It’s become as much a campaign-season staple as Iowa and New Hampshire: Each election cycle Republicans predict a major shift in the Jewish vote and Democrats end up scoffing all the way to winning upwards of 75 percent at the ballot box.
This year, however, something is different.
Many Jewish Democrats — at least in the heart of Hillaryland — are worried as it becomes increasingly likely that U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will be the party’s presidential candidate in November.
The anxious mood was easy to detect Sunday night at the annual dinner of the New York chapter of the National Jewish Democratic Council, especially during a speech by one of the night’s five honorees, U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).
“We need to convince Jewish voters that” Obama will “stand by Israel,” said Engel, who with four other pro-Clinton Jewish congressmen from New York — Gary Ackerman, Steve Israel, Jerrold Nadler and Anthony Weiner — was recognized for working to bolster the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Such talk is not a complete surprise coming from Engel, a hawk from the Bronx who has taken the lead in pressing for tougher U.S. sanctions against Syria. But several other speakers and attendees voiced similar concerns.
After the speeches, Nadler told JTA he shared Engel’s view that Obama faced some challenges.
“Barack Obama is not well known in the Jewish community,” Nadler said. “There is a lot of nervousness.”
Even the NJDC’s executive director, Ira Forman, who in past years was quick to dismiss any talk of a pending Jewish crossover to the GOP, raised the alarm.
Borrowing from Charles Dickens, Forman told the crowd that it was the “best of times,” with Democrats poised to make “huge gains” in Congress. But it is also the “worst of times,” he added, citing a recent Gallup Poll showing Obama winning 61 percent of the Jewish vote in a match-up against U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) taking 67 percent against the presumptive Republican nominee.
Forman noted that while the poll gives both Democrats a solid majority, it also shows McCain faring much better among Jewish voters than his Republican predecessors from the past four presidential races.
“What does that drop of 15 to 20 percent mean?” he asked. “It means 180,000 votes in the state of Florida if we drop 20 percent. It means 35,000 votes in Ohio. God forbid New Jersey’s in play, 130,000 votes in New Jersey; 16,000 votes in the small state of Nevada; 25,000 votes in Colorado; 70,000 votes in Pennsylvania. I could go on and on.”
Both Nadler and Engel said that despite their objections to Obama’s stated willingness to meet with the president of Iran, they are comfortable with the Illinois senator. Weiner and Israel also stressed that for them, backing Obama over John McCain was an easy choice.
The four honorees on hand — Ackerman was in Israel as part of a delegation headed by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi — said Obama would be wise to put Clinton on the ticket. Some of the lawmakers said the move would send a reassuring message to Jewish voters who view her as a proven supporter of Israel.
However, two NJDC activists at the event — Trudy Mason, a state committeewoman, and Risa Levine, an attorney active in State of Israel Bonds and the Democratic National Committee — rejected the idea.
They said forcing Clinton to serve a notch below a man with significantly less experience would alienate many women like them who actively supported her.
Echoing a view voiced by several of the politicians in attendance, Mason and Levine said that ultimately the most important thing is for Obama to do a better job of reaching out to Jewish communal leaders and activists.
Obama has spoken at high-profile Jewish or Israel-related events in Chicago and Washington, met with Jewish communal leaders in Ohio and Pennsylvania prior to the respective primaries in those states and granted several interviews to Jewish media outlets.
But as several attendees pointed out, he has yet to establish the sort of strong personal relationships with many of the Jewish power players and elected officials in New York, that they are used to enjoying with Clinton and other national political figures.
One obstacle until now has been that in New York, as well as some other states with significant Jewish populations, Clinton boasts long-term relationships with and commands the support of most of the major Jewish Democratic figures. That has made it especially difficult during the primary season for Obama to make any significant inroads.
Experience — or Obama’s lack of it — is another factor, especially with pro-Israel activists who place a high premium on familiarity and reliability.
“I think the best friend Israel has is the U.S. Congress, and the longer someone is in Congress, the more they get it,” said Levine, the New York chair of the DNC-aligned Women’s Leadership Forum Network. “It’s not just about the ability to spout back AIPAC talking points. He hasn’t been there long enough.”
Levine said the lack of experience was an issue even before Obama was rocked by controversies involving inflammatory comments, including harsh criticisms of Israel made by his former pastor. Now, she says, the fact that many American Jews don’t have a good feel for Obama is an even bigger problem.
Unlike the congressmen, who all were emphatic about their support for Obama should he prevail in the Democratic primary fight, Levine sounded noncommittal.
Asked if she would vote for Obama in November, Levine would only say, “It’s a secret vote.”
Israel — the congressman, not the country — predicted that if Clinton lost, the number of Jewish defections to McCain would be small. In the process, he previewed the hard-hitting line of attack that Democrats intend to follow in the fight for Jewish votes.
“For sure we are going to make this a referendum on a Republican Party that has made Iran stronger, and has enriched Saudi Arabia and other petro-dollar states, which undermines Israeli security,” the congressman said, adding that Democrats also will be stressing domestic issues in their outreach to Jewish voters leading up to November.
“John McCain has stated explicitly that he would appoint a Bush Supreme Court,” Israel said.
Weiner argued that the differences between Obama and Clinton are “infinitesimal” compared to what separates either of them from McCain. And he also demonstrated a willingness to challenge the claim of GOP activists that their leaders are now in the vanguard of defending Israel.
“In terms of the safety and security of Israel,” Weiner said, “probably nothing has jeopardized that more than the war in Iraq, and John McCain says he wants to carry that for the foreseeable future.”