Cincinnati — It may be the battleground county in the battleground state.
In the bellwether state of Ohio (no Republican president has ever won the White House without winning Ohio’s 18 electoral votes), there are said to be seven swing counties to watch. Hamilton County here is the largest, and according to many the most critical. It went for Republican George W. Bush in 2004 and Democrat Barack Obama in 2008.
Both Republican strategist Karl Rove and Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou have called it “ground zero” in this must-win state. Hamilton County’s Democratic chairman, Tim Burke, said flatly that Hamilton County “will very well determine the outcome of the election in the state of Ohio.”
This is a fact not lost on Jewish voters interviewed here during three days this week. None said they were sitting out the Nov. 6 election, even though some confessed disappointment with the performance of President Barack Obama or were still undecided about their vote.
“I voted for [Republican Gerald] Ford but otherwise I’m a Democrat, and the Republican [this year] has turned me off completely,” said Herb Hagen, 83, referring to Gov. Mitt Romney.
“He talks out of four sides of his mouth,” Hagen added as he drank a cup of coffee following the morning Conservative minyan at Adath Israel Congregation in the suburb of Amberley Village. And he noted that his wife is still undecided.
Dr. Marilyn Sholiton said she too has not made a decision, although she had been leaning towards Romney.
“Ninety-nine percent of the country will vote based on the economy, but I want to know how they stand on Israel,” she said while placing her takeout order at Marx Bagels in suburban Blue Ash. “I don’t think Obama is there for Israel, but I don’t know enough about Romney. … Obama didn’t have the courtesy to visit Israel while president, and the Democratic platform didn’t talk about a united Jerusalem — and then they said it was an oversight.”
“Romney had my vote until I started reading that Obama sent money to Israel to pay for the Iron Dome [anti-missile system],” added Sholiton, who said she is “70-plus.”
“That speaks well for Obama. But I’ve also talked to Israelis who said, ‘How could you vote for Obama?’”
Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, 54, said he voted for Obama four years ago and has “lived to regret it. … I don’t like the idea that he feels we need to go down the tax-and-spend route. [Creating more] government jobs will not produce anything. Israelis don’t like him, because they think he is too complicit [with radical Arabs], and I don’t like the fact he turned down the request for more security [at the American Consulate] in Benghazi, Libya. He says he inherited a mess, but there were things he could have done to fix it and he didn’t.”
There are 150,000 Jews in Ohio (1.3 percent of the state’s 11.5 million residents) and 27,000 in Hamilton County alone, according to Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami’s Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies. Although Hamilton County Jews make up just 1.5 percent of the population here, “they generally register and vote in larger numbers, so it means they are 2.3 to 3 percent of the total county vote.”
Herb Weisberg, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, said the polls in Ohio show Obama and Romney running neck and neck — either tied or with just a 1 percent or 2 percent separation.
Four years ago, he noted, Obama won as much as 78 percent of the Jewish vote but polls indicate that this year he could lose “as much as 15 percent” of that vote.
“That means the Jewish vote could be the deciding difference if it is more Republican than usual,” he said.
(An American Jewish Committee poll of Jewish voters in Ohio, published last month, showed the president with a 64 percent to 29 percent lead over Mitt Romney.)
Weisberg added the possibility that Romney “might win the popular vote by a small amount but Obama could win the electoral vote and the election.”
Should there be more of a Republican Jewish vote here it may be a combination of dissatisfaction with Obama and a changing demography, according to Herb Asher, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.
“Hamilton and Franklin counties have changed composition more than people are changing their minds,” he said. “Of the major urban communities, Hamilton County is seen as the more conservative county. … I would say Obama will carry the Jewish vote comfortably, but the leadership of the Jewish community is supporting Romney.”
In a statewide race that has gained attention, State Treasurer Josh Mandel, who is Jewish, is seeking to unseat Sen. Sherrod Brown. But Asher said Mandel is “running as an extremely conservative Republican and is not expected to run particularly well with Jewish voters.” The race has been particularly bitter, with Mandel calling Brown “a liar” to his face during one of their heated debates.
