WASHINGTON (JTA) – Just two months ago a poll found that John Edwards was slightly more popular than Barack Obama among Jewish Democrats, with the two of them trailing far behind Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But while Obama and Edwards were competitive among white voters for second place in Florida’s Democratic primary Tuesday, Edwards came in a distant third among Jewish voters.
Fox News political commentator Dick Morris was criticized for suggesting that Edwards’ main base of support was white men who didn’t want to vote for a woman or an African American.
That theory, when combined with exit polling data on the Jewish vote, suggests that Jews were still likelier than other whites to vote for the African-American candidate in the race despite an ugly recent e-mail campaign falsely depicting Obama as a secret Muslim.
Another possibility – firmly rejected by Marc Stanley, a top Edwards supporter – is that the candidate’s emphasis on poverty relief may not have resonated as much as it once would have with Jews.
“That would be a sad day for the American Jewish community if it were true,” said Stanley, the Austin, Texas-based chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council and Edwards’ top fund-raiser. “I hope we haven’t abandoned our collective commitment to tikkun olam,” the Talmudic injunction to repair the world.
He paused and added, “John would be a great Jew.”
Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and vice presidential candidate, left the race for the Democratic presidential nomination on Wednesday, having failed to win a single primary state outright.
“It’s time for me to step aside so that history can blaze its path,” Edwards said against a backdrop of half-built devastation in hurricane-wracked New Orleans, where he launched his campaign a year ago. “We will be strong, we will be unified, and with our convictions and a little backbone we will take back the White House in November.”
Edwards, unlike Obama and Clinton, was never able to shake the impression left over from the 2004 election, when he was on the ticket as the vice presidential candidate, that he was strong on domestic policy and a lightweight on foreign policy.
That was bound to hurt him with Jewish voters, a constituency that polls suggest is concerned with the domestic issues Edwards championed – decreasing poverty and making health care universally available – but also looks to Israel’s security.
It didn’t help that in early 2007, he emphasized to a pro-Israel audience that a military option remained on the table in terms of confronting Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program – and within weeks told a liberal magazine that he favored an emphasis on diplomatic outreach to Iranians.
The two ideas are not contradictory, but the willingness to shift emphases depending on the listener worried some in the pro-Israel community.
Winning Jewish support from Clinton, a U.S. senator representing New York, was especially daunting, Stanley said. In addition to the millions of Jews who live in New York state, “she and her husband had a wonderful relationship with the Jewish community and Israel and the Jewish people.”
While for those reasons it’s been a given that Clinton would be the front-runner in the Jewish community among Democrats vying for the nomination, at one point it appeared as though a fight for second place was a possibility. An American Jewish Committee poll in late November found Clinton with a 70 percent favorable rating among Jewish Democrats, with Edwards leading Obama, 48 to 45 percent.
Yet on Tuesday, exit polls in Florida told the same story: Clinton received 58 percent of the Jewish vote, with Obama receiving 26 percent and Edwards 13 percent.
According to the exit polls, among whites the numbers for Clinton and Obama were slightly lower than they were among the Jews, at 53 and 23 percent, respectively. Edwards picked up the balance, winning 20 percent of the overall white vote.
Before stepping down, Edwards extracted a pledge from the Clinton and the Obama campaigns that they would take up his war on poverty. He did not endorse either candidate.
Obama’s top fund-raiser, Alan Solomont, told JTA that Edwards and Obama were competing for the same constituency among Jews and generally – Democrats tired of the status quo.
“Senator Edwards himself articulated the view that there were two candidates for change and one for the status quo,” referring to a recent debate in which Edwards identified himself and Obama as the candidates for change. “And one might expect that Senator Obama would speak to that” now that Edwards is out.
Steve Rabinowitz, a Washington political strategist who backs Clinton, said she was a likelier beneficiary of Edwards’ departure, in part because both she and Edwards were more likely to appeal to the party faithful.
“Obama was much more appealing to independents than Clinton or Edwards were,” Rabinowitz said. That will hurt Obama in “closed” primaries, Rabinowitz said, where only Democrats may vote.
He predicted victory for Clinton on Feb. 5, when 22 Democratic primaries take place – most of them closed.
“It all bodes much better for Clinton in the vast majority of the Super Tuesday states,” Rabinowitz said.
Generally, Rabinowitz said, Clinton would fare better now that white voters no longer had Edwards in the race – something he was unhappy about, even as a Clinton backer.
“A few weeks ago Edwards was taking votes from Obama because he was splitting the non-Hillary vote with Obama, and now tragically he’s splitting the white vote with Hillary,” he said. “It’s not right. It benefits Hillary, but that’s not how anyone wants her to win.”