Exit polls showed Hillary Clinton taking the Jewish vote in winning Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Pennsylvania.
Clinton, a U.S. senator from New York, defeated U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.), winning 55 percent of the overall primary vote to his 45 percent. Exit polling found that Jews comprised 8 percent of the electorate, and went 62 percent to 38 percent for Clinton.
Her margin was similar among whites overall, winning 63 percent to 37 percent. Clinton’s performance among white Catholics was particularly strong, winning 70 percent to 30 percent.
“I think much of the Jewish vote voted for their comfort level, and they were more comfortable with Senator Clinton,” said Marcel Groen, a Clinton supporter and the head of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, in an interview with JTA a day after the primary. “I just think generally from a Jewish perspective, Hillary Clinton was a known commodity.”
Groen speculated, however, that among Jews who are less Jewishly identified, and for whom Israel is not a primary electoral concern, Obama may have actually won.
“I think that Jews who are more concerned with Israel will always go with people they have a history with,” he said.
Betsy Sheerr, a Jewish communal activist who also is supporting Clinton, said the lingering concern over Obama’s ties to his controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., hurt Obama in the primary. Wright has harshly critcized the United States and Israel.
“The Pastor Wright issue left a lot of people feeling uneasy,” Sheerr said. “And I don’t think that’s going to go away so easily.”
Rep. Josh Shapiro, the deputy speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Obama’s leading Jewish supporter in the state, rejected the notion that Wright had hurt the Illinois senator among Jewish voters.
“Look at the results,” Shapiro said. “The senator’s vote in the Jewish community was equal to his overall vote in the primary. I think that demonstrates that the hype that Senator Obama had a problem with the Jewish community was just that – it was hype. It was not reality.”
In recent weeks, both campaigns conducted aggressive outreach efforts aimed at Pennsylvania Jewish voters, deploying multiple high-profile surrogates as well as the candidates themselves in some instances.
Clinton had the support of several prominent Jewish politicians, most notably Gov. Ed Rendell, as well as many top donors to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. She made a surprise appearance at a major federation event and gave an interview to the local Jewish newspaper.
Obama also reached out to the Jewish community, granting a 20-minute interview to JTA and meeting with 75 Jewish communal leaders April 16 at a Philadelphia synagogue, Rodeph Shalom.
His outreach efforts were boosted by several high-profile representatives, including Shapiro; U.S. Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Steve Rothman (D-N.J.); Anthony Lake, a recent convert to Judaism who served as the national security adviser during the Clinton administration, and Daniel Kurtzer, America’s first Jewish ambassador to