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.
Obama carried about 74 percent of Jewish voters — down 3 percentage points compared to Democrat John Kerry’s percentage in 2004 — according to a new study from the nonpartisan Solomon Project.
The report underscores what Jewish voters and experts say in interviews: The Jewish community is more liberal and Democratic-leaning than the electorate at large. And it’s not changing much. The study showed that Jewish support for Democratic candidates has remained strong in the past two decades.
Another potential problem for Romney is that he might not be not well-liked, even by those who will cast ballots for him.
Isaac Choeff, a 60-year-old independent voter from Century Village, said he’d vote for Romney simply because he dislikes Obama so much.
“Romney’s bad, but what’s worse is Obama’s anti-American attitude,” said Choeff. Asked about whether the Jewish vote will favor Romney more or Obama less, Choeff said it will probably remain the same.
“I fear it won’t change,” Choeff said. “But it could happen this year, I hope, from what I’ve been reading.”
One third-party group, the Republican Jewish Coalition, wants to drive the message home on television. It recently announced a $6.5 million ad campaign, with $1.6 million reserved in Florida in September.
Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor who studies Jewish demographics, said Republicans haven’t succeeded in persuading Jewish voters that a Democratic candidate’s position on Israel is a liability.
Recently, for instance, Republicans began criticizing Obama for saying that the pre-1967 borders of Israel should be a starting point for negotiating a peace with the Palestinians. Sheskin, dismissed the criticism, noting that the United States has essentially had the same position since President Nixon held office.
Yet Obama did have stumbles with Jewish voters, said Sheskin, a registered Democrat. Obama visited Cairo but has yet to visit Israel, a sore spot for some Jewish voters. And the president’s negotiating position on a peace accord made the talks bog down, Sheskin said.
Israel isn’t the most important issue to American Jewish voters, according to a survey by Sheskin. In 2008, Jewish voters ranked Israel as 8th out of 15 priorities behind the economy, healthcare, gas prices, education and taxes.
Florida has roughly 640,000 Jews, roughly 550,000 of whom live in the liberal-leaning counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Republicans and Romney don’t believe they can win the Jewish vote outright, but they hope to peel some of the reliably Democratic voters away from the President.
Jewish voters in Florida weren’t surveyed in 2008 exit polls, but if Obama received the same level of support from Florida Jews as he did from those nationally, he could have received about 362,000 Jewish votes to McCain’s 136,000, assuming Jews accounted for about 6 percent of the electorate.
The victory margin with Jewish voters could have accounted for 90 percent of Obama’s overall 236,000-vote margin in Florida, a must-win state for Republicans.
A new Gallup survey this week showed Obama leading Romney 68-25 percent among Jewish voters overall, which Republicans pointed out is below Obama’s 2008 victory margin. But Democrats said that, once the undecided voters are removed from the poll, Obama gets 73 percent support.
Gallup analysts have noted that Obama’s loss of Jewish support mirrors trends in the electorate at large, indicating that the Jewish community at large isn’t upset with him any more than average voters.
“Jews are people, too,” chuckled Mark S. Mellman, author of the Solomon Project study.
Some Jewish voters say there is no good choice on the ballot and they won’t vote for either candidate. In the zero-sum game of politics, that’s a vote for Romney.
“I’m writing myself in as a write-in candidate,” said Marvin Mizrahi, a 69-year-old Century Village independent voter.
“They’re both bad.”