Joyce Garver Keller, executive director of the Ohio Jewish Communities, which represents the state’s eight Jewish federations and all of its Jewish agencies, said that with so much attention paid to the Jewish vote here “it’s fascinating to think it’s all about us — that such a small number of people are being focused on because of the difference they can make.”
Asked about support for Obama, Keller said that “four years ago the level of enthusiasm among Democrats was more than I had seen in a long time. This year, the enthusiasm among the Republicans is higher — if you are out of office, you are hungrier.”
But many Democrats here who said they have rarely if ever voted for a Republican for president indicated they have no intention of switching this year.
“I’m going to vote for Obama because I personally like him and I like his social views,” said Irvin Silverstein, 86. “I’m retired, but I don’t feel I’m in worse economic shape than I was in 2008, because the market has recovered.”
Seated next to him at Marx Bagels was Beth Siler, 51, a school psychologist who said no matter whom the Republicans had chosen as their standard bearer, she would have still voted for Obama because of his views on abortion and education.
Faye Provisor, who said she is “70-plus,” said she has yet to fill out her absentee ballot but will vote for Obama because “he’s for Israel and he’s working hard and needs more time to get this [economy] going. When he took office, things were in bad shape, and he needs time to pull it all together.”
Rachel Schild, 61, a semi-retired sales representative who said she is “socially liberal” said she has “a hard time understanding how any woman could vote for the Republican platform. … I like Obama, but I’m voting against the Republican platform, which the Tea Party had a big influence on.”
A 36-year-old mother of two who was sipping a cup of soup while working at her computer at the Mayerson JCC Café said she had been an “ardent Democrat for many years who cares deeply about helping people” but has become “disillusioned with the programs put into place that were supposed to help.
“There is difference between enabling and empowering — you can enable an alcoholic to drink or you can empower him to quit and recover,” said the woman, who identified herself only as Ruth. “At this point, I trust nonprofit organizations and private funders rather than government. I trust myself to distribute wealth more than I do the government. And I don’t trust that Obama really has Israel’s back.”
At the nearby Kinneret Café in Kenwood, Holly Robinson, 54, stirred her cup of soup while explaining that she was voting for Romney because of her concerns about American foreign policy and national security. She said that while concerned about women’s rights and gay rights and having served as a Democratic precinct chair, she has not been impressed with Obama.
“I think he has treated our allies poorly and our enemies too well,” she said. “The remaining Arab rulers in the Middle East don’t trust Obama or the Obama administration. If Iran got a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt would also go for one. Israel can be trusted with nuclear weapons, the other states could have theirs seized by terrorists.”
As he drank a cup of coffee at Rascals New York Deli, also in Blue Ash, owner Morris Zucker said that although he believes most of his Jewish customers are voting for Obama this year, he thinks support has dropped considerably.
“A lot of people tell me they are going to vote for Romney,” he said. “People who voted for Obama last time tell me they are upset with what he has done, and I see no strong support for him. They may still vote for him, but it will not be such a heartfelt vote. I’m voting for Romney because I think Obama wants to redistribute wealth and he’s not good for Israel.”
Sitting down at a nearby table, Bret Caller, 47, a real estate developer, said he believes many Jews will choose Romney in the privacy of the voting booth.
“I’ve had dozens and dozens of Jewish friends who voted for Obama in ’08 say to me that they are on the fence and will make a decision in the voting booth,” he said. “I still think Obama will get more than 60 percent of the Jewish vote, but not the same number as last time. … I’d love to play basketball or golf with Obama, but he is not the type of leader I want running the country.”
As he left the Orthodox minyan at Congregation Zichron Eliezer, in Amberley Village, Jack Rabenstein, 63, a property manager, said he is voting for Romney because “Obama is clearly anti-Israel,” because “Obamacare is unaffordable and will run us out of business,” and because he doesn’t believe Obama “will get us out of debt.”