Rays of noon sun filtered through the canopy of trees as 43-year-old Cathy Rosen traversed a hilly street in Gladwyne at a brisk pace. The resident of Westchester County, N.Y., hadn’t come to the Main Line neighborhood to admire the fancy homes or take in the peaceful atmosphere; she’d come to convince fellow Jews to vote for Mitt Romney.
“We have to have the right person with the right ideas and viewpoints on Israel,” Rosen said, referring to Romney as she paused for a moment after walking down a driveway to drop a Republican Jewish Coalition leaflet in a mailbox.
Rosen was one of 400 RJC volunteers — from as close as Lower Merion and as far as California, with many from New York and Washington, D.C. — who came for two days of activism targeting Jewish voters in the Philadelphia region. The group sent vans out to suburban neighborhoods to drop off RJC literature; volunteers hit the phones as well.
The RJC coordinated similar grass-roots surges in Florida and Ohio, key battleground states that decided the 2000 and 2004 elections respectively.
The politicking, held on Sept. 9-10, based its operations at a hotel attached to the Valley Forge Casino, which seemed appropriate since Jewish Republicans are wagering that they can help swing Pennsylvania to Romney.
It’s sometimes taken as political gospel — or should we say Torah? — that Pennsylvania is a swing state and, in a close race, a sizable Jewish voting bloc can make a difference. And although RJC officials wouldn’t disclose how much they spent by paying the way for hundreds of volunteers, they clearly have placed a lot of chips on the suburban Philadelphia “table.”
But is the state really in play? Could the statewide tally really be close enough for a potential shift in the Jewish vote to make a difference?
Though the state sent conservative Republicans to the Senate and governor’s mansion just two years ago — Pat Toomey and Tom Corbett, respectively — during a banner year for Republicans, it hasn’t backed
a GOP presidential candidate since 1988.
A Sept. 10 headline on Politico.com that read “9 States Where the Race Will Be Won” didn’t have Pennsylvania on the list. It was one of many media outlets reporting in the past week that Pennsylvania is no longer considered in play.
Veteran Pennsylvania pollster Terry Madonna, often considered the foremost expert on the state’s politics, said that President Barack Obama has consistently maintained a steady lead in polls of Keystone voters.
“Romney has pulled his Super PAC ads off Pennsylvania television,” said Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin & Marshall College in nearby Lancaster. “It looks like we are on hold to see if somehow, some way,” the election in Pennsylvania “gets tighter.”
Ira Sheskin, a demographer at the University of Miami, said Jews could affect the outcome in Florida; but he said it was less likely that the same would happen in Pennsylvania, where votes haven’t been as close and there are fewer Jews.
On the Democratic side, State Rep. Mark Cohen, who represents Northeast Philadelphia and was a delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last week, acknowledged that “there is ambivalence in both parties as to whether Pennsylvania is in play.”
Fellow convention delegate Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, who backed Obama early in the last campaign, said he still considers Pennsylvania very much a battleground state.
“Is it as competitive as some other states right now? No. But there’s a long time before Election Day,” he said. “I am confident that President Obama will win Pennsylvania. But I do not believe that it is over at this point.”
An Obama campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the re-election effort may not be doing a onetime, headline-grabbing push in the Jewish community. The campaign has been making the case to Jews in the area for at least the past year through phone-banking and volunteers engaging potential voters in conversation.
RJC officials, meanwhile, maintain that the state is very much up for grabs and view the Philadelphia suburbs as the key to the Keystone State.
Stu Sandler, a Michigan-based political consultant who helped run the RJC efforts in Pennsylvania, said the fact that the Obama campaign is still running ads here means the Democrats are concerned about losing the state’s 20 electoral votes.
“Pennsylvania is more in play than it was” a few weeks ago, said Sandler.
He also said that, even if the Republicans can’t win Pennsylvania, the RJC and others can force the Democrats to defend their ground here, prompting the Obama campaign to divert resources that could be used in other swing states, such as Colorado, New Hampshire, Florida and Ohio.
As part of the RJC push, volunteers packed into vans and headed to neighborhoods with Jewish populations. In addition to Gladwyne, they hit towns such as Bala Cynwyd, Wynnewood, Narberth, Elkins Park, Jenkintown, Abington and Huntingdon Valley. They dropped off leaflets at as many homes as they could, whether the owner happened to be Jewish or not.
In order to maximize the “lit drop,” the activists were told to avoid knocking on doors or engaging in conversations. Some said they were eager to speak to potential voters and had to hold themselves back.
The leaflets focused on the idea of Jews having “buyer’s remorse” about the president — calling Obama “wrong on Israel, wrong on our economy.” The president has also insisted that “Israel relinquish land, and compromise her security by returning to the indefensible 1967 borders,” the leaflets said.
Nearly every RJC volunteer interviewed pointed to last week’s Democratic National Convention — and the floor fight over the party’s position regarding Jerusalem — as evidence that the party has strayed from its pro-Israel roots.
The 2008 platform included a declaration that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital; this year it had initially been omitted but was later reinstated.
“When they tried to put it back in, the audience booed and was not supportive of it,” said Lenore Forsted, a retired lawyer from Wynnewood who spent the day making phone calls for RJC.
“That’s of great concern to us as big supporters of Israel,” she said. “We think that Israel’s security is very important to the security of the United States. The position that Mitt Romney has taken has been very supportive.”
Shapiro,the Obama backer, countered that “support for Israel is an incredible priority for the Democratic Party. As soon as the omission came to light, many of us spoke out and it was immediately rectified.”
The Obama campaign official said the president directly intervened to make sure that the platform reflected the views of his administration. The official also pointed out that Republicans changed their platform language regarding Jerusalem, removing the word “undivided.”
Back at the Radisson Valley Forge, activists were revved up about their prospects here and their efforts to convince Jewish voters of their belief that a second Obama term would harm U.S.-Israel relations.
RJC activist David Forsted, Lenore’s husband and a retired physician, said he just hopes that Jewish voters “keep an open mind when it comes to the election and choices people are given. Too many Jewish people reflexively vote Democrat.”
Aaron Sebas, a 24-year-old who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and now lives in Washington, D.C., said he managed to reach an undecided Jewish voter on his cell phone.
“Here was a Jewish guy who was willing to talk and he was open,” said Sebas, who said he urged the potential voter to base his decision on other factors besides social issues. The Republican positions on issues such as gay mariage and abortion rights have turned off many Jews. “This election is about national security. It’s about who can defend a nation and who can lead.”
Shlomo Gerwirtz of Manhattan opted to eschew the shirt distributed by the RJC and instead wore one that read “Mitt Mazel,” a play on a Yiddish expression about luck.
Gerwirtz loudly acknowledged that he’s a registered Democrat. “I’m here to convince Democrats not to change their party to Republican, but to change their own party within and bring it back to where the Democratic Party used to be,” he said, adding that he thinks the party has drifted away from its historic support of the Jewish state.
“And the only way to do that,” the 64-year-old continued, is to send a message by punishing the party and “casting a vote for Romney and Ryan this November.”