Before the Vote is Counted: Outreach to Jewish Voters Dips As Polling Gaps Widen

A lot can change in four years. In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton actively courted Jewish voters across the country.

This time around, President Clinton — riding double digit leads in most states and counting on polls that show that at least four out of every five voting American Jews will pull the lever for the Democratic ticket — is all but taking the Jewish vote for granted.

For his part, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole never really got his Jewish outreach program off the ground and appears to have pretty much written off the Jewish voter.

“Both candidates are ignoring the Jewish vote,” said Ed Miller, a research director with the GOP-aligned Polling Company. “The Jewish vote is important on a state-by-state basis,” he said. But because “this election is not as close as past elections, the Jewish vote will play less of a role in the presidential election.”

If a close election means close attention to Jewish voters, that explains why the level of outreach to Jewish constituents by congressional candidates is a very different story.

Congressional candidates from both parties are counting on the Jewish vote to provide the margin of victory in several close House and Senate races.

There are nearly 6 million Jews in America, making up about 2.3 percent of the total U.S. population. But they represent a formidable voting bloc in certain states.

“The Jewish community can tip the balance in a number of states,” Martin Hochbaum, director of national affairs at the American Jewish Congress, said, referring to all elections.

And it is not just votes that count.

“Jews contribute not only time volunteering for campaigns, but money as well,” said Hochbaum, whose organization plans to conduct exit polls to measure Jewish support for Clinton and Dole in 12 states plus the District of Columbia. Pollsters will also measure Jewish support in the race for New Jersey’s Senate seat.

Jews added considerably to the coffers of candidates this election cycle.

Pro-Israel political action committees dispensed about $700,000 to Democratic candidates. In addition, Jewish Democrats contributed more than $15 million in so-called “soft money” to the Democratic National Committee, said one fund- raiser on the condition that his name not be used.

Soft money is defined as contributions given directly to the parties, as opposed to specific candidates.

Jewish “soft money” contributions to the Republicans will top the $10 million mark by Election Day, according to a Republican fund-raiser. Jewish PACs gave an estimated $600,000 to Republican candidates.

The lack of Jewish outreach on the presidential level reflects a marked departure from the past, when presidential candidates often courted Jewish voters, particularly those in states with large Jewish populations.

In 1992, Clinton, a relative unknown in the Jewish community, held dozens of events that targeted Jewish voters. He convened numerous conference calls with Jewish reporters and sought attention from Jewish newspapers.

In the end, Jewish voters were credited with propelling him to victory in at least three states — Ohio, New Jersey and Georgia.

This time around, Clinton scheduled no Jewish rallies and refused numerous requests for interviews from Jewish media outlets.

The one exception seems to be in Florida, considered one of a handful of toss- up states.

With Jews estimated at more than 4.5 percent of the state’s population, officials from the Clinton-Gore Jewish Outreach office have set up shop in southern Florida for a series of “Get Out The Vote” rallies.

For its part, the Republican presidential ticket, running in Florida only a few points behind Clinton-Gore, is concentrating its efforts in northern Florida, known for its more conservative voters.

Like their counterparts in the north and west, the Sunshine State’s Jewish voters are expected to overwhelmingly favor Clinton. Whether they can provide Clinton with a winning margin will only be known on Election Day.

If Clinton is taking the Jewish vote for granted, it appears that the Dole campaign is letting him.

Despite predictions from the Dole camp that the Republicans could not win crucial swing states, such as New Jersey and Illinois, without making inroads into the traditional Jewish support for the Democratic ticket, Dole has also refused numerous requests for interviews with Jewish media.

Dole did, however, address one Jewish audience this year. On Labor Day weekend, Dole spoke in Washington at the convention of B’nai B’rith.

“There would have been more attention to the Jewish community in particular if the election were closer,” said Hochbaum, citing polls showing Clinton’s commanding lead.

In addition, he said, “there is no single issue on the national agenda which has got Jewish attention.”

In contrast to the little attention from the presidential campaigns, congressional candidates are actively courting and counting on Jewish votes in their quest for election.

Nowhere is this more evident than in New Jersey.

Reps. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and Dick Zimmer (R-N.J.) are facing off for an open Senate seat to replace Bill Bradley, who is retiring. Zimmer, who is Jewish, has put Torricelli on the defensive for speaking to a group in 1993 that included Islamic extremists. Both campaigns say Jewish support is key to their election hopes.

The analysts agree.

“The Jewish vote will number about 10 percent of the voting population in New Jersey and will likely have an enormous impact on the Senate race,” Hochbaum said.

Miller said, “The election is in the grasp of New Jersey’s Jews.”

In other states with sizable Jewish populations, Democrats have deployed a small army of activists to seek out Jewish support and votes.

The National Jewish Democratic Council hired nine field directors in eight states in an effort to reach voters in districts with close House and Senate contests. An additional 10 workers began this week to marshal votes in another two states.

In a very close, hotly contested race that can come down to a few thousand votes, the importance of a couple of thousand Jews is magnified, said Stephen Silberfarb, deputy executive director of the NJDC.

“You can’t say that about every state,” he said. “But where the Jews are, they matter.”

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