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Jewish Journal

Candidates Eye the Jewish Vote

by Ron Kampeas

March 4, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Now that it's down to John Kerry versus George W. Bush, American Jews -- prominent in swing states in what could be a close election -- can expect plenty of attention.

"Anything that moves a few hundred or a few thousand voters one way or another in any state can cause a seismic shift," said John Zogby, a pollster who says the closeness of this election is leading opinion-gatherers to focus more than ever on small groups like Jews.

The fight will mirror the larger battle for the election, where Kerry will emphasize domestic issues and President Bush will stress his foreign policy and security record.

Among Jews, Democratic strategists say they will stress health care, the economy and the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Republicans say they will stress Bush's strong pro-Israel record and his war against terrorism.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Kerry's only serious rival, was expected to announce his withdrawal from the race on Wednesday. Edwards did not win any primaries Tuesday.

Jewish activists in both parties already are targeting swing communities.

"There's probably going to be about 10 real battleground states and in a number of those places there's a large Jewish community," said Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, making note of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri.

Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor who chairs the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, said he was optimistic that Bush would do better than the 19 percent he earned from Jews in 2000, because of the president's strong pro-Israel record.

"We understand they have been inclined to support Democrats," Racicot said of Jewish voters in an interview with the JTA. "But we feel the president's policies and his values in regards to the Middle East lead to the possibility to be much more successful in the Jewish community."

Bring it on, say the Democrats.

"Things have not looked as good for Democrats in the Jewish community for a number of years," said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Kerry's strength among Jews was reflected in exit polls on Tuesday, where he polled better among Jews than among non-Jews in four out of five states with reliable Jewish exit poll data.

Forman said his party would emphasize what all pro-Israel activists agree is Kerry's exemplary voting record in 19 years in the Senate. He suggested that the Democrats' strategy would be first to say that Bush and Kerry were equals on Israel, "and then we pivot to all the major domestic issues."

Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of local Jewish community relations councils and national groups, agreed that Jews are likelier to vote this year on domestic issues.

"On issues specific to Israel, we're talking about a win-win situation," said Rosenthal, one of 40 Jewish organizational leaders who met with Kerry over the weekend in New York. "Jews will be looking at protection of privacy, at civil liberties protections, at health care, women's rights."

Forman said the party also would emphasize Bush's backing for the amendment banning gay marriage.

"Every time they play to their conservative base -- and they'll have to play a lot this year -- they totally alienate the Jewish community," Forman said.

Republicans agreed that Kerry was strong on Israel but suggested that Bush was stronger and that Kerry could be vulnerable on national security, where Bush has aggressively advocated tougher measures in the USA Patriot Act.

Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who will publish his own survey of American Jews next week, said this election season promises to be an interesting one.

"For the first time in my lifetime, a significant segment of the Jewish vote is up for grabs," he said in an interview. "The Jewish community is the most interested in national security of any voter sub-group, and that plays to Bush's advantage. The Jewish community is still liberal on social issues and that plays to Kerry's advantage."

Luntz said his polling suggested Kerry would perform well among Reform and Reconstructionist Jews and "those who say they are just Jewish." Bush will make gains among Orthodox and Conservative Jews and those Jews who are more active in the community, he predicted.

In a survey of American Jews published in January by the American Jewish Committee, 51 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 31 percent as Independent and 16 percent as Republican.

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