October 8, 2008
With the Republican base on the ropes, all eyes are on Florida —again
It's the third one, Florida, that has the presidential campaigns in a frenzy. There are roughly 650,000 Jews in Florida, out of 18 million residents. Concentrated in South Florida in three counties (Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade), they are older, high-turnout voters with whom the Democrats have a big edge.
This is familiar territory. Unless tens of thousands of Jews had a sudden epiphany in 2000 that revealed Pat Buchanan to be a friend of the Jews, Al Gore won the election with a groundswell of Jewish votes that were interpreted incorrectly because of the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County.
In 2000 we didn't know how important Florida Jews were until it was too late. In 2008, elderly Florida Jews are political rock stars. Sarah Silverman has a YouTube video in support of The Great Shlep -- a movement to get young Jews to persuade their family elders in Florida to vote for Obama.
Jackie Mason has recorded an online countervideo to make the Republican case. Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" has had two segments featuring a focus group of elderly Florida Jews commenting on the presidential debate.
While Florida Jews tend to be strong Democrats, their profile is the type of older voter susceptible to nervousness about Obama. For this community, scurrilous e-mails that raise all sorts of false questions about Obama hit a nerve. The Republican Jewish Coalition has been making calls to Jewish voters that in all innocence ask if it would bother the voter to "know" that Obama has supported the PLO. That this stuff works is testimony to the challenge of a young black candidate, not yet well-known in the Jewish community, and to the complex undertow of recent black-Jewish tensions. Remember that many Florida Jews moved there from New York City, with its long and difficult history of black-Jewish conflict.
Indeed Florida itself seemed out of reach for Obama until a few weeks ago. But as in all the battleground states, the Wall Street crash and bailout transformed the campaign and a raft of new polls give Obama a small but significant lead in Florida.
If Obama wins Florida's 27 electoral votes, it's over. If Sen. John McCain holds Florida, he still has a chance. So it looks as if Florida and its Jewish bloc are back in play.
The surrogates are all over the place, with Sen. Joe Lieberman plugging McCain and Obama pulling in former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Florida Rep. Robert Wexler and Middle East expert Dennis Ross. Joe Biden is very popular with Florida Jews, and he is pulling his weight. With the advantage of the Republican brand, and McCain's own familiarity, he does not need as many surrogates as Obama.
So why did McCain's economic adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, pick this moment to tell the Wall Street Journal that McCain plans to pay for his health care plan by taking blocks of money from Medicare and Medicaid? Politically, this makes no sense in Florida, where an attack on Medicare, joined to McCain's support for private accounts in Social Security, could shake loose thousands of older voters.
McCain is on a precipice with those voters, many of whom are trying to decide whether to take a risk on the unfamiliar and cast a vote for the young black guy instead of the older white guy everybody knows. The older the voter, the more difficult the decision. Why then would McCain make it an easy choice?
I imagine that while Holtz-Eakin spoke accurately, his timing reflects the chaos within the McCain campaign, especially in regards to economic policy. But the substantive explanation might lie in the pressure on McCain to explain his health care plan, under which he proposed to provide tax credits for Americans to buy private insurance while removing the tax deduction for employer-based health care.
This approach leaves the taxpayer paying more in payroll taxes for the pleasure of navigating the private market (with its well-known aversion to insuring anybody who might someday get sick or is sick now). So the McCain people said that there would be no payroll tax increase. But how to pay for the new tax credit? Thus the decision to take it from Medicare and Medicaid. From their standpoint, they get to further the privatization of health care and still avoid the charge (fatal with the Republican base) of raising taxes.
Put more simply, it seemed safer to risk losing older voters in Florida than to risk the Republican brand of no new taxes, hoping that those Floridians won't have heard about the interview or will believe when told that Holtz-Eakin was talking out of turn, or will just be confused because the whole thing comes across as such a complex muddle.
Because, if the McCain camp doesn't find a way around this, how can it continue to attack Obama for raising taxes?
The problem for any Republican nominee is that what pleases the base (e.g. Sarah Palin, privatization, lower taxes) may end up turning off everybody else. If McCain loses Florida, that may be the lesson for his party. The base can never be fed enough.
McCain would have probably been better off with no health care plan rather than one that eviscerates employer-based insurance and cuts Medicare and Medicaid. But it's too late now.
Now, the question is whether the Obama campaign can boil down for Florida voters the peril to Social Security and Medicare from a McCain-Palin administration. This is a job for Bill Clinton, the one Democrat who can reduce complex policy issues to a story about a frog sitting on a fence post. Clinton really hurt Paul Tsongas on the Social Security issue in the 1992 Florida Democratic primary.
The Republicans meanwhile plan to push farther and deeper into the attacks on Obama as a "friend of terrorists," as a "different kind of American" and more. It is already ugly out on the campaign trail, and reporters in the field are feeling the heat of the rising anger of a Republican base on the ropes.
This is Florida 2008. Fasten your seat belts.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is spending the semester in Paris as the Fulbright-Tocqueville Chair at the University of Paris VIII.