President Barack Obama may have a Jewish problem when he runs for a second term a year from now, but it’s not the one most pundits identify and it has nothing to do with Israel.
While single-issue pro-Israel voters and Jewish Republicans continue to slam his administration’s erratic handling of relations with Israel, most analysts argue that the issue, like most foreign policy matters, will be peripheral in the election. In 2012, Jewish voters, mirroring the broader electorate, will focus with unusual intensity on one issue: the sputtering economy and the president’s inability to turn it around after the vertiginous plunge that brought him to the White House in 2008.
The fact that Israel policy will be a sideshow in an election shadowed by the Occupy Wall Street surge and the Tea Party movement, political opposites driven by shared concerns about dimmed economic prospects, might sound like good news for Jewish Democrats — but it may not be.
Two disparate groups of Jewish voters may be more in play than the Obama campaign’s Jewish outreach campaign cares to admit: centrist, business-focused voters who are frustrated by Obama’s seeming inability to carve out effective economic policies, and disillusioned Jewish progressives angry at a president they see as unwilling to confront the root causes of the economic meltdown and stand up for traditional Democratic ideals.
Most mainstream political scientists insist there’s still little partisan swing in the Jewish vote — maybe even less in 2012 than in recent elections because of the rise of candidates like Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
“No one knows 12 months in advance what the election of 2012 will really look like, but I’d be willing to make a major bet that Obama will do far better with Jewish voters once again than with the general population,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “Partisan leanings take over as Election Day approaches, and many people who had been considering straying return to the fold. The more conservative the GOP nominee, the more likely this is to happen — sooner rather than later.”
But there could be just enough of a swing to have an impact in key states if the election is close enough. And that swing is likely to be the product of domestic factors, not the concerted campaign by highly partisan conservative groups such as the Emergency Committee for Israel to depict Obama as a mortal danger to the Jewish state.
It is far from clear whether the Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoots across the country are capable of producing a viable political movement. Given the widespread distrust its activists seem to have toward both parties, some analysts say it is less likely to have an impact on policy and electoral politics than a Tea Party movement that has worked through — and in many ways changed — the GOP.
But there’s little doubt the OWS phenomenon reflects significant erosion in Obama’s progressive base, an electoral slice that includes a disproportionate number of Jews. Several polls in the past few weeks show continuing slippage in that base — a shift reflected in a more limited way in the Jewish electorate.
Last month I spoke to a high-ranking Democratic Party official who mirrored some of these concerns.
“Many liberals are disappointed with President Obama, and that includes a lot of Jewish liberals,” he told me. “There’s no risk these voters will vote Republican, but there’s a danger some of them — maybe more than some — will simply stay home next November, or even opt for a third-party candidate.”
Progressive excitement about the election of the first African-American president has given way to a widespread sense that his administration reflects little more than old politics in a new package, with a president who seems to advance a policy of preemptive surrender on core economic issues, including bank regulation, Wall Street and the widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else.
A big drop in progressive turnout a year from now could prove disastrous for the Obama campaign — and a disproportionate part of that faction is comprised of Jewish Democrats.
The Democratic official I spoke to was worried but confident that in the end, Jewish voters will not stay home. Especially if, as expected, the GOP contenders steer to the right throughout the primaries, and even more so if the 2012 Republican ticket includes any of the Tea Party favorites.
“Put Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry on the ticket, and the problem goes away,” he said.
Frustrated Jewish liberals may just stay home next November, but another group of Jewish voters could give the GOP a second look, if the party’s nominee comes across as a sober, experienced manager with solid economic ideas.
Which is why leading Jewish Republicans lined up behind former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney more than a year ago.
As the Herman Cain comet flares out in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, and as Rick Perry struggles to regain the short-lived buzz surrounding his campaign, a growing number of analysts believe Romney, once seen as unlikely to survive a primary process skewed to the Tea Party right, may be the only contender left standing when the Republican convention convenes in Tampa next August.
Even some Democratic activists privately concede that to anxious Jewish business-focused voters, Romney may emerge as an acceptable alternative to a Democratic president who has failed to reverse the economic tailspin.
I haven’t encountered a single independent analyst who believes any GOP candidate, Romney included, is likely to match Ronald Reagan’s 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980 against the hapless President Jimmy Carter. But I’ve met a few who believe that if Romney is the nominee and he runs toward the political center in the general election, he could win 30 or even 35 percent of the Jewish vote. That would likely be enough to make a difference under some Election Day scenarios.
And Romney’s appeal is unlikely to be based on GOP slogans portraying Obama as a danger to Israel, although that won’t stop him from trying as he dials for Jewish dollars.
A few months ago I asked a staunch Romney backer about his candidate’s appeal to Jewish voters.
“He understands business, he’s a grown-up on economics” was his response. “Sure, Jews continue to trend Democratic, but this administration hasn’t been good for Jewish business people, and these are the ones who are reaching into their wallets and giving to Mitt.”
The word “Israel” never came up in our conversation.
But this activist also conceded that Romney’s chances with Jewish voters could be hurt by the positions he may take to survive a slew of GOP primaries in which Tea Party and conservative Christian activists will play a huge role. And his Jewish totals could suffer if he is forced to take a vice presidential partner from the ranks of those two factions, just as John McCain was hurt by his selection of Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate.
So why the huge emphasis on Israel in GOP Jewish outreach? The simple answer: money.
“My guess is that the breakdown of Jewish money is much more even than the typical breakdown of the Jewish vote — there are some very wealthy conservative Jews out there who give lots of money to Republican candidates,” said Alan I. Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist.
And Jewish campaign giving is much more Israel-focused than Jewish voting. So while the economy will be the overwhelming priority for a strong majority of Jewish voters, the Republicans are making the not unreasonable bet that in yet another presidential campaign certain to shatter spending records, playing the Israel card early and aggressively will pay significant dividends on their campaign balance sheets.
Obama is almost certain to win a substantial majority of the Jewish vote, and a Tea Party ticket could turn “substantial” into “overwhelming.”
But he could face losses among centrist, business-oriented Jews if the Republican nominee runs a more centrist campaign in the general election and is able to offer solid economic credentials. As the OWS movement spreads, with polls showing surprising popular support for its core arguments, the president also faces the danger disillusioned progressives — including many Jews — may opt out of Election 2012.
And the Israel card will still pack some punch in campaign finance — which is why the Democratic Party continues to pour resources into fighting the claim their standard bearer is anti-Israel.