Jewish Journal


January 31, 2008

And now the ‘Jewish primary’  begins . . .


When California moved its presidential primary to Feb. 5, and other big states followed suit, the strategic role of Jewish voters in the nominating process was greatly enhanced. Inadvertently, the states created a "Jewish primary." New York, California, Florida, Illinois, Connecticut and Massachusetts will vote on or just before Feb. 5. (Florida's primary was held on Jan. 29.) In the more than 20 states that hold primaries or caucuses in that one-week span live 5,111,685 Jews, according to the American Jewish Committee's (AJCommittee) 2006 American Jewish Year Book, representing nearly 80 percent of all American Jews.

Contrast this to the hugely watched Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. Jews represent two-tenths of a percent of Iowa's population and eight-tenths of a percent of New Hampshire's.

The Jewish impact will be seen this week in both parties. The Democrats will feel it directly because the great majority of Jewish voters are registered as Democrats. While California's Jews are 3.3 percent of the population, the Field Poll shows them to be 5 percent of Democratic voters. In New York, Jews are 8.4 percent of the population, but represent a much larger share of the Democratic electorate. In Florida, Jews are a key element of the Democratic vote, and the ties of many Florida Jews to roots in New York may have impacted a race with New York candidates centrally involved.

But Republicans will also be keeping a close eye on the Jewish vote. Even a relatively small bloc of Jewish Republicans can affect a highly contested Republican primary given the high turnout of Jewish voters. In the long run, Republicans hope to attract crossover Jewish voters and campaign donations in the general election. A Republican nominee who appeals to Jewish voters will be highly competitive in the fall.

When the primary season loomed on the horizon in late 2007, Jewish voters registered their preferences quite clearly. In an American Jewish Committee poll, Jewish Democrats strongly favored Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Jewish Republicans most preferred former N.Y. Mayor Rudy Guiliani. These two New Yorkers towered over the other candidates. Sen. Clinton had overcome the suspicions of many in the New York Jewish community to prove her strong support of Israel, and as a known quantity had an edge over the other Democratic candidates. As mayor, Guiliani had been extremely popular among Jews in New York City, winning the great majority of Jewish voters in both of his victories. This popularity was expected to help him not only in his own state but also in Florida, with its many Jewish ex-New Yorkers.

Since that time, the paths of the two frontrunners have diverged. Clinton fell badly in Iowa but has since recovered to maintain a consistent if smaller lead over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Meanwhile, Guiliani's support deteriorated and he depended on a strong showing in Florida to stay in the race. Popular among Florida's thousands of ex-New Yorkers and also with anti-Castro Cuban Americans, Guiliani had poured funds into the state. (It hurt him that most Florida Jews will vote in the Democratic primary.) When Guiliani finished a disappointing third in the primary, his campaign was finished. He withdrew the next day and threw his support to McCain. Evidence from the Nevada caucuses held on Jan. 19 suggests that Clinton is holding her Jewish support against Obama's dynamic campaign. An NBC exit poll found that Jews represented a remarkable 5 percent of caucus-goers and were Clinton's strongest single bloc of support. Jews backed her over Obama, by 67 percent to 25 percent. The only group comparable in its support for Clinton was the Latino vote, at 64 percent. In California, Jews also represent an estimated 5 percent of the Democratic electorate. If Jews and Latinos break the same way there as in Nevada, Obama will have a tough road ahead.

Why is Obama having trouble winning Jewish votes? To many Jewish voters he is an unknown on matters of vital interest to Jews. As a result, he has been placed on the defensive by viral e-mails claiming he is a Muslim, by a leaked memo from the American Jewish Committee that raised doubts about his position on the Middle East, and in general by the tendency to fill in the blanks about Israel and the Jewish community when it comes to a "new" African American candidate, especially one who is more inspirational than detailed and concrete on policy.

Obama's campaign began as one that was above the racial divide, but the increasingly racialized debate (spurred on by the Clinton campaign) has suddenly placed new tests on him that are familiar to other black candidates seeking Jewish (and Latino) votes. Republicans Richard Riordan in Los Angeles and Guiliani in New York put together winning coalitions of white, Jewish and Latino voters against black or black-supported opponents, and that is not an easy combination to overcome. Obama has aggressively fought back against the shadowy e-mails, and major Jewish organizations and leaders have spoken out publicly against the attacks. The hawkish New York Sun ran an editorial that defended Obama's record on Israel and the Jewish community.

But time is short. Obama is probably where Hillary Clinton was in 2000 with New York's Jews, before she took the time to reintroduce herself slowly and quietly to the Jewish community. Obama has a week to do the same thing in the limelight. If he is the party's nominee, he will have that time. But to become the nominee, it's going to be very tight. If he can draw on the history of Black-Jewish-Latino coalitions that powered a number of winning campaigns, he may yet pull it off. He may also benefit from a backlash among Democrats against the effort by the Clinton campaign to isolate Obama on racial grounds in the same way that Clinton benefited from women voters' anger at the media dismissal of her campaign after the Iowa caucuses.

On the Republican side, the pitch to Jewish voters has intensified. With Guiliani out, Jewish Republicans (and crossover voters in the fall) are back in play for McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney. (It is hard to imagine Gov. Mike Huckabee doing well with Jewish voters in either party.) McCain's favorite "Democrat," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), stumped with him in Florida, an alliance that has fostered talk of Lieberman running as vice president with his friend. While McCain lacks the intense connection that Guiliani has had with Jewish voters, his appeal to moderate and independent voters give him a real chance to win support from Jews. If California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is popular with Jews, weighs in on McCain's behalf at some point, that would be another positive signal. Guiliani's departure eases the path for the governor to move to McCain's side, since he had previously spoken positively of both men's campaigns. In the bigger picture, Republicans are previewing their strategy to win Jewish votes in the fall. The menu includes support for Israel, a tough foreign policy, confrontation with Iran and dramatic portrayals of a global war with radical Islam. Despite their strong identification with the party, Jewish voters cannot be taken for granted. Unless all blanks are proactively filled in with Jewish voters, doubts and uncertainties can grow into real trouble.

On Tuesday, it is unlikely that either party will have made its final decision on a nominee. But this is a very important moment, the closest thing we have to a national primary, with big urbanized states weighing in on a field of strong candidates. And Jewish voters will be in the center of the action.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.

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