As the general election campaign kicks off in earnest, the Jewish strategies of President Barack Obama and the presumptive GOP nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are coming into sharper focus.
And for both camps, a sense of anxiety looms.
Women and progressive voters will figure prominently in the plans of Obama’s Jewish outreach team as it zeroes in on Romney’s newfound ties to his party’s most conservative elements. The Obama campaign will strive to sell the idea that his administration saved the economy from an even worse recession and put it on a steady, if slow, path toward recovery.
But even ardent Obama supporters concede that any new economic stall could boost Romney with Jewish swing voters, whose numbers have risen slowly but steadily in recent years.
For Romney, a key argument in his Jewish outreach will be the claim that Obama has mismanaged the economy, threatening the middle class. His strategists will work hard to deflect attention from the social values issues that dominated the GOP primaries.
But that could prove difficult as the onetime moderate tries to quell skepticism about his conservative credentials among Tea Party and conservative Christian groups — groups he needs far more than he needs Jewish votes.
As in every presidential election since the 1980s, an aggressive GOP effort will seek to portray the Democrats as a danger to Israel. And the friction between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government will provide plenty of ammunition for groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel.
With continuing indications that Israel remains a relatively low electoral priority for most Jewish voters, that strategy is unlikely to have a major impact on the Jewish vote tally in November. But it could pay big financial dividends for Romney in what will undoubtedly be another campaign with record-shattering spending.
Big Jewish givers tend to be much more Israel-focused and more hawkish than rank-and-file Jewish voters. Pounding away on the related issues of Israel and Iran could add to the GOP’s growing mega-donor dominance.
While Democratic strategists are confident that conservative rage about Obama’s Middle East policies won’t trigger the long-predicted seismic shift of American Jews to the GOP side of the ballot, they are more worried about the possibility that bad news on the economic front could provide Romney a modest but — in a very tight election — significant boost.
“The recovery is underway, but it’s fragile, and a lot of people are still hurting, including many in our own community,” a Jewish Democratic activist told me recently. “Gas prices are a problem, unemployment is down, but not enough, and a lot of Jewish business people are worried about what the next year or two may bring.”
According to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the economy is, in the early stages of the general election campaign, by far the most important issue to Jewish voters. All things being equal, a Romney campaign emphasizing different strategies for economic recovery could appeal to the relatively small segment of Jewish swing voters, analysts say.
But in politics, all things are rarely equal.
Romney’s frantic flight from the “Massachusetts moderate” label he once wore with pride was dictated by a Republican primary process dominated by the party’s right flank. Fending off a succession of challengers with closer ties to the powerful Tea Party and Evangelical factions, Romney began echoing the positions of the social conservatives — hardly the pitch to endear him to Jewish voters, who remain fearful that the social agenda is just a new way of packaging old-fashioned intolerance.
The image of a party that not only opposes abortion rights but also is ready to revive a debate over contraception that — for most Americans — was settled decades ago could prove difficult for Romney to shed.
Large majorities of Jews support abortion rights and same-sex marriage, according to the PRRI survey. To the extent that Romney emphasizes those issues on the campaign trail to reinforce his conservative bona fides, he will risk limiting any possible Jewish gains at the polls.
Jewish Democrats and the Obama campaign’s Jewish outreach team will do everything they can in the next six months to remind Jewish voters — and Jewish women, in particular — about the strident rhetoric on issues such as these during the GOP primaries, about Romney’s apparent acquiescence to, if not active support of right-wing positions, and about initiatives like Wisconsin Republicans’ successful effort to repeal equal pay rules. In particular, expect a lot of talk about a Republican “war on women” that may resound strongly among Jewish women. (See story on this week’s “War on Women” panel discussion at Rodeph Sholom on page 12.)
Already, the Obama campaign is seeking to portray Romney not as a serial flip-flopper but as a hardened social conservative — a theme that will be especially strong in the campaign’s Jewish outreach, and in the pitch to Jewish women in particular.
And Romney may not have the political latitude to follow Richard Nixon’s advice for GOP presidential hopefuls: run to the right in the primaries, to the center in the general election.
“Given the level of suspicion about Romney by conservatives, will he be given the usual general election flexibility by GOP activists? This is an open question,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “To the extent that Romney cannot make direct, substantive appeals to more centrist voters, he may well be disadvantaged.”
One factor in Romney’s appeal to centrist swing voters will be his choice of a vice presidential running mate.
A running mate with strong economic credentials such as Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), along with a diminished focus on the social values agenda, could neutralize some of the lingering impact of the brutal GOP primaries on Jewish voters who are dissatisfied with Obama’s performance on the economic front, but wary of the influence of the GOP right.
But many analysts believe Romney will be forced to pick a social-values conservative or Tea Party favorite to help him close a potentially fatal credibility gap among the party’s most conservative voters and voters across the South. That might alienate some Jewish swing voters otherwise tempted to vote for the Republican ticket, in the same way that John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin in 2008 turned off — according to many analysts — some Jewish voters.
“In many ways McCain, who had strong foreign policy credentials, might have been more appealing to Jewish voters than Romney, who has none,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. But Palin’s selection effectively neutralized McCain’s appeal, he said.
One thing is certain: the Democrats will do their best to keep fresh — using video clips from the GOP debates — memories of the rightward-skewed GOP primaries and Romney’s efforts to keep up with his more conservative opponents. And expect to see a lot of those videos in every Jewish media market.
That strategy could also help Obama with another potential problem in the Jewish community: Jewish progressives unhappy about the Afghanistan war and what many see as the president’s unwillingness to openly advocate on behalf of popular liberal causes.
The fear was never that Jewish liberals would vote for a Republican, but that some would seek a liberal third-party alternative or opt out of the election entirely.
That could be much less likely because of the GOP’s stronger-than-ever focus on conservative social positions and the hawkish rhetoric on Iran by most of the Republican 2012 hopefuls.
Surveys continue to show a strong Jewish concern for social and economic justice. Democratic efforts to portray Romney as a corporate elitist who cares little about the poor may also drive Jewish liberals who have been less than thrilled with Obama to the polls to vote for a second term.
What about Israel?
Expect a lot of noise from the Romney campaign and linked groups and a significant impact on Republican fundraising, not much of an impact on Jewish voting.
The real goal is to “tap into the campaign funding of wealthy Jews who are right wing on Israel,” said University of Florida political scientist Kenneth Wald. “I’m not sure he’s doing anything more than his GOP predecessors have done, and the pool seems static — but significant in terms of dollars.”
At the same time, a hawkish stance on Israel is meant to “bolster [Romney’s] conservative credentials with Evangelicals,” Wald said. “He desperately needs their energy and enthusiasm to win in November, and taking a hard line on Israel — well beyond what American Jews as a whole prefer in terms of policy — is seen as one way to appeal to conservative Christians.”
The PPRI survey confirmed what other polls have shown and what many Jewish leaders fear: Israel remains a relatively minor electoral concern for a strong majority of Jews. While 51 percent of Jewish registered voters cited the economy as their top electoral concern, and 15 percent cited the “growing gap between rich and poor,” only 4 percent cited Israel and 2 percent cited Iran.
Some analysts ascribe such numbers to a sharp decline in commitment to the Jewish state, particularly among younger Jews; others argue that Israel is a “threshold” issue, with concern rising to the surface only if large numbers of Jews see a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations.
While many pro-Israel leaders believe such a crisis may be looming, there’s little indication the Jewish majority agrees. And the Obama administration, despite some early missteps and despite ongoing disagreement with Jerusalem over the immediacy of the Iran threat, has done a relatively effective job of highlighting the boost in U.S.-Israel strategic ties and the tightened Iran sanctions under its watch.
Republicans are making much of the recent poll showing that only 62 percent of Jewish voters now say they will vote for Obama’s re-election — a far cry, they say, from the 78 percent he won in November 2008.
But that number is identical to Jewish support for Obama in June of 2008. When faced with a real choice — and with Republican campaign rhetoric that is likely to target the party’s conservative base — Jewish Democrats are confident Obama is on track to do as well with nervous Jewish voters as he did four years ago.