Republican hopes for a big Jewish surge in this year's presidential contest were dashed on Tuesday when President George W. Bush, in his successful bid for a second term, claimed only about 24 percent of the Jewish vote nationally, according to exit polls published by major news outlets.
That was only 5 points above his weak 2000 showing, and came after an extensive and expensive campaign by Jewish Republican groups and a big pro-Bush turnout by the Orthodox community, which strongly approved of the President's Mideast policies.
Bush's numbers were even worse in the battleground state of Florida, which was the top target of the GOP Jewish outreach effort. According to exit polls, Bush garnered only 20 percent of the Jewish vote there.
Publicly, Jewish Republicans were claiming a modest victory.
"Twenty-four percent is a respectable showing in an environment in which values became so central to the success of the campaign," said Marshall Breger, a longtime Jewish Republican leader and liaison to the Jewish community during the Reagan administration.
But in private, some expressed bitter disappointment.
"Anything less than 25 percent is a disaster, given how hard the [Bush-Cheney] campaign tried," said one Jewish Republican as the votes were being counted. "It may be that we all overestimated the influence of the Israel issue, and overestimated the influence of the Orthodox."
At press time, there was no specific data about the Orthodox vote, but most observers felt it was probably in the range of 70-80 percent Republican -- which means that the non-Orthodox Jewish vote was even less favorable to the GOP than the overall exit poll numbers suggest.
Why did a president who got such high marks from Jewish leaders on Israel-related issues bomb so badly with Jews?
One answer is that in an important sense, he didn't bomb at all.
"To the extent that the Republican Party has courted Jews, it's not Jewish voters, it's Jewish contributors," said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg. "When the numbers are added up, we will probably find that Jewish money was especially important to the Republicans this year."
Still, Jewish Republicans expected significantly more than 24 percent -- a number that confirmed the accuracy of recent polls by the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) and the American Jewish Committee.
Many Republicans believed the president would significantly broaden his Jewish base because of his extraordinary support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- seen by Bush as a comrade in arms in the fight against terrorism.
Some top Jewish leaders sent clear signals that they hoped the Jewish rank-and-file would reward Bush's strong pro-Israel policies with support on election day -- even if they had qualms about his administration's domestic agenda.
But recent polls pointed to a major flaw in that strategy: while American Jews care deeply about Israel, the issue does not rank at the top of the political agenda for a majority.
That is particularly true among the non-Orthodox.
"What these numbers mean is that Kerry was successful in getting the message out to Jewish voters that he is a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship," said Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who campaigned actively for the Massachusetts senator. "It's been his position for a long time; it's in his heart, and he believes it."
Once mainstream Jews accepted Kerry's pro-Israel credentials, they felt free to vote based more on the domestic issues that have traditionally driven Jewish politics -- including things like abortion rights, church-state separation and civil rights, said Democratic consultant Steve Rabinowitz.
The GOP may have wanted to win Jewish hearts and minds, but they wanted to secure their political base even more. There were concerns in the campaign that evangelical voters might not turn out on Election Day, a potentially fatal blow to the Bush reelection effort.
The result was a strategy engineered by White House political guru Karl Rove that played heavily to the Christian right -- a group most Jews continue to regard with deep concern.
"The Bush-Cheney campaign obviously got huge support from the religious right, and used ballot referenda in a number of states to bolster that support," political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg said.
Anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives in 11 states -- all of which passed on Tuesday -- may have boosted Bush in the American heartland and among Orthodox Jews, but the GOP effort scared many mainstream Jews who saw it as an attempt to suppress the civil rights of a minority, Ginsberg suggested.
In the end, many Jews were more worried about Bush's Christian right connections than they were appreciative of his pro-Israel positions.
"I've found more and more people in the Jewish community who are nervous about George Bush's interpretation of a Christian state," Cardin said. "It makes them feel uncomfortable, and it was a factor in the election results."
And the Republicans may have made another miscalculation; they assumed that support for Sharon was the same as support for Israel. In fact, many passionately pro-Israel Jews are not particularly supportive of Sharon's policies.
Those concerns have been masked in the past few years as the community rallied to support Israel during a time of crisis. Still, Bush's personal embrace of Sharon may not have been the selling point for most Jewish voters that the Republicans expected.
And they misread the gap between Jewish and pro-Israel leaders, and the Jewish rank-and-file.
The leadership, focused much more on the single issue of Israel and eager to reinforce the administration's friendship with Sharon through political support, gave the impression that the community was turning in droves to the Republicans. But as Tuesday's vote demonstrated, Jewish voters weren't necessarily following.
"What these numbers highlight is the leadership gap," said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist here. "The leaders may be trying to cozy up to the Republican administration, but Jewish voters are pretty much where they've always been: with the Democrats."
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