Social Issues Don’t Seem to Grab Voters This Time


A National Jewish Democratic Council ad that ran last week in Jewish newspapers around the country highlighted the word in an enormous font with bold lettering. It stated that Barack Obama supports a woman's right to choose, while John McCain does not.

In marked contrast to the slew of Republican Jewish Coalition ads that have sought to portray the Democratic nominee as weak on Israel and foreign affairs, the NJDC attempted to reintroduce a major social issue — namely, abortion — with less than a month to go before Election Day, when the debate over so-called "Culture-War" issues couldn't be much further from the limelight.

While it doesn't say so explicitly, the ad is certainly a not-so-subtle reminder — at a time when it's understandably difficult for the electorate to focus on much other than the staggering economy — that the next president could very well shape the makeup and the direction of the Supreme Court.

The Issue of Choice

"We are clearly trying to highlight the difference between the two on choice," said Ira Forman, executive director of NJDC. "It's a major issue that people want to hear about."

But do they?

According to the 2008 Survey of American Jewish Opinion, conducted by the American Jewish Committee, just 1 percent of respondents picked the Supreme Court as a top concern.

"The economy is overwhelmingly the issue, but there is still no question that the bulk of Jewish voters are strongly committed to the separation of church and state, and [are] pro-choice," said David Singer, who oversaw the poll for AJCommittee.

Opinions are divided as to what extent issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, gay rights, school vouchers and federal funding for faith-based institutions will sway the much-sought-after Jewish vote.

Rabbi David Saperstein, executive director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said that right now, all of these are secondary issues and it would require a major controversy for cultural issues to have much of an impact.

Nathan Diament, head of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs, said that American Jews "are concerned about the economy and foreign-policy challenges. If there is a parochial issue, it would seem to be U.S. policy toward Israel."

Clearly, the war in Iraq, skyrocketing gas prices, Iranian threats to wipe Israel off the map and the evaporation of wealth invested in the stock market have occupied the minds of many Jewish voters. But McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate seemed to, at least briefly, put the spotlight on her opposition to most abortions and apparent support for teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in science classrooms.

According to the AJCommittee survey, 54 percent of American Jews disapprove of McCain's choice of Palin as his running mate.

Ed Shapiro, a 67-year-old from Yardley, noted that he was leaning toward Obama, but hadn't made up his mind until McCain picked Palin. He said that while, of course, he's concerned about the economy, he fears that a more-conservative court could overturn Roe v. Wade and that his grandchildren could grow up in a country in which reproductive choice is limited.

Back on the Table

Judy Davidson, a Chester County resident who is the national co-chair of the Jewish Advisory Coalition for the McCain campaign, admitted that Palin's presence on the ticket had placed social issues back on the table, and that it's understandable that a people who had experienced centuries of religious persecution would be wary of the Christian Right gaining too much influence.

But, she argued, there was little chance that even a conservative court would reverse Roe v. Wade, and that Jews needed to place their concerns for Israel and national security above abortion and church-state issues.

"I ask people to rank their top 10 issues. If No. 1 and No. 2 are abortion and gay rights, you will not vote with us," said Davidson. "But, if Israel, homeland security and the economy are at the top, then we can start the discussion."

Scott Feigelstein, regional director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, argued that social issues are taking a back seat to energy independence and the economy.

"I also think it's important to recognize that the reproductive choice issue isn't as high a priority because there are no openings on the Supreme Court yet, and McCain has demonstrated that he has no litmus test," said Feigelstein, pointing out that, in the 1990s, the Arizona senator voted in favor of confirming both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

Four years ago, when Republicans pushed for an amendment outlawing gay marriage during the campaign season, it would have been difficult to imagine the social issues being sidelined.

The oft-quoted and debated "moral-values" question from the 2004 National Exit Poll seemed to say so much about the state of American politics and the prevailing notion that a profound cultural divide had arisen, which placed the majority of Evangelical Christians on one side and the majority of Jews on the other.

In that poll, 22 percent of voters cited moral values as the paramount issue, placing it at the top of the list above concerns such as terrorism, Iraq and the economy. Eighty percent of those voters backed President George W. Bush, and just 18 percent supported John Kerry.

A Lesson Learned

The lesson the Democrats took away from these results was that they couldn't afford to cede faith or values voters to the GOP. In many ways, the party has tried to prevent that; it just hasn't been the focus of recent campaign coverage.

There are many reasons why. In addition to the number of pressing issues facing voters, there's the fact that Evangelical voters did not coalesce around a single candidate. In addition, many Evangelical groups have broadened their political focus, advocating for action on climate change and poverty as well as more-traditional issues, such as abortion.

Still, that's not to say religion has been completely absent from this campaign cycle. In the primary, Mitt Romney had to address his Mormon faith, Obama his relationship to his longtime pastor and McCain his comments that America is a Christian nation.

A recent church-state issue that made some headlines came up just before the Democratic National Convention, when Obama announced he would support the extension of Bush's faith-based program, with some changes, including the stipulation that groups cannot discriminate in their hiring practices and still receive federal funds.

Opposed to Funding

The NJDC said that the statement directly addressed the misgivings that many Jews have had about the program, but other groups, such as the Religious Action Center and the American Jewish Congress, said they remained opposed to religious groups receiving government funding.

Several weeks ago, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote an opinion column that argued that "there have been increasing signs" that the presidential race has been infused with an unsettling amount of religion and religiosity.

Foxman, who for years has railed against the intersection of faith and politics, cited the high profile that religious leaders enjoyed at both national conventions. He wrote that "some of what we have been seeing in this campaign is excessive and aggressive."

But Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, argued that religion has played a relatively minor role in the campaign.

"I haven't seen a lot of pandering to social-values voters," said Stern.

He added that, to the extent that issues such as abortion have been raised, they have been well within the bounds of legitimate campaign debate.

"To say that abortion policy can't be an issue without running the risk of religious polarization is not realistic and is not sound democratic theory," Stern stated. "You have the current administration that is very suspicious of abortion. It's fair for people to say we want to come in and change that or we want to preserve that."



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