On the eve of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses this week, strategists in both major political parties now believe Jewish voters could play a critical role in wide-open nomination battles this year — and possibly in a November general election that some experts say could be another squeaker.
"Usually the Jewish vote isn’t something Republican candidates compete for in the primaries," said a key Jewish supporter of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, one of the candidates with the most to gain from a strong Jewish tally. "But this is a very different climate, with the front-loaded primaries.
"The Jewish community is very important in states that have been put on center stage," said Giuliani supporter, who asked not to be named
because he was not authorized to speak.
That goes for the Democratic primaries, as well, although the political dynamics of the much bigger Jewish vote on that side of the political divide are very different.
In addition to the Iowa caucuses on Thursday and the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary, the front-loaded primary schedule includes the controversial Jan. 29 vote in Florida and the "Super Tuesday" marathon on Feb. 5, with votes in New York and New Jersey, among others — states with big, politically active Jewish communities.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have cranked up their Jewish campaigns as the polls show a tightening race. Sen. John Edwards, according to Democratic Party officials, may be doing the same as he pulls even in the Iowa polls.
Several Republican contenders have more at stake in the hunt for Jewish votes. Giuliani, who seems to have bet everything on the second round of primaries, faces a make-or-break test in Florida, where his popularity among Jewish retirees with New York connections could prove decisive.
Political observers generally agree that there is more "swing" in the relatively small Jewish Republican vote, while Jewish Democrats appear more likely to have chosen their favorites.
"A tremendous amount of the Jewish Republican vote is sitting on the sidelines," said Fred Zeidman, a Texas businessman and leading supporter of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). "They will support whoever is the party’s nominee. On the other side, I see most Jewish Democrats have taken sides already."
Looking to November, predictions about the Jewish impact on the electoral outcome come with the usual caveat: it depends on the tickets and how close the final tally is.
"Are there any Jews in Ohio and Florida? Oh, right — a million," quipped Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic media consultant. "Literally. All are swing targets."
If this presidential election is as close as the last two, he said, every Jewish vote in a handful of key states could count big.
It is in selected primaries in a redrawn calendar that Jewish voters could play their biggest role in 2008. "The key to understanding the Jewish vote is that it’s a significant bloc in a very few states," said Colby College political scientist L. Sandy Maisel. "So that vote becomes important only when those states are in play."
But that is what may be happening as 2008 arrives.
"In previous years, when many heavily Jewish states were relegated to the back end of the primary process, a lot of campaigns focused on outreach to the Jewish community from a financial perspective," said Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a partisan group. "Now, with the ‘Tsunami Tuesday’ scenario, with places like New York, Florida and California in play, you’re seeing campaigns on both sides of the aisle actually reaching out to the Jewish grass roots."
Brooks said Giuliani, McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are running the most active Jewish campaigns among the Republicans, although other Republicans said Romney’s effort is much smaller.
Giuliani has staked his whole campaign on Florida and the Super Tuesday states — including his home state of New York and neighboring New Jersey, as well as Connecticut and Delaware. His campaign also hopes to pick up significant numbers of delegates in Illinois and California — also states with sizeable, active Jewish populations, where his big-city associations will not be a political liability.
Giuliani has spent considerable time in Florida in recent days; when Iowans are caucusing on Thursday, the ex-mayor will be campaigning in Miami. A leading supporter said Giuliani is taking advantage of his relative popularity with Jews in New York to sway others in Florida.
"There is a great word-of-mouth network that centers in New York," said this source, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "There are lots of people who have known and supported the mayor for years — who have relatives and ties across the country, and especially in Florida."
Although all the major GOP candidates have enlisted some top Jewish Republicans to their cause, party insiders agree that Giuliani, with his New York associations and hawkish Mideast views — and also his former image of moderation on some social issues — has a clear edge in the early going.
"Giuliani has to win convincingly in states with high numbers of Jewish voters on Feb. 5, otherwise the campaign is over," said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn.
But there’s a wild card in that mix, Kahn said: McCain, the erstwhile frontrunner whose campaign seemed to implode last year, and his newest high profile supporter, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
If McCain does well in Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Nevada, he "could be an attractive alternative" for many Jewish Republicans and some Jewish swing voters on Super Tuesday, Kahn said.
The endorsement by Lieberman, who remains a popular figure especially among older Jewish voters, could add to his allure, especially in Florida, Kahn said.
Both McCain and Giuliani could appeal to Jewish swing voters in these states, not just committed Republicans – increasing the size of the Jewish GOP vote and boosting the two Republican hopefuls in the contest against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Democratic ‘Early Deciders’
The primary situation is somewhat different for the Democratic contenders since Jewish involvement in Democratic primaries is huge.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both enjoy strong bases of Jewish support; Edwards, who has bet on an upset in Iowa, also has significant backing. Party insiders say there may not be a lot of swing potential among Jewish Democrats.
Jewish Democrats are "disproportionately early deciders," said Democratic media consultant Rabinowitz.
And all three are heavily focused on Iowa and New Hampshire; a knockout blow by Clinton, in particular, could diminish the role of the Feb. 5 primaries.
"But if the results are somewhat inconclusive in the earliest votes — with each having something to brag about — then we could see major Jewish efforts mounted in states where the Jewish vote really does matter, including Florida, New York and New Jersey," said Steve Grossman, a former Democratic National Committee chair who now supports Clinton’s presidential bid.
Ditto California, where Democratic activists predict Jews could comprise 10 percent of the Democratic turnout.
"You have to divide the Jewish [Democratic] vote into parts," Grossman said. "The portion that is older, more single-mindedly focused on Israel’s safety and security as an issue, is more likely to support Clinton’s candidacy. That shows up in the polling data and informal surveys."
That means a potential boost for Clinton’s candidacy in states like Florida and New Jersey, he said, as well as New York, where she — like Giuliani — enjoys the home-field advantage.
But a second group of Jewish voters "for whom the war in Iraq is the defining issue, who are somewhat more anti-war, more liberal, may be more inclined to support Obama," Grossman said. "That could be a factor in Massachusetts, which is also a February 5 state."
Both, he said, are running strong with Jewish donors – the earliest measure of electoral prospects.
But other Jewish Democrats say there could be a shift to Edwards if he pulls off a major upset in Iowa, where some polls now show a dead heat.
The Jewish vote calculus becomes even more complicated for the general election.
Most independent observers say whoever the nominees are, the Democratic candidate will get the overwhelming majority of Jewish votes. But a shift of ten percent to the Republicans – not out of the question, especially if Giuliani or McCain is the nominee – could prove critical in a close contest.
"Jews are located very strategically, concentrated in the big states that dominate the Electoral College," said University of Florida political scientist Ken Wald. "That makes them a lot more valuable than Mormons, who tend to be concentrated in very small states, or in places that are reliably Democratic like California. And Jews are extremely active in terms of both high levels of voter registration and turnout, not to mention volunteer activity and campaign contributions."
In his book "The Politics of Cultural Differences," Wald and his colleagues found that Jewish voters have a "much more significant" impact than some larger groups, including African Americans — who comprise about 13 percent of the electorate.