Thursday, May 15th, 2008
Why is Sen. Barack Obama devoting so much time and energy trying to win over Jewish voters?
On the surface, the numbers don’t add up. A majority of Jews are going to vote Democratic in November’s presidential contest no matter what; does the difference between 61 percent (what Obama scored in a recent Gallup Poll and 74 percent (what John Kerry actually won in 2004) really make that much of a difference?
The word “Florida” quickly comes to mind; the conventional wisdom holds that Florida could once again be decisive, with that state’s relatively large Jewish population playing an important role.
But “relatively” is a…well, relative term. There are a lot of Jews in Florida, but they still only comprise about 4 or 5 percent of the total population, although they are a higher percentage of those who actually vote. And a majority will probably remain in the Democratic column; the only question is how big a majority.
Jewish voters are important in a number of other “battleground” states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, but the numbers are even smaller and it’s hard to imagine how their voting can swing the election unless the margin in November is razor thin.
So why is making nice to the Jews so important to Obama?
First is the nature of the attacks against him within the Jewish community: that he is a secret Muslim, that he consorts with anti-Israel forces, that he would appease Israel’s enemies and make nice to Hamas – charges that go far beyond anything he has said and that stand in contradiction to his stated views.
“He is absolutely obligated to counter those attacks,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “You can’t allow them to go unanswered. There is a lot of anti-Obama feeling in the Jewish community, not just from the Orthodox, and he has to respond to it; he can’t afford not to.”
Secondly, Jewish campaign giving remains critical to the Democrats and increasingly important to the Republicans. This year’s primaries set spending records, and the general election will make that look like chump change. Obama can’t afford any drop off in giving to the Dems – or to see money shift to the McCain campaign.
And while Jewish voters’ decisions are shaped by a broad spectrum of issues, domestic and foreign, Jewish giving tends to be dominated by pro-Israel interests. Obama also needs to unite a Democratic party badly divided by the brutal, extended primary fight with Sen. Hillary Clinton. Holding the Democratic coalition together in the face of deep political, factional and racial divisions will be hard.
The Jewish community, traditionally a key element in that coalition, will be a bellwether; if he can’t keep the Jews on board in something approximating their traditional presence in the party, he could have a hard time keeping the Democratic coalition from unraveling.
Finally, there’s probably a personal element to his emphasis on making nice with the Jews. Obama’s political persona was shaped in large measure by the peculiar politics of Democratic Chicago, where black-Jewish coalitions play a key role. His meteoric political career has been propelled, to a degree, by his close relations with Chicago’s big and politically active Jewish community.
Maintaining that relationship as he moves onto the national stage is probably personally important to him, as well as politically critical.
In Chicago, his ability to work closely with the Jewish community was a given; it must have come as a rude shock when he found out that things work a little differently on the national level, where miniscule nuances on Mideast questions can spell big trouble.