Mitt Romney’s high-profile trip to Israel and his controversial remarks about Jewish culture's superiority Monday reignited the political debate about the Republican effort to court Jewish votes this presidential election year.
But the Republican outreach probably won’t yield significantly more Jewish votes, according to interviews with Jewish voters, voting studies and experts.
That doesn’t mean, however, that President Obama is guaranteed the same overwhelming Jewish support he enjoyed in 2008, when Republicans made a big effort to cut into this reliably Democratic block of voters.
“A lot of people are upset with the president, but I’ll still vote for him,” said Bernard Witkin, 63-year-old Jewish voter with no party affiliation who lives in the Century Village in Pembroke Pines.
“I just don’t trust the right-wing agenda,” Witkin said. “And we definitely don’t agree with the Republicans on social issues.”
Still, the economy has weighed on Obama, whose poll numbers have slipped among Jews along with the rest of the electorate since 2009. He still beats Romney by a healthy margin, according to the latest Gallup poll, but it’s not clear if the margin is solid enough for Obama.
Jewish voters account for as little as 4 percent and as much as 8 percent of the electorate in Florida, the only battleground state where the Jewish vote is significant enough to make a difference and help decide control of the White House race or the U.S. Senate.
And in a state with close elections like Florida, every vote counts. Every percentage of votes counts even more.
While there are concerns about Obama, few Jewish voters who aren’t conservative seem ready to back Romney, according to Witkin and interviews with more than a dozen independent Jewish voters.
Romney hoped to change that this week in a visit to Israel where he said a prayer at the Western Wall and stopped just short of promising to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the seat of Israel’s government.
Romney also made remarks about Jewish exceptionalism that outraged Palestinians when he suggested that Jewish culture was superior and was responsible for Israel’s economic health.
“Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, adding that the “hand of Providence” helped as well, according to the Associated Press.
Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the AP that Romney’s statement was “racist.” Romney never mentioned the role of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian commerce.
Romney’s remarks played well with conservative Jewish donors whom he addressed in Jerusalem, notably Las Vegas gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, a Republican financier who has pledged up to $100 million to help Romney. It’s a sign that, even if Romney doesn’t attract large numbers of Jewish voters, his positions on Israel are good for his campaign coffers.
Romney, noting he was on foreign soil, toned down criticisms about Obama being soft on Israel. But it’s a line of attack that never goes away against the president.
Obama has contended with the criticism ever since he ran for President in 2008, when Republicans talked about Obama losing a significant chunk of the Jewish vote. He didn’t.