Jewish Journal

2008: The contest for the Jews

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

June 12, 2008 | 2:33 pm

With Hillary Rodham Clinton's concession on Saturday, the real race begins. In the struggle between Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), there will be a fierce competition for Jewish support. Seeing potential weakness in Obama's Jewish flank, McCain will work overtime to grab as much as he can. At the same time, Obama finally has a direct line to compete for Jews without having to fight past Clinton. The battle began almost immediately after the last primary on June 3, when both McCain and Obama (as well as Clinton) spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). While the Jewish vote does not seem likely to sway from the norm in the congressional races, where long-standing patterns of huge support for Democratic congressional candidates seem likely to continue and may help the Democrats add to their 2006 gains, in the contest for president things are not so certain. Jews are excited, nervous, concerned and searching for the comfortable. Many are ready to vote for Obama. Some still love Clinton, and are not ready to commit to a candidate. Others feel safer with the better-known McCain.

Does the Jewish Community Matter in 2008?

With their historically high turnout, Jewish voters will help determine who wins the national popular vote if the race is close. But the electoral college system skews that impact. Because of the electoral college, which awards all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate with the most popular votes, the Jewish vote will only matter directly in the presidential race if a state is heavily contested. Jews are concentrated in a number of important states with lots of electoral votes. Only some are battlegrounds. The pivotal states of Ohio and Michigan have relatively few Jewish voters, although a large Jewish turnout in the Cleveland suburbs could be a factor in closely matched Ohio.

Obama is likely to win Illinois and California by large margins, and it would be surprising indeed if he lost New York or New Jersey. Jews, though, are an important block in two battleground states, Pennsylvania and surprisingly Nevada, where Jewish turnout in the Democratic caucuses was extremely high. Jews in the growing cosmopolitan portion of Northern Virginia could be important in a state that now is trending from reliably Republican to contested. In critical Florida, however, the Jewish vote is central. McCain is running well ahead in Florida. If Obama can win over Florida's Jews, he has an outside chance of making the state competitive. The large majority of Florida Jews are Democrats, and had their preferences been counted accurately in 2000, Al Gore would be president. But Florida Jews are older and more traditional than California Jews. Many have ties to New York City, where Jews, while Democratic, are more conservative and where there had been significant conflicts between African Americans and Jews. Many wanted to vote for Rudy Guiliani and might be amenable to voting for McCain.

A second critical way that Jews matter is in campaign finance. Jews are major campaign donors, principally to Democrats, and they were keys to the Clinton successes in the 1990s. There are also Jewish donors who give to the Republicans, somewhat countering the overall Jewish tilt toward the Democrats. But this year there's a new paradigm: The Obama campaign finance model of small donors tapped numerous times over the Internet has revolutionized campaign fundraising and diluted the role of big donors. Big Jewish donors will have plenty of opportunities to give to the national party committees in larger amounts for the fall. And Obama is expected to be able to tap into additional funds as the Clinton donors move into the Obama camp, where Jewish donors will be back in the game. Jewish Republican donors might make a real difference to the underfunded McCain campaign.

But there is a third, less noticed reason why Jews matter in 2008. In a society that has become less and less informed about politics and government, Jews remain a deeply attentive political community. Intensely concerned about Israel and the protection of the Jewish community, but alert to so much more, Jews offer a candidate a tough audience on policy. Has anybody observed a Jewish audience in the last year that hasn't been seething with questions, insights, disagreements and more regarding the 2008 election? There are no softball questions in a Jewish audience. With a well-known Republican running against a less well-known Democrat, one can hear the agonized process of decision and the wheels churning.

Jews are found disproportionately in the chattering classes, thinking and commenting about public affairs, in the active stratum, running for office in strong numbers and winning, and can be found in the academy analyzing public policy. From the days of FDR's "Brains Trust," Jews have been advising presidents. And they sometimes can be found on opposite sides of the same issue. And because some of the central concerns of Jews, like Israel, have become mainstream issues, Jews can confer foreign policy legitimacy on a candidate by vetting them on Israel and a strong American role in the world. Pass the Jewish test in foreign policy, and you can take on anybody.

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