With Sen. John Kerry’s lead in New York dwindling to single digits according to two new polls, the heavily Democratic state may emerge as a surprise battleground in the final stretch of the election.
And if Jews, who have made up as much as 17 percent of likely voters here in recent races, support Republican George W. Bush as heavily as some believe, they could play a larger role than usual in deciding how the state’s 31 electoral votes are cast.
“New York has the largest Jewish community in America,” said Matthew Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “Any strengthening of the Jewish community for the president only helps move the state toward the red column [of Republican states.]”
With six weeks to go until Election Day, several polls show Kerry losing ground in key states won in 2000 by the Democratic nominee, Al Gore. In addition to New York, they include Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon and Wisconsin. In heavily Democratic New Jersey, which Gore carried in 2000, Bush and Kerry are now in a dead heat, 48 percent each among likely voters.
The latest poll by Marist College has Kerry only eight points ahead of Bush in New York, 48 percent to 40 percent, down from a 14-point advantage in April. The latest Quinnipiac University poll has Kerry’s lead down to 6 points, 47-41, a 12-point drop from a month ago. Sixty percent of voters here picked Gore in 2000.
Few expect Bush to carry the state.
“It’s a very remote prospect, and I don’t think Bush will try,” said Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz.
Pollster Lee Miringoff of Marist College sees the slip here as temporary.
“After a bad month for Kerry in August, and a successful convention for Bush, New York has gotten worse for Kerry, like other places,” said Miringoff. “But it is still not particularly in play.”
The low numbers, however, could mean that Kerry, and possibly Bush, will spend more time and resources here than they ordinarily would have. Both candidates were in Manhattan this week.
The low numbers also suggest the Massachusetts senator has failed to galvanize his base in a bruising campaign that has seen him spend months defending his military record in Vietnam from critics while failing to develop an effective attack against Bush.
That could change in the weeks ahead.
“The debates will be very important,” said Benjamin.
Nationwide, Kerry seems to have little to worry about among Jews. A poll released this week by the American Jewish Committee suggests that 69 percent of Jewish voters across the country back Kerry, while 24 percent support Bush, with 3 percent for independent candidate Ralph Nader. The latest figure for Bush is down from a December survey by the same group that had 30 percent of Jews backing the president.
But anecdotal evidence hints that a significant share of Orthodox and other traditional Jews, who compose a large share of the community in New York, are rallying behind Bush.
“In our community, support for Bush is overwhelming,” said Mandell Ganchrow, a doctor in the heavily Orthodox enclave of Monsey and a former president of the Orthodox Union. “When I sit down with friends and professionals, if the vote was held among them, [Bush] would win 99 percent.”
Kerry’s Jewish advisers seem determined not to take the high Jewish poll numbers for granted. This week and last week they placed ads in Jewish newspapers touting Kerry’s support for Israel and his call for new Palestinian leadership. They also challenged the Saudi government’s “sweetheart relationship” with the Bush administration.
Kerry’s brother, Cameron, a convert to Judaism working closely with the campaign, was to have lunch with community leaders at a Lower East Side restaurant Wednesday hosted by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the state’s most prominent Orthodox elected official.
Michael Lebovitz, who heads the Bush-Cheney campaign’s Jewish outreach efforts, said there was a “broad range of grassroots efforts” aimed at expanding support, but had no specific program or events planned other than an October appearance in Florida, the details of which are still being worked out.
Ganchrow said a large-scale effort aimed at traditional Jews could pay off for the president.
“If a decision is made to try to make a play for New York, the money should be used toward outreach toward Orthodox and Conservative Jews who are more likely to be receptive and understand the premier importance of Israel,” said Ganchrow. “The Orthodox community would naturally be attracted to the president’s policies because the Kerry team is really the Clinton team.”
Many Israel supporters viewed President Bill Clinton as being overly enthusiastic — to Israel’s detriment — in pursuing a Mideast peace agreement. Many of his advisers are now with Kerry.
The Bush campaign may be aided in New York by an effort under way to increase Jewish voter registration and participation.
According to research by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the community’s turnout in New York has waned in recent presidential elections. Jews comprised 17 percent of voters in 1992, when Clinton was elected, but fell off to 10 percent in 1996. In 2000, exit polls showed 14 percent of voters were Jewish.
The JCRC has launched a drive targeting Russian-speaking immigrants and the Orthodox, as well as young Jews.
“We have looked at research, and these are the Jews who don’t vote,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of the JCRC. He said 77 percent of Russian adult citizens are registered to vote, but only 59 percent turned out in 2000.
Russian-speaking voters and the Orthodox have shown a conservative political bent — Republicans have fared exceptionally well in their neighborhoods — and young Jewish voters have shown an increasing nonpartisan tendency, which could boost the state’s overall pro-Bush vote.
The executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, predicted that the president could expect significant Jewish support here — if not enough, however, to shift New York into a red state.
“I believe the community will go two-thirds for Kerry nationally,” said Hoenlein. “In New York, where more traditional Jews, the elderly and Russians are more concerned about terrorism, it could be somewhat different. Jews don’t vote the label, they vote the individual, and right now international issues have gained center stage, which certainly helps Bush.”
Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said Kerry could widen his lead among Jews by articulating “a clear, crystallized Mideast policy that calls for secure borders and talking about an envoy acceptable to large segments of the Jewish community,” as well as speak out about worldwide anti-Semitism.
He added: “Jews probably, because of the events of the last few years, are more fixated on international anti-Semitism and the state of affairs in the Middle East than domestic matters.”
But although Jews in New York are increasingly willing to pull the lever for Republicans in local and statewide races and “can’t be taken for granted by the Democratic Party,” Sheinkopf concluded it will make little difference in the presidential race.
Added David Harris, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, “New York clearly has a history of voting for Republican non-federal officials like [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg and [Gov. George] Pataki, but that has to do with local issues. The Jewish community in New York State has a very strong tradition of supporting Democratic positions on the federal level, so I don’t see it becoming a battleground state.”
Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz said that although “Jews are less predisposed toward Kerry, a majority will still vote for him. The question is the degree to which he will retain his support, not whether the president will be supported by a majority.”
Brooks, while not predicting an outright Bush victory here, believes the president will do “better than people expect here” because of post-9-11 attitudes.
“New York is literally on the front lines, more so than other parts of the country, in the war on terrorism,” he said. “They have to live with the threat of another attack and deal with the issue much more than a place like Des Moines, Iowa. New Yorkers realize that who they pick as president has life-or-death consequences.”