October 24, 2012
A week on the Florida campaign trail
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
Day Three: Boca Raton
The Florida headquarters of the Republican Jewish Coalition are in an office building that my simple tastes find quite ridiculous. It is Boca Raton, the beach is nearby, the sun is almost always out (not on Oct. 17, the day I visited, though), but the building has an indoor mock tropical pool with trees around it, and a plastic-y feel to it. A meaner writer would suggest that this is possibly a side effect of having a Las Vegas magnate as your organization’s prime supporter, but I think that’s probably just a coincidence. And besides, the RJC office itself is simple and lacks any sign of glitziness. There are volunteers sitting at tables surrounded by posters: “RJC phone bank instructions & script – FL.” A banner on the wall reads “Obama ... Oy Vey!!”
The volunteers call Jewish voters throughout Florida, opening the conversation with, “How are you?” and then continuing, “As you know, this is the most important election in our lifetime” — a view not necessarily shared by all. They explain: “Israel is at risk. Our economy is weak. Unemployment rates are at historic highs.” Mike Sanders, a volunteer from Lake Worth, Fla., said that his job is “to influence Jewish people to think” about their political choices. Sanders, originally from New York, and later a military man and later of Kmart, said he suspects most of them don’t: “They vote instinctively for the Democrats.” Sanders’ parents were Democrats, but he “believes” — doesn’t know for sure — that his two children (he also has three grandchildren) will vote for the “right candidate,” whom he believes is Mitt Romney.
I asked him in which presidential election he first voted, and he didn’t remember. We did the math — 1964 seemed the probable answer. Did he vote for Barry Goldwater? He didn’t remember. Judy Madison, my next interviewee, is younger, but had the same problem remembering her earliest choice. Unlike Sanders, though, she is not a Republican. Calling herself an Independent, she has voted in the past for Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, as well as Democratic candidates — Jimmy Carter among them. Carter, Sanders said, was the worst American president ever, and, for Madison, Obama is not far behind.
Both volunteers shared a dislike for Obama that was quite bluntly expressed. “Obama doesn’t care for Israel at all,” Madison said. And, three minutes later, she added: “He is out to destroy the country.”
Sanders talked about Obama’s “background” by way of explaining the president’s desire “to distance himself from Israel,” but did so in rather vague terms. “Do you remember your religious upbringing?” he asked me. “I remember my early years; they leave a lasting impression.”
I asked Sanders: Are you implying that Obama’s schooling in Indonesia is the reason for his rocky relations with Netanyahu? “I remember my early years, and that’s all I’m going to say,” he responded.
Madison voted for Obama four years ago but became disappointed with him “within the first year” of his presidency. The other day, as she was watching the second presidential debate, she was reminded that he is “an amazing speaker.” Romney — she said — “did OK.” He wasn’t great. And on some issues, she doesn’t agree with him, abortion being one of them. But she wants Jewish voters to look at the “bigger picture,” at the issues that matter most — the economy and Israel.
The conversations she has had with voters have become testy at times. “Democrats often don’t even want to listen,” she said. Sanders told me he has twice been called a Nazi. Four years ago, he was “dismayed” with the Jewish community for the vast majority of votes it gave to Obama — votes such as Madison’s. Will it be any different this time? Sanders shook his head and rolled his eyes. Yes, he said, more Jewish voters will vote for the GOP candidate this time. “The more intelligent voters,” Madison called them.
Day Four: Fort Myers
Oct. 18 was an intense day, starting with meetings with two congressional candidates on the east side of Florida, continuing with a long drive along Route 80 across the state, and ending with a Paul Ryan rally in Fort Myers — well, not quite ending. After the rally, I still needed to find a hotel and get something to eat (ice cream).
Rallies are boring. You spend a long time waiting, then have to listen to a long line of speakers you don’t much care about, as well as a singer — Lee Greenwood was good but gave me the impression the GOP doesn’t want the vote of anyone who doesn’t like country music (just to be clear: 1. I do like it, and 2. I can’t vote anyway), and a comedian — Dennis Miller was funny, well, as funny as one can get at such a political event (he wants to fire the president). And then you wait some more.
By the time Ryan took the stage, the crowd was on the verge of exhaustion. But it was still interesting to listen. The campaign was at its most juvenile stage, with the two camps constantly trading allegations over small nuances, mocking one another for things unworthy of attention, twisting words, parsing meanings, attacking, responding to attacks, responding to the responses, keeping track of the responses, calling one another liars.
Here’s what I heard from Ryan and what I learned about the state of the race:
1. The long line of speakers was all male, except for one — Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. And she was the one who got to introduce Ryan to the cheering crowd. The battle for women’s votes is on, yet the Romney-Ryan ticket doesn’t seem to believe polls saying women are focused on abortion as the key issue of this election. They keep arguing or pretending or believing — I actually think they genuinely believe — that the abortion answer from women is a knee-jerk response, and that women tell pollsters what they think is the correct answer, while what they truly care about is the economy and jobs. Thus, Ryan keeps telling women to give Romney a chance to fix the economy and largely ignores the contentious subject of abortion.
2. Ryan, turning Bill Clinton’s words against Obama, got some attention after the rally. “Just today, President Bill Clinton said it is true that our economy is not fixed. He is right,” Ryan said. Obviously, this was an attempt to get under the other campaign’s skin, and obviously, Ryan got the attention he wanted, and obviously, Clinton’s intent was different from what Ryan said, and obviously, the faked anger at Ryan’s trick was, well, faked. In campaign silly season, using such a quote is hardly the worst thing that the candidates are doing.
3. Ryan is not a great speaker, not nearly as good as Obama or Clinton. Ten minutes into his speech, I spotted quite a few people leaving. But I’m not sure great speaking matters to the campaign at this stage. The Republican campaign seems at peace with Romney’s lack of coolness. In fact, it is attempting to turn it into an advantage. For Ryan, this translates to a message of change — change of priorities. Four years ago, Americans voted for the cool guy, now it’s time to vote for the uncool but very efficient manager. Is he wooden? Yes, he is, but we don’t care. Of course, Ryan doesn’t say Romney is wooden, but reading between the lines, this is the message. Even female voters — so he believes — would this time go for the less charismatic, more dependable candidate.
4. The GOP debate narrative goes like this: There had been three debates until now — two presidential debates and one featuring the vice presidential candidates. In all three, the Republican candidate won. In the first, Romney was debating an empty chair (Ryan reminded the audience how Clint Eastwood was mocked for the empty chair gesture at the Republican National Convention, but ended up being right). In the vice presidential debate, the GOP voters disliked the blustering, arrogant Biden. The third debate — the one more Americans said Obama won — was also a Romney achievement. Obama was so helpless that he needed the moderator to intervene on his behalf, so Ryan said.
5. Last point: Reminding the crowd of the third debate, the Candy Crowley intervention and the Libya question might seem odd: This was supposedly the point at which Romney lost the debate. However, listening to Ryan, it became clear that the Romney campaign still believes the Libya debacle hurts Obama and is worthy of as much attention as possible as a foreign-policy issue. As for Obama and Biden, Libya is “an embarrassment” that they “can’t reasonably escape.”