Why the Jewish vote could decide the 2012 US presidential election
JN1 staff journalist Chris Collison takes a look at the unfolding American presidential election campaign and explains why the Jewish vote could prove decisive in the race for the White House.
It’s been a foregone conclusion in every US presidential election since the Great Depression that American Jews would vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate. However, this year things may be changing. For the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt breezed back into the White House with a staggering 90 percent of the Jewish vote on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, Republicans may have a chance to chip away at the Democratic Party’s Jewish monopoly.
Last year, a Congressional special election in New York served as a wakeup call for liberals when a solidly Democratic, largely Jewish district elected a little-known Republican businessman from Queens to replace Anthony Weiner, who had resigned from the House of Representatives in disgrace after lewd photos he sent to women on Twitter became public. The National Jewish Democratic Council was quick to blame Weiner’s unpopularity for Democratic challenger David Weprin’s loss to the Catholic Republican, but many political analysts agreed that the vote was more of a referendum on President Barack Obama’s Israel policy than an attempt to distance themselves from the unfortunately named «Weinergate».
Obama has had a fickle relationship with Jewish voters since 2008 when he received 78 percent of their vote. Barely six months after being sworn into office, he famously addressed a crowd in Cairo, where he called for a «new beginning» for US relations with the Middle East. His speech won praise from Arab and Israeli leaders and even prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to publicly recommit to a two-state solution with Palestinians.
But the relationship between the Israeli leader and Obama proved rocky in the following months. As Obama steered away from many of the diplomatic strategies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, Jews in both the US and Israel accused the president of being too pro-Palestinian and pursuing policies that threaten Israeli security.
Republicans have taken notice. Ahead of this year’s primary battle to become the nominee to challenge Obama in the election, Republican hopefuls began falling over themselves in an unprecedented show of praise and support for the Jewish state. Mitt Romney, the presumed frontrunner, spoke of calling up his good friend «Bibi» before botching a Seinfeld joke, while Rick Perry waxed poetic about seeing the Western Wall during a visit to the Holy Land. Newt Gingrich meanwhile caught fire for making a controversial statement that Palestinians were an «invented people». Rick Santorum soon echoed him, saying, «there is no such thing as Palestine» and that all Palestinians living in the West Bank are actually Israelis.
Surveys of the mood among Jewish American voters seem to support the new-found optimism among Republican candidates. A recent opinion poll found that Jewish preference for Democrats slipped from 72 percent to 65 percent between 2008 and 2011. A majority of Jews will in all likelihood still vote for Obama in November 2012, and it is also worth remembering that Jews make up a relatively small percentage of the total US population. Nevertheless, these latest poll numbers are still significant. American Jews are traditionally the most active religious group among US voters. Perhaps more importantly, their significant presence in the key swing state of Florida could pose a serious threat to Obama’s reelection campaign if enough of them decide to switch party allegiances. Some analysts even argue that a swing of a few percentage points towards the Republican candidate in Florida could end up proving decisive.
It’s no wonder Obama himself has begun trying to show his Israeli credentials ahead of the election season, recently releasing a video defending his record on Israel and pressure against Iran. The White House has also set up a network of campaign bases in Florida with Jewish voters very much in mind.
The presidential election is still months away but if the last few weeks have been any indication, America’s relationship with Israel is likely to remain a hot topic on the campaign trail right up until the ballot itself. Whether displeasure with Obama’s Israel policies actually leads to an historic rise in Jewish Republican votes remains to be seen, but the Republican hopeful – whoever he eventually proves to be – will be looking to exploit Obama’s perceived Israel weaknesses at every turn.