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Does the Jewish Vote Matter to Gore and Bush?

by James D

March 16, 2000 | 7:00 pm

As fast as it began, it ended: the political fireworks ignited by the New Hampshire presidential primary and the meteoric rise of insurgent Republican contender John McCain ended with a fizzle after last week's "Super Tuesday" contests.

There was a parallel story on the Democratic side, where former Sen. Bill Bradley flared, then quickly faded. His withdrawal last week punctuated a campaign that was mostly anti-climax.

That leaves voters with a slogging endurance contest between the establishment candidates: Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore.

The all-but-certain nominees are now turning their sights on each other. The campaign for the general election will be bloody, but hardly inspiring; all indications suggest it will be another low-turnout, high-spending exercise.

The Jewish vote could be critical, or it could be just a minor footnote, depending on the gap between the candidates in November.

The bottom line is this, according to Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn: neither candidate can afford to ignore the Jews. At the same time, they can't afford to invest too heavily in a small segment of the electorate whose preferences in the election are already known.

Both contenders need to pay attention to the Jews -- but the political demographics suggest not too much attention.

On the Republican side, Bush will pursue a limited, highly focused Jewish strategy

Even leading GOP strategists like Frank Luntz concede the Texas governor is unlikely to do better than his father, who won less than 20 percent of the Jewish vote in his unsuccessful 1992 reelection bid.

The governor's turn to the right in South Carolina and his earlier refusal to join other Republicans in spurning columnist Pat Buchanan added to his Jewish problem.

His surrogates will seek to reinforce support from politically conservative Jews who oppose the current Mideast peace process by arguing that President Bill Clinton has been too willing to squeeze Israel.

They will try to distance the candidate from the foreign policy of his father, George Senior; instead, they will suggest a return to the policies and attitudes of the Reagan administration.

That was the motivation behind a recent telephone press conference featuring George Shultz, Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, still a favorite among pro-Israel activists.

But the candidate himself will avoid detailed pronouncements on the Middle East.

At the same time, Bush backers will appeal to solid conservatives by emphasizing the candidate's support for parochial school vouchers and other forms of government assistance for religious education.

George W. has used up much of his record cache of campaign money fending off John McCain. With fundraising again a priority in the campaign, he will have to turn to the GOP money establishment, which includes a number of prominent Jews.

Bush will do even worse among African Americans, but political analysts say he has a chance to get a substantial vote from segments of the growing Hispanic community. That is where the campaign is likely to focus its minority efforts -- not in synagogues and African American churches.

Gore, too, will play a limited Jewish game. His primary goals: avoid controversy and increase turnout, especially in a handful of swing states where the Jewish vote could make a significant difference.

"The Jewish vote will be especially important in Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois," said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. "Turnout is going to be pretty darned important."

Gore's surrogates -- no observers expect him to spend much time directly appealing to Jewish voters -- will argue that a Republican White House would trigger a tidal wave of school prayer, voucher and other legislation that liberal Jews see as violations of the church-state line.

In Florida, the Gore campaign will talk up Social Security and Medicare; in the North, it will emphasize the candidate's support for abortion rights and Bush's ties to the Christian right.

Gore will try to walk a difficult line on Mideast matters -- not repudiating the policies of President Bill Clinton, but not foreclosing the possibility he might shift in an even more pro-Israel direction.

And he has to hope there is no new friction along the U.S.-Israel axis before November.

Turnout among Jewish and African-American voters is critical for Gore, since a big majority of the former and an overwhelming majority of the latter will vote for him.

"Gore won't lose Jewish votes to Bush, but he could be hurt by lower turnout," said political scientist Gilbert Kahn.

Keeping the Jews interested enough to turn out on election day while he devotes most of his resources to other, less committed constituencies will be one of the big challenges of the campaign, he said.

Jewish turnout could be affected dramatically in some states by congressional races that have grabbed the community's interest -- including the Hillary Clinton-Rudolph Giuliani Senate contest in New York and Sen. Dianne Feinstein's reelection bid against Republican Rep. Tom Campbell, a lawmaker who has frequently piqued Jewish groups.

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