” says Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “I think he’s going to continue that trend of the Republicans making real inroads into the Jewish vote.”
While Romney is looking to earn Jewish support on a national scale, the key question is whether he can receive enough votes in swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania to possibly decide the election. If 2012 proves to be a tight race like 2000 was, appealing to the Jewish community could be critical. “The Jewish vote is clearly important, especially if you look at Florida, where 537 votes made the difference in an election,” says University of Miami professor Ira Sheskin, who runs the Jewish Demography Project at the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies. Sheskin notes that although Jews may be only 3% to 4% of the population, about 90% of them are registered to vote, and 96% of those registered voters cast ballots. In particular, the elderly Jewish population in swing states like Florida may have doubts about Obama’s support for Israel. “People in the Jewish community are worried about if Obama has the kishkes factor, which in Yiddish means your gut,” Sheskin says. “Does Obama feel the importance of Israel and the emotion in his gut?”
Jews who don’t think so could cause a fundraising problem for Obama. Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson backed the Republican Jewish Coalition’s multimillion-dollar advertising campaign called “My Buyer’s Remorse,” which features testimonials from people who regret voting for Obama in 2008 because of his policies on Israel and the economy. Adelson has pledged to donate $100 million to oust Obama.
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And yet Jewish voters don’t simply vote according to foreign policy. A Public Religion Research Institute survey this spring found that only 4% of Jews cast their ballots based on Israel. Like most Americans, Jewish voters are expected to cast their ballots based on key domestic issues like the economy. “American Jews are multi-issue voters,” says David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “Israel may be one, but the economy is another one — and according to our data, it’s the bigger one.”
Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Sallai Meridor agrees. “The majority of Americans feel strongly about Israel as an issue they have in mind, but at the same time, I do think that domestic issues and the economy will be priority No. 1 for most people,” says Meridor, who cautions that as tensions heat up in the region, the focus for voters could change. And if it does, Romney’s decision to court the Jewish vote would be worthwhile. “I think from the perspective of the candidates,” Meridor says, “every vote counts.”