The 2012 presidential election campaign has begun. Suspecting that the incumbent is vulnerable, Republicans are already beginning to position themselves to carry this campaign to voters early and often against the Obama Administration.
Jews will be seen as a key target for this effort. Several core factors will define the Jewish connection in this campaign cycle. Accessing early campaign money and embracing the Israel connection represent two elements that will be seen as pivotal the 2012 campaign and to Jewish support. Both parties, and more directly aspiring candidates, will be looking for financial assistance as a way to launch and to build their campaigns and to garner political endorsements.
Jews are seen as significant political funders. In the past Jewish donors have generated as much as 45 cents of every dollar raised by Democrats and provide a growing base of support for Republican candidates. As one commentator has suggested, "the primary emphasis in the Republican Party has not been to win Jewish votes but to attract major Jewish giving and, at a minimum, to deprive Democrats of that giving."
Political funds are secured through outright gifts to politicians, contributions made to PAC’s, and support for political parties or commitments provided to advocacy organizations and political interest groups. As there are likely to be a number of candidates entering the presidential sweepstakes, there will likely be a "multiplier effect" as Jewish supporters aligned themselves with particular individuals spreading out Jewish financial and voter support.
In light of the shift during this recently completed election cycle to convert support for Israel into a campaign advantage, Republicans are likely to exploit the current tensions between Jerusalem and Washington as a tactical benefit to their political agenda.
In the past bipartisanship around Israel was an accepted political axiom, now it is more likely that both parties will seek to portray their record of support as evidence of their "special connection" to the Jewish State. As both parties position themselves for the next Presidential campaign, there will be a concerted effort in both camps to promote the Israel card and to mobilize political interest in their respective campaigns.
The Republicans may face an added internal challenge as the pro-Israel wing of that party will need to contend with recently elected Tea Party members, many of whom hold isolationist views related to US foreign policy and in turn, oppose foreign aid in principle as an appropriate use of American resources.
Following the 2010 elections where an increasing number of Jewish voters joined with other traditionally aligned Democratic supporters to embrace Republican candidates in several key Congressional and Senatorial elections. Feeling energized as a result of these election outcomes and in light of some polling data reflecting a loss of support for Obama among some Jews, Republican Party activists will no doubt seek to build upon this momentum to harness their efforts to strengthen their case with the Jewish electorate and to gain endorsements for aspiring Republican Presidential candidates.
In order to possibly understand this apparent shift among some Jewish voters, it is helpful to review how the President’s performance is being measured in terms of US-Israel relations.
In the 2010 Fall Survey of American Jewish Opinion published by the American Jewish Committee, 49 percent of the participants approved of the President’s handling of relations with the Netanyahu Government, while some 45 percent expressed disapproval. In response to the same question asked a year earlier, some 54 percent endorsed the President’s performance with regard to Israel, while only 23 percent indicated their unhappiness with the Obama White House on this question.
The shift in attitude may reflect in part why Republicans believe that the Jewish vote will "in play" during the 2012 election.
An array of other factors will help shape Jewish political behavior as part of the forthcoming campaign. As a result of the 2010 US Census, reapportionment could well lead to the loss of one or more House seats currently occupied by a Jewish member of the House of Representatives.
Another concern involves the potential loss of political influence in states with significant Jewish communities but where the overall population numbers appear to be in decline; states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Massachusetts are likely to lose Congressional seats, and this could further erode the Jewish community’s political clout. Outside of Florida, any new seats that may be awarded will not likely include states with large concentrations of Jewish voters. In addition, as House districts are re-drawn, it is possible that additional Jewish representation could be depleted.
If the campaign patterns of the 2008 Presidential elections have any relevancy, the Jewish community is likely to see a repeat of the political "meanness factor" that developed between the Republican Jewish Coalition and its rival, the National Jewish Democratic Council, as Jewish Republicans and Democrats engaged in an array of charges and counter-charges centered around Barak Obama’s credentials as a friend of Israel and the Jewish people. Similarly, the battles carried out earlier this year between the RJC and J Street involving the pro-Israel credentials of candidates in selected Congressional and Senatorial campaigns are likely to be resumed during the 2012 elections.
In the end as politics and civic activism represent an integral part of the American Jewish experience, it is therefore not surprising to see such sustained interest and engagement, even in this very initial stage of the Presidential sweepstakes.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service and serves on the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles campus.