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Will Jews Make or Break Obama?

September 6, 2012 By:
Ron Kampeas, Jewish Telegraphic Agency
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Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, speaking to delegates of the party's convention in Charlotte, N.C., on its opening night, Sept. 4, 2012.

Charlotte, N.C.

Jewish swing voters could make or break President Barack Obama's bid for re-election.

At least that's the case that Democratic Party leaders made in a training session that packed one of the larger halls at the convention center here on Monday, the day before the formal start of the Democratic National Convention.

It came with a message delivered to Jewish volunteers at the convention in Charlotte: Some Jewish voters matter more than others. And when it comes to issues, Israel is especially important -- but don't forget domestic policy.

And the Democratic Party's official platform regarding Israel -- particularly regarding the status of Jerusalem -- has drawn sharp rebukes from Republicans.

But at President Obama's behest, and to boos from some delegates, Democrats on Wednesday night inserted a few lines into their party platform affirming Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Two of the lines had appeared in the 2008 party platform but had been dropped for some reason when this year's platform was released Monday night; no one could quite explain the omission.

The removal of the language had prompted a firestorm of criticism from Republicans, including Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and from Democratic lawmakers in Congress, who said the removal of references to Jerusalem had blindsided them. Pro-Israel groups also asked that the language be restored to the party platform.

"Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel," stated the amendment that passed Wednesday evening when the party's platform committee met in Charlotte, the site of this year's Democratic National Convention. "The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths."

At the Jewish session, Jewish public officials such as Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) shouted out the party's new Jewish tagline: "I'm here because I'm a Jew and I support the president and I support Israel."

Both parties are aggressively targeting Jewish voters in swing states. Next week, the Republican Jewish Coalition will conduct a voter outreach drive in South Florida, Cleveland and Philadelphia. The blitz, part of an overall $6.5 million RJC effort to sway Jewish voters, will be based on prior polling that will "micro-target" Jewish undecideds.

Despite their relatively small number in America -- approximately 2 percent of the population -- Jews remain a key electoral demographic.

Ira Forman, the veteran Jewish Democrat who has been running Obama's Jewish outreach campaign, listed seven states -- Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Michigan -- where a 10 percent swing among Jewish voters could change the election.

A drop in support for Obama from the approximate 75 percent of the Jewish vote that he received in 2008 to 65 percent this year would cost him 83,500 votes in Florida, 41,500 in Pennsylvania and 19,000 in Ohio, according to Forman. The figures were based on educated guesses about eligibility and voter turnout.

The most recent Gallup tracking polls of Jewish voters, from June and July, had Obama at 68 percent of the vote -- ahead of the 61 percent level at which he was polling in July 2008, when he was facing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The speakers at Monday's event said that swing voters tended to be exercised by concerns about Obama's Israel policies, though their principal concerns are about the economy, health care and social issues like abortion rights.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the DNC chairwoman and the party's highest-ranking Jewish member, said Republicans hammer on the Israel issue because the Republican Party has little common ground with Jewish voters on domestic policy.

"The natural political home for Jewish voters in this country is with the Democratic Party," she said.

Republicans cite changing Jewish demographics and voter patterns -- including the increasingly large Orthodox community, which is more politically conservative than other Jewish denominations -- as evidence that things may be changing.

Based on Monday's training session -- similar to a number that Democrats say the party has held throughout the swing states -- it's clear that the campaign waged by Republicans to depict Obama as lacking commitment to Israel has had an impact.

For the Israel argument, Democrats unveiled an eight-minute video titled "Steadfast" that features an array of Israeli leaders, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, extolling what is depicted as an unprecedented level of cooperation on defense and intelligence sharing with the Obama administration.

Also featured in talking points handed out to attendees are the Obama administration's efforts to isolate Iran in a bid to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program, including intensified sanctions.

Republicans acknowledge the close relationship between the Israeli and U.S. administrations on defense, but say that Obama has undercut its benefits by making public his disagreements with Israel over peacemaking with the Palestinians. They also say that he has not made it sufficiently clear that Iran could face a military strike from Israel or the United States if it does not cooperate.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has suggested that he would not stand in the way of an Israeli strike, while Obama administration officials have spent recent months in intensive talks with Israelis hoping to head off such a strike.

In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Romney addressed the Iran issue. "Every American was relieved the day President Obama gave the order, and Seal Team Six took out Osama bin Laden," Romney said. "On another front, every American is less secure today because he has failed to slow Iran's nuclear threat."

