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.”
In the face of the RJC’s onslaught, Democrats have been working to burnish Obama’s pro-Israel credentials on a far lower budget. At an event launching a local Jews for Obama group in September, former California Congressman Mel Levine, who has been working as an informal adviser to the Obama campaign on Middle East affairs, called Obama “as pro-Israel a president as we’ve ever had.”
Sharon Nazarian, who hosted the event in the living room of her Brentwood home, joked that as “one of six” Democratic Iranian-American Jews in Los Angeles, she often has difficulty convincing people — even members of her own family — that the president’s record is pro-Israel.
“The impression in broader American society — and especially among Iranian-American Jews — is that President Obama doesn’t like Israel, he doesn’t support Israel,” Nazarian said.
Accordingly, Levine spent most of his 30-minute presentation countering attacks on the president’s record on Israel. Obama hasn’t visited Israel? Neither did George W. Bush, until his last year in office, Levine said. Ronald Reagan never visited.
Obama has distanced himself from the Jewish state? Levine pointed out that the Obama administration has doubled the United States’ financial support for missile defense systems in Israel over that of the Bush administration. He cited top Israeli officials praising the Obama administration and pointed to joint military exercises under Obama by the U.S. and Israeli militaries.
But among Los Angeles’ Jewish Republicans, it’s clear that Obama’s Israel policy is just one in a litany of disagreements they have with the president and his backers.
Bruce Bialosky, who founded the RJC chapter in Los Angeles, invited this reporter to watch the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 with him in his home in Studio City. In the first minutes of the debate, when the Republican candidate accused the president of instituting a system of “trickle-down government,” Bialosky cheered.
“If the average American has the ability to control their own destiny, they don’t have to worry about who at the top is doing the trickling,” he said.
When Larry Greenfield, a past California director of the RJC, outlines the stakes of this election, he draws a distinction that extends far beyond the realm of foreign policy.
“It’s not just Obama versus Romney,” Greenfield said in a phone interview with the Journal in October. “It’s leftism versus pragmatism.”
Now a fellow at the Claremont Institute, Greenfield has served as an unofficial surrogate for Romney for three different Jewish audiences around Los Angeles in the past month. While his version of a pro-Romney stump speech covers international affairs, Greenfield also spends time on economic and social issues, working to allay voter concerns about the Republican nominee’s social agenda — “I’m actually pretty confident Gov. Romney has no instinct to criminalize, prosecute or regulate away abortions,” Greenfield said, in his effort to advocate for Romney’s ability to relate to Jews.
“I’ve been with Gov. Romney,” Greenfield said. “He’s expressed just incredible warmth to the Jewish community, identifying with it as a religious minority in America.”
Still, among some members of the Jewish community, foreign policy dominates political discussions.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, who brought Greenfield to his synagogue for a presentation on a Shabbat afternoon in October, said his congregants know that as their rabbi he won’t talk electoral politics with them.But that doesn’t stop them from asking Feinstein what he thinks.
Feinstein said his congregants do want to talk about domestic issues — male congregants “tend to talk about economic issues, who’s going to reduce taxes, who’s going to increase business development,” while women “are interested in the government’s role in regulating women’s health” — but the question of who would be better for Israel is the one he gets asked most often, by a long shot.
“Among my people here in shul,” Feinstein said, “the No. 1 issue is protecting Israel, and, specifically, protecting Israel from Iran, and, secondarily, protecting Israel from Palestinian extremist terrorism. They want to hear what I have to say about that.”
Just as Republicans are critical of the president on a range of issues — including what they see as his hostile stance toward Israel —Jewish Democrats are supporting Obama for a similarly wide range of reasons.
Even the Jews who gathered to watch the third presidential debate at parties sponsored by J Street — an advocacy group dedicated to a single foreign-policy issue, advancing a peaceful two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — appeared ready to support the president, despite their frustration that Obama hasn’t done more in his four years in office to advance their cause.
“Our disappointment is not in Obama, although we would’ve liked him to pursue a more progressive agenda,” said Richard Stein, a retired English professor who hosted in his Brentwood home one of Los Angeles’ three J Street viewing parties. “Our disappointment has more to do with the intransigence of the Republican Party.”
In talking about Republican intransigence, Stein wasn’t speaking specifically about J Street’s agenda. J Street supported the framework that Obama laid out in his May 2011 speech, in which he proposed using Israel’s pre-1967-war borders as a starting point for negotiations for a future Palestinian state. Opposition to that proposal came from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
But on many other issues — including stimulus proposals and, most notably, anything involving raising taxes — Obama’s proposals have met a wall of Republican resistance.
“There’s pretty well nothing that Obama could propose that the Republicans would pass,” Stein said, “all the more so if it looks like it would be reasonable or successful.”
In Los Angeles, a largely Democratic region, the presidential contest surely doesn’t pivot on the Jewish vote, and the national result certainly won’t hinge on the reliably blue state of California. But in the handful of swing states where the campaigns are fighting for each vote on the ground and over the airwaves, it is the nonideological, largely uncommitted voters — some of them Jewish — who will be making choices that will determine the result.
And along with the voters who will weigh multiple issues before making their decisions and those who are singularly focused on a single policy area are some Americans who will choose the next president based on something much less quantifiable — their gut feelings.
Standing near the back of the boardroom at the L.A. Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters after the close of the third presidential debate, Arman Baroukh said he hadn’t been able to glean much in the way of particular issue-based or policy differences between Obama and Romney from that evening’s exchange.
“It was a lot of bickering, and, ‘You’re a liar,’ and, ‘I’m not a liar,’ back and forth,” Baroukh said.
Still, Baroukh, an Iranian-American Jew in his 30s who works in real estate and in the medical supply business, is not a fan of Obama and was concerned that the president might win another term.
Baroukh didn’t vote for Obama in 2008 — indeed, he said he didn’t vote at all that year, and wasn’t certain that he’d cast a ballot this year, either.
“I’m going to try to make some time to vote this year, yeah,” he said. “Knowing how close it is, I’m more motivated to vote this year.”
But then there’s Judy Mayerson.
At 91, Mayerson was the oldest member of the Westside JCC Tuesday morning exercise class. She’s voted in quite a few presidential elections and bears a healthy dose of skepticism about what candidates say during campaigns.
“The issues usually are, can they really do what they promise?” Mayerson, who came to the class with her daughter-in-law, said. “And they never do, so you’re always skeptical. But you try to be broad-minded about it.”
Mayerson said she’ll vote for Obama this year but didn’t offer specifics in explaining why, beyond the simplest one of all.
“Mostly I’m a Democrat, so I follow that line,” she said. “Usually, I find that the candidates — I prefer them to the Republicans.”
The polls open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 6.