For Miriam, an outspoken woman in her 80s who wouldn’t give her last name, there isn’t the slightest possibility she will vote against President Barack Obama on Election Day.
“Maybe we all don’t have to worry about becoming pregnant, obviously,” Miriam said, addressing the five other women, ages 60 to 90, who had stayed after their Tuesday morning exercise class at the Westside Jewish Community Center to speak with a reporter. “But what if a 15-year-old does become pregnant in high school? Should the child have a baby that she does not want and perhaps ruin her life? Absolutely not! And therefore, what the hell do I care what a Republican says?”
A day later, and a dozen miles north, Linda Stern sat at a table at Nagila Pizza, a kosher joint on Ventura Boulevard in Encino. Stern voted for John McCain in 2008; this year her family donated to the campaign of the Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
A member of Valley Beth Shalom, Stern said she will be voting for Romney on Nov. 6 because she believes he’ll boost the economy and because he’s said he won’t cut military funding.
“I’ll be thinking about who’s going to protect this country, and maintain what makes this country great,” she said, “and who will support our friends and not support our enemies.”
As different as these two women are — one lives in the Valley, the other in the city; one is a Republican, the other a Democrat; one looks to be at least 35 years younger than the other — the two women share a common trait: Neither is a single-issue voter.
“I know people who cast their ballots solely on abortion issues,” Stern said. “I am definitely a broad-spectrum voter. But shouldn’t we all be?”
Miriam, meanwhile, may fiercely disagree with the Republicans’ strict anti-abortion platform, but that’s hardly the only reason she’s voting for Obama. She extolled the president’s health-care overhaul bill for providing access to affordable insurance for 32 million Americans who currently lack coverage, a law Romney has said he would repeal as soon as he’s elected. Miriam also she said she has serious concerns about the integrity of the Republican challenger.
“I can’t vote for a president like Romney, charming as he is, although that doesn’t sit well with me; handsome as he is, and that doesn’t sit will with me; who says one thing and then says another when it’s expedient,” Miriam said. “How do we know when he’s ever telling the truth?”
Whether any single issue can determine how Jews will cast their ballots in 2012 is a question at the center of a public debate within the Jewish community (see sidebar). Israel, Iran, jobs, the economy, reproductive rights — any one of these is the bottom-line issue for at least some Jews in this contentious election season. In a quest to reveal what is on the minds of Jewish voters this year, at least in Los Angeles, we canvassed the streets and attended many recent Jewish events throughout the region.
As it turns out, most Jewish voters appear to be deciding with multiple factors in mind.
“I think the economy is a big issue,” Adeena Bleich said on the evening of Oct. 22 at a presidential debate-viewing get-together at the Jewish Federation building on Wilshire Boulevard. “My husband was out of work for almost two years, so that’s one of the things I’ll be thinking about.”
Bleich works at a management company in West Los Angeles that services volunteer and professional associations, and she came to watch the debate with a co-worker. She said she’s also considering the differences between Romney and Obama on health-care policy, looking at the candidates’ relationships with Israel, and scanning their actions and policies for evidence that they “genuinely care about the American people.”
A registered Democrat, Bleich grew up in Connecticut and said she’s been a multi-issue voter since even before she could vote. “I remember when I was a little girl, my parents would sit us down and explain why we were voting for a particular candidate,” she said.
On-screen at the front of the room, the debate between Obama and Romney kept coming back to the subject of Israel. Jenny Root, Bleich’s co-worker, said she would also be voting based on a range of issues, but as for Obama and Israel, she said she believes the president’s description of his visits to Yad Vashem and Sderot in 2008 — which went over well with the vocal Democrats in the crowd — was irrelevant.
“That was during his candidacy, not during his presidency,” the self-described moderate Republican said.
Bleich, for her part, noted that the two candidates seemed to be espousing very similar policies on Israel.
“They are,” Root conceded. “But Obama’s been blowing off Bibi for years.”
As he has throughout the campaign, Romney attacked Obama during this third debate for allegedly wanting to put “daylight” between the United States and Israel. In their multimillion-dollar effort to persuade Democratic Jewish voters to abandon the president, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) has enthusiastically taken up the argument that Obama, who has a frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been less friendly to Israel than a President Romney would be.
But a national poll taken in September by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) showed the vast majority of American Jews plan to vote based on economic concerns, outnumbering 4-to-1 Jewish voters who will consider Israel or the Iranian nuclear threat while casting their ballots.
That same poll also found that American Jews can be expected to continue their decades-long record of turning out at the polls in disproportionately high numbers and supporting Democratic candidates at rates higher than any other group of white voters. Sixty-five percent of those polled by AJC said they will vote for Obama this year, while only 24 percent said they will vote for Romney.
Despite such poll results, Republican Jews have worked hard this year to make Obama’s perceived unfriendliness to Israel into as much of a political liability for the president as possible.
With $6.5 million in funding from Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and others, the RJC has made large purchases of airtime, targeting a few swing states — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada and, of course, Florida — running ads that hammer home the message that some Jews who voted for Obama in 2008 have been disappointed by his performance and claiming that no Jew who cares about Israel should trust the president.
How effective these ads are depends upon the individual. “We’re inundated,” said Rabbi Yocheved Mintz of Congregation P’nai Tikvah, a Reconstructionist/Renewal community of fewer than 100 families in Las Vegas. Mintz, who received her rabbinic ordination from the Academy of Jewish Religion and now sits on the board of the Los Angeles-based nondenominational seminary, is a committed Obama supporter. She called the RJC spots “vitriolic.”
“You wake up in the morning, and you’ve got ads,” she said. “Between shows, constantly, it’s nonstop.”
Beyond the advertisements, the RJC has been working to make person-to-person contact with Jewish voters and has custom-built a database of Jewish voters in swing states for this election. Using its database, the RJC has marshaled Republican Jews in uncontested states to make phone calls into swing states in the hopes of swaying some small — but potentially significant — percentage of the Jewish voters who live there. The goal, as explained in e-mails to Los Angeles RJC members, is not to win in Los Angeles, but to “win from Los Angeles.”
That Republicans won’t win the presidential race in California, let alone in Los Angeles, is practically a given. As for the Republicans who have been intimating that 2012 could be the year the party makes significant inroads into the Jewish community nationally, Eric Bauman, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, isn’t buying it.
“The Log Cabin Republicans,” Bauman said, referring to the organization of gay Republicans, “make a lot of noise, make it seem like they’re a major fighter in any given election. But gay Republicans, just like Jewish Republicans, make up less than one-third of the vote, and that’s going to be the same this time.”
At Reform synagogues, Bauman said he hears “about 90 percent support” for Obama, but support for Romney is markedly higher in more observant Jewish communities. At the two Valley synagogues Bauman regularly attends, he said, the breakdown is very different.
“When I go to Adat Ari El, which is Conservative, it is split slightly more Democratic than Republican. When I go to Shaarey Zedek [an orthodox synagogue], it is substantially more Republican,” Bauman said, “though I always find it humorous that all the Democrats come up to me and quietly tell me they’re Democrats.”
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