Now that it’s down to John Kerry versus George W. Bush, American Jews — prominent in swing states in what could be a close election — can expect plenty of attention.
“Anything that moves a few hundred or a few thousand voters one way or another in any state can cause a seismic shift,” said John Zogby, a pollster who says the closeness of this election is leading opinion-gatherers to focus more than ever on small groups like Jews.
David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which tracks Jewish voting patterns, said Jews could expect to be courted.
“The Jewish community should feel comfortable that both parties in the coming election will be paying close attention to the Jewish vote and will be paying attention to core Jewish concerns,” he said.
“Jews are in swing states, Jews vote rain or shine, Jews are active in mobilizing support for the parties, Jews are also visible and vocal in the competition of ideas, radio, television, newspapers, magazines, all of which makes for impact.”
The fight will mirror the larger battle for the election, where Kerry will emphasize domestic issues and President Bush will stress his foreign-policy and security record.
Among Jews, Democratic strategists say they will stress health care, the economy and the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Republicans say they will stress Bush’s strong pro-Israel record and his war against terrorism.
Jews still lean strongly Democratic, pollsters say, but even small shifts could change history.
“If instead of 72 percent of the Jewish vote Kerry were to get 69 percent, it’s not many votes, but it could have an impact in Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona,” Zogby said — all states that were won by tiny margins in the 2000 election.
Florida’s contested electoral votes in that election ultimately threw the national race to Bush, even though Al Gore got the plurality of the national vote.
Kerry, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, swept nine of 10 states in this week’s Super Tuesday primaries, all but clinching the Democratic nomination.
Jewish activists in both parties already are targeting swing communities.
“There’s probably going to be about 10 real battleground states and in a number of those places there’s a large Jewish community,” said Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, making note of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri.
The Republic Jewish Coalition has held a number of events in Florida recently to bolster support.
Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor who chairs the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, attended some Republican Jewish events in the state over the weekend. Racicot said he was optimistic that Bush would do better than the 19 percent he earned from Jews in 2000, because of the president’s strong pro-Israel record.
“We understand they have been inclined to support Democrats,” Racicot said of Jewish voters in an interview with the JTA. “But we feel the president’s policies and his values in regards to the Middle East lead to the possibility to be much more successful in the Jewish community — not just in Florida but around the country.”
Bring it on, say the Democrats.
“Things have not looked as good for Democrats in the Jewish community for a number of years,” said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Kerry’s strength among Jews was reflected in exit polls on Tuesday, where he polled better among Jews than among non-Jews in four out of five states with reliable Jewish exit poll data.
Forman said his party would emphasize what all pro-Israel activists agree is Kerry’s exemplary voting record in 19 years in the Senate.
“It’s good to be a Jewish Democrat today,” Forman said Wednesday.
Harris, of the AJCommittee, suggested that the Democrats need to publicize Kerry’s record on Israel — and quickly. He said his impression in the lead-up to the California primary on Tuesday was that Jews in the Golden State were unaware of Kerry’s views on the Middle East.
“In 10 meetings I’ve had in California, the very same issues have come up — specifically John Kerry and Israel,” Harris said. “How does he stack up?”
A senior official in Kerry’s campaign named three Kerry associates immediately available to do Jewish outreach for the candidate: Mark Mellman, a top Democratic pollster, Alan Solomont, a leading Jewish philanthropist in Boston, and Cameron Kerry, the candidate’s brother who converted to Judaism 20 years ago.
Forman suggested that the Democrats’ strategy would be first to say that Bush and Kerry were equals on Israel, “and then we pivot to all the major domestic issues.”
“They’re on the wrong side of the community on the fiscal mess, with its dire implications for social service programs, on forfeiture of stewardship of the environment, on destroying the wall separating church from state, on choice, in energy, on nuclear proliferation — we can go on and on and on,” Forman said.
Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of local Jewish community relations councils and national groups, agreed that Jews are likelier to vote this year on domestic issues.
“On issues specific to Israel, we’re talking about a win-win situation,” said Rosenthal, one of 40 Jewish organizational leaders who met with Kerry over the weekend in New York. “Jews will be looking at protection of privacy, at civil liberties protections, at health care, women’s rights.”
Those were all issues Kerry stressed in his victory speech Tuesday night, when he left foreign policy and the Iraq war for brief mentions at the end.
Forman said the party also would emphasize Bush’s backing for the amendment banning gay marriage.
“Every time they play to their conservative base — and they’ll have to play a lot this year — they totally alienate the Jewish community,” Forman said.
Republicans agreed that Kerry was strong on Israel but suggested that Bush was stronger and that Kerry could be vulnerable on national security, where Bush has aggressively advocated tougher measures in the USA Patriot Act.
Brooks, the Republican Jewish official, suggested that Bush’s commitment to Israel’s safety and security would trump domestic considerations for many Jews.
The Republican Jewish Coalition said in a press release that Kerry had opposed Israel’s West Bank security barrier when speaking to Arab Americans in the autumn but supported it when speaking to Jews this week.
“Where does John Kerry really stand on Israel’s anti-terrorism fence?” the release said.
In a sign of the importance of the vote in Florida, the Bush campaign got two of the state’s Republican congressmen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mark Foley, to repeat that point in a conference call with reporters.
“Kerry can’t have it both ways — ‘To the Arabs I am against the fence, to the Jews I am for the fence,’ ” Foley said, predicting increased Jewish turnout in Florida because of Bush’s pro-Israel record.
Forman scoffed at the Republicans’ strategy, noting that Bush, too, had modified his position over the same period: opposing the fence’s route in the autumn, but supporting the barrier now that Israel is adjusting the route.
Kerry’s campaign has said that his comments to Arab Americans last year, when he said, “We don’t need another barrier to peace,” referred to the fence’s planned route inside the West Bank. Israel has since adjusted the route, and Kerry now defends the fence as a legitimate security measure.
Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who will publish his own survey of American Jews next week, said this election season promises to be an interesting one.
“For the first time in my lifetime, a significant segment of the Jewish vote is up for grabs,” he said in an interview. “The Jewish community is the most interested in national security of any voter sub-group, and that plays to Bush’s advantage.”
“The Jewish community is still liberal on social issues and that plays to Kerry’s advantage,” he said.
Luntz said his polling suggested Kerry would perform well among Reform and Reconstructionist Jews and “those who say they are just Jewish.”
Bush will make gains among Orthodox and Conservative Jews and those Jews who are more active in the community, he predicted.
In a survey of American Jews published in January by the AJCommittee, 51 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 31 percent as Independent and 16 percent as Republican.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.