"In his first TV interview as president, he said we should talk to Iran," Romney said of Obama's strategy of diplomatic engagement with Iran. "We're still talking, and Iran's centrifuges are still spinning."

He also accused Obama of having "thrown allies like Israel under the bus," echoing language he had previously used in criticizing the president's approach to the Jewish state.

It also came out before the convention that the 2012 Democratic Party platform omits language recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and suggests that military force is "on the table" as an option for addressing the Iranian nuclear issue.

The platform released late Monday night makes no mention of Jerusalem or of the issue of Israel's capital. By contrast, the 2008 platform stated that "Jeru­salem is and will remain the capital of Israel." The 2008 platform also stated that the parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations."

The Republican Jewish Coalition, on Twitter, criticized the omission about Jerusalem. The current Republican platform refers to Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Romney also directly criticized the platform in a campaign statement.

"It is unfortunate that the entire Democratic Party has embraced President Obama's shameful refusal to acknowledge that Jerusalem is Israel's capital," he said. "As president, I will restore our relationship with Israel and stand shoulder to shoulder with our close ally."

The new platform touts Obama's work on implementing tougher international sanctions against Iran. It says that Obama "is committed to using all instruments of national power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."

"President Obama believes that a diplomatic outcome remains the best and most enduring solution," the platform states. "At the same time, he has also made clear that the window for diplomacy will not remain open indefinitely and that all options -- including military force -- remain on the table."

The 2008 platform referred to "keeping all options on the table."

On Israel, the new platform emphasizes the Obama administration's support for Israeli security measures such as Iron Dome and refers to Obama's "consistent support for Israel's right to defend itself and his steadfast opposition to any attempt to delegitimize Israel."

It also states that the president and his party are committed to seeking peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

"A just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord, producing two states for two peoples, would contribute to regional stability and help sustain Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state," the platform states. "At the same time, the President has made clear that there will be no lasting peace unless Israel's security concerns are met."

The RJC also highlighted the absence from the new Democratic platform of language in the Democrats' 2008 platform calling for Hamas to be isolated, Palestinian refugees to return to a future Palestinian state rather than to Israel, and stating that "it is unrealistic to expect the outcome of final status negotiations to be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." The Republican platform also does not articulate these positions.

Indeed, Wasserman Schultz, in making the case for Obama's Iran policy, repeated a talking point that distinguishes the Democratic position, which counsels military force as a last resort: She praised Obama for "making sure that all options are on the table, but making sure that the military option is the last, not the first, one."

Once the Israel argument is out of the way, Forman counseled volunteers to sway undecided voters by talking about domestic policy, where Democrats believe they have a sharp advantage.

David Simas, the Obama campaign's director of opinion research, outlined for the session how to incorporate one's own story into campaigning. Simas, a rising star in the party, spoke of his own background as the child of penniless Portuguese immigrants who may have foundered had it not been for worker protections he suggested that Republicans would remove.

Wasserman Schultz cited her own personal story, noting her struggle with breast cancer a few years ago. Discovering a lump in her breast while showering, she said, "I realized I was one job loss away from being uninsured and uninsurable." Now, with the passage of Obama's health care reforms, she said she need no longer fear the prospect of insurers turning her down because she has a pre-existing condition.

But volunteers at the session agreed that the Israel component was critical to swaying the undecideds among their friends.

Cynthia Johnson, 56, a publicist from Portland, Ore., said she attended because she was finding that some of her Jewish friends were wavering, particularly over the Israel issue.

"That was the one concern I wanted to be able to address," said Johnson, who is not Jewish.

Steve Leibowitz, 55, an information technology professional from Cape Cod, Mass., said the Israel talking points would assist him in his social media interactions with Jewish friends, where he said he was likelier to encounter questions about Obama's Israel policy than outright hostility.

Ellen Blaine, 52, a public health professional from Charlotte, said she needed tools to counter misconceptions about Obama's relations with Jews and Israel.

"That's what's on top of people's minds," she said.

Blaine noted one success so far: Four years ago, her mother, then 80, believed a sister in New York who assured her that Obama was a secret Muslim and voted for a Republican for the first time. Blaine said her mother, now disabused of that notion, was ready to vote for Obama this year -- but marveled at how such rumors spread among Jewish voters.

"My aunt was a schoolteacher!" she said. "We're supposed to be an educated and engaged people."

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