Cincinnati — Out here in the America between the coasts, in what may be the most prized electoral catch of all come November, Sam Samet is President Barack Obama's worst nightmare.
And Michael Heines is Mitt Romney's.
Sipping a cup of coffee after the morning minyan at suburban Adath Israel Synagogue, Samet, 77, said he voted for Obama four years ago. But now, three years into the president's rocky term, the lifelong Democrat is so disenchanted with him that he might sit out the election.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve run into something like this — and I’m a Democrat,” Samet said. “A lot of people feel this way. … I don’t know what to do.”
A few blocks away at the Mayerson JCC, Heines, 47, a commercial real estate developer until the market here collapsed, walked out of the exercise room carrying a gym bag and saying he had not decided for whom to vote. But he stressed he would vote; because of Ohio’s status as a crucial swing state, every vote here takes on added importance.
Then he ticked off his many problems with Obama. “Gas prices are high, Obama vetoed the Keystone pipeline, no one is accountable for the TARP money [the federal financial bailout of banks and private companies in 2008], and the Delta Airlines terminal here is a ghost town,” Heines said.
He would seem to be a voter tailor made for Mitt Romney, who has been campaigning almost nonstop for four years and has survived a grueling primary process intact and with plenty of money. But Heines' frank assessment of the former Massachusetts governor: “Romney is clueless” about what is going on.
It's hard to say just how representative Samet and Heines are of Ohio's Jewish community, which numbers about 150,000, or about 1.3 percent of the state's 11.3 million residents. But in interviews with about 50 Jews over four days in Ohio's Queen City — at shuls, supermarkets, JCCs and private homes — a picture emerges of voters in this key battleground state trying to parse the records and rhetoric of two deeply flawed candidates.
A few miles away from the JCC at a Kroger supermarket in the suburb of Blue Ash, Suzy Zipkin, 60, browsed through the kosher meat section and said she generally votes “for the Republican, but I don’t like Romney — he’s kind of creepy. … I’m resigned to voting for Obama, and not because I love him.”
But Gary Heiman, one of Romney’s major financial supporters in Ohio, said he is convinced Romney has the right stuff to be president.
“To me a leader needs to have real-world experience and needs to be able to understand and create solutions for the economy, the deficit, security, global trade and international relations,” Heiman said as he sat behind his desk at Standard Textile Co., where he is the president and CEO. “Romney has had that.”
Analysts say that with about 20 percent of the American electorate still undecided, Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes, is one of eight swing states very much in play. The others are said to be Virginia, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Hampshire and Florida.
Experts say it would be practically impossible for Romney to win the presidency without winning Ohio and Virginia, both of which Obama carried in 2008.
“No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio,” noted Herb Weisberg, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University in Columbus. (Barack Obama carried Ohio 52-47 percent against John McCain in 2008.)
To hear Julius Kassar describe it, the Jewish vote in Ohio could prove pivotal in order for Romney to capture this state and perhaps even the presidency. Kassar, a conservative Republican who serves on the executive committee of the Liberty Alliance of Cincinnati (previously known as the Tea Party), noted that when George W. Bush was elected in 2004, he won by 118,599 votes.
Drinking a cup of coffee in the social hall of the Losantiville Country Club, he says that with Bush winning by such a small margin, “it is very possible that the Orthodox Jewish community — which normally votes Republican — along with other Republican Jews substantially helped push Bush over the top. I can’t see any reason why Jews who voted Republican at that time would change their vote now.”
Weisberg, the Ohio State professor, agreed that the vote in Ohio could be “very close again, so any group could make a difference.” He noted also that many of the people who voted for Bush in 2004 turned out to vote on a referendum calling for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
“Christian churches mobilized their people on this issue,” he said. “But there is nothing on the ballot helping the Republicans this year.”
On the other hand, the presence on the ballot of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, 34, a Jewish Republican, seeking to unseat Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who got 78 percent of the Jewish vote in his first Senate race in 2006, has received a lot of attention in the Jewish community.
“Whether he gets their vote is another matter,” Weisberg said. “Josh is a controversial candidate. To get elected state treasurer in 2010 he went after an appointed black Democrat by associating him with Muslim elements, which many people thought was hitting below the belt.”
In terms of the Jewish vote, Ohio is not as significant as Florida, however, with its 29 electoral votes and sizeable Jewish population. Although Jews in the other swing states represent just a fraction of the electorate, their influence is magnified by the fact that they vote, Weisberg noted.
“I think the 11th commandment is to vote,” he said. “Jews vote in higher rates than any other social group in the country.”
It’s a point Nathan Diament, head of the Orthodox Union government affairs office in Washington, seized on when he told World Net Daily last month that “given the Jews turn out at an 80 percent turnout rate, if you swing the Jewish vote 10 percent in Ohio, that could give you Ohio.”
But unlike four years ago when Obama was able to galvanize many young people with his message of “hope and change,” there appears to be little enthusiasm this year, observed Gene Beaupre, a political science teacher at Xavier College here.
“I’m on a college campus and it is not the way it was four years ago,” he said. “I’m not saying they won’t yet get involved, but I saw students four years ago putting in hours and hours of work — there was a real emotion in them. It’s early, but the question is whether that can come back in a timely fashion.”
In the wider Jewish community, Obama has seen his numbers surge since September, when 45 percent of Jews polled in an American Jewish Committee survey backed him. That figure jumped to 61 percent in the April AJC poll.
Obama and Romney began running their first television ads of the general campaign in some battleground states just two weeks ago. Obama’s ad here shows him walking with the word “forward” across the bottom of the screen.
Romney’s commercial spells out what the first day of a Romney presidency would look like — approving the Keystone pipeline and “creating thousands of jobs Obama blocked”; introducing tax cuts and reforms “that will reward job creators, not punish them”; and replacing “Obamacare with common sense health care reforms.”
Such health care reform would be welcome news for Seena Rubenstein, the office administrator at Gold Manor Synagogue here.
“My husband is a diabetic and he can only get very limited health insurance,” said Rubenstein, 55, who noted that her husband had been on the health insurance plan she has with the synagogue until a downturn in the economy forced the synagogue to change policies.
“I had thought Obamacare would be good, but now he is covered only if he needs hospitalization,” she said in an interview in her office. “I’m disappointed with it. We’re paying for a lot of out-of-pocket expenses — we never had to deal with this before.”
But Bethe Goldenfield, 58, chair of the Warren County Democratic Party in southwest Ohio, said she considers the Affordable Care Act one of Obama’s crowning achievements.
“He is essentially a believer in what is doable,” she said of Obama during a roundtable discussion with fellow Democrats at the home of Julie Brook, executive co-chair of the Hamilton County (Cincinnati) Democratic Party. “He is a pragmatist as opposed to an ideologue. Yes, he wanted to do more, but he accomplished an enormous amount.”
In addition to reform of the health care system, Goldenfield cited Obama’s successful appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court: Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
“And look what he’s done in terms of turning around the economy,” she said.
Others in the group pointed out that the new health care rules bar insurance companies from refusing to insure people with prior medical conditions, something they view as a significant accomplishment.
And Ben Glassman, 37, pointed out that U.S. “security funding for Israel is the highest ever, there have been joint military operations and joint intelligence operations.”
“The perception that Obama is weak on Israel does not mesh with the facts,” he said. “Israelis know this, and that’s why he is popular in Israel.”
Sitting with his wife, Sandy, at a table in the J Café at the Mayerson JCC here, Ron Richards pulled no punches when asked his assessment of the Obama presidency, especially when it comes to Israel policy.
“Obama is the worst thing that ever happened to this country as far as the presidency is concerned,” said Richards, 74, a registered Republican. “And he’s not friendly to Israel.”
“We have a lot of friends in Israel,” his wife interjected, “and they are begging us not to vote for Obama.”
“What angers me,” Richards continued, “is that there are many Jews who will still vote for Obama. We live in Warren County in southwest Ohio. It’s about 90 percent Republican with a good number of Republican Jews, but they are not the majority [among the Jews].”
Several analysts and Romney supporters said that one surefire way to ensure that Romney carries Ohio would be for him to nominate Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, 56, to be his vice president. Portman is very popular here, having won seven consecutive congressional elections with more than 70 percent of the vote. In addition, he served as the U.S. trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget during Bush’s second term.
“He has traveled around the world and negotiated with world leaders,” Heiman said of Portman. “They both understand what reality we are living in and that what is needed today are not idealists who hope that being nice to you is going to get you everything. The biggest mistake Obama made was going to Cairo and to Istanbul and apologizing for American mistakes. In that part of the world, an apology is equated with weakness; the Arab and Muslim nations pegged Obama as naïve and weak. …”
“I’m very optimistic that Romney — even if he does not choose Rob — will pull 40 percent of the Jewish vote in this area and at least 35 percent nationally,” he added. “And I think a lot of people will sit out this election because [Obama] made a lot of promises and failed to carry through on virtually all of them.”
Jeff Mazer, 35, said that although Obama did not do everything he promised, he still plans to vote for him and finds the Republican Party “offensive” and its positions “dangerous.”
“They are not for the regular people,” he said as he walked through the JCC with his wife, who was pushing their child in a stroller. “I work for a large health care company and I believe Obamacare is good — it’s a step in the right direction.”