Jews Follow Trend, Split Vote for Dems

By Jennifer Siegel

Published February 06, 2008, issue of February 08, 2008.
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Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama each won a stamp of approval from Jewish voters Tuesday, as both Democratic presidential contenders captured significant Jewish support in key primary contests. While Clinton laid claim to the overwhelming backing of Jewish communities in New Jersey and in her home state of New York, Obama won the majority of Jewish votes in Connecticut and in Massachusetts, a state he did not carry overall.

The mixed results pointed to a difference in outlook between Jewish voters in New York City — which includes a higher proportion of Orthodox Jews than other regions — and Jewish Democrats living elsewhere. In Connecticut, which is represented by Senator Joseph Lieberman, 61% of Jewish voters backed Obama despite — or possibly because of — Obama’s ties to Ned Lamont, the anti-war businessman who felled Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic Senate primary with the help of liberal activists.

The divided outcomes across Jewish communities contrasted sharply with patterns exhibited by other minority groups that lined up solidly behind a single candidate. While two-thirds of Latino voters in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut backed Clinton, Obama was buoyed in the South by high turnout in the African American community, which backed him by margins of 5-to-1. Overall, the results called into question the notion that Obama’s standing in the Jewish community has been irreparably harmed by an Internet smear campaign, or by heated debates over his potential Middle East policy.

“He’s drastically closed the gap just in the past few weeks… and as Jewish voters come to know him, they’re going to embrace him, and those numbers reflect it,” said Mel Levine, a former congressman from California who advised Senator John Kerry’s 2004 bid for the presidency and is now backing Obama. “In terms of his support for Israel and ability to reach out to people who can bridge very deep gaps, I haven’t seen anyone like him in American politics in as long as I can remember.”

Across the country, Jews turned out to vote in numbers that were disproportionately higher than their share of both the general population and registered voters. In New York, Jewish voters constituted 17% of the Democratic electorate and 4% of Republican voters, the highest shares of any state, while in New Jersey and Connecticut, they made up roughly 10% of Democratic primary voters and less than 5% among Republicans.

The exit polls were conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, and had a margin of error of 4% for the Democratic contests and 6% for the Republican ones.

Six states — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California and Arizona — had large enough Jewish samples to include data about Jewish preferences on the Democratic side.

Clinton won the largest slice of the Jewish vote, 65%, in her home state of New York. In several other states, including New Jersey, California and Arizona, the Jewish vote mirrored the leanings of Democratic voters as a whole, with Clinton edging out Obama by smaller margins.

Obama, however, outshone the New York senator among Jewish voters in both Massachusetts and Connecticut, two states where the endorsement of Senator Edward Kennedy may have proved pivotal. Jews “responded to the 11th commandment, ‘Thou Shalt Be a Liberal Democrat,’” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “He probably impacted a significant number of Jews whose religion is secular liberalism, who would follow Kennedy into a burning forest.”

Obama won 52% of the Jewish vote in the Bay State, despite coming in roughly 15 points behind the New York senator overall. In Connecticut, Obama won the state narrowly — edging out Clinton by only several percentage points — but enjoyed a disproportionately wide margin of victory in the Jewish community. Sixty-one percent of Jews in Connecticut voted for the Illinois senator, versus 38% for Clinton.

In total, the results from half a dozen states showed that Jewish voters were not more likely to back Clinton than Democratic voters were as a whole, except in New York. That discrepancy was likely due to both Clinton’s home court advantage and the state’s high proportion of Orthodox Jews, who prioritize Israel at the ballot box and tend to be more conservative than Jews generally, according to Ira Sheskin, a demographer of the Jewish community.

On the Republican side, there were no exit poll data for the preferences of Jewish voters due to the small sample size, but as Arizona Senator John McCain swept states across the country, a cadre of his longstanding Jewish backers was clearly reveling in his victories.

Reached by telephone, Benjamin Chouake, a member of McCain’s finance committee based in New Jersey, laughed at the fact that just a few months ago, gambling Web sites posted long odds against the Arizona Republican.

“I should have put in my money at that time. Actually, I did — but only to the campaign,” Chouake said, recalling the days when many of his fellow Jewish Republicans signed up with former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who left the race after his poor showing in Florida last month and proceeded to endorse McCain.

Several political observers from both parties said that McCain would be far more likely than other Republican candidates to win over some Jewish votes in the general election.

“The vast majority of Jews are already locked into place as Democrats, but it’s very helpful to have McCain,” said Jeff Ballabon, an Orthodox activist and GOP fundraiser from Long Island, N.Y. “He’s seen as a maverick, and that comforts a lot of the moderate and swing voters who are not as comfortable with Hillary Clinton but who wouldn’t otherwise be comfortable with a Republican.”

According to David Greenfield, executive vice president of the Brooklyn-based Sephardic Community Federation, Orthodox Jewish voters might be particularly tempted to give McCain a second look, given that one of his most vocal backers is Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew.

“He has more credibility than any other elected official when it comes to the observant Jewish community,” said Greenfield, a Clinton supporter who worked on Lieberman’s 2004 presidential campaign. “If it does come to a situation where McCain is running in the general election, I think a lot of people will have a hard look because of Senator Lieberman’s say-so.”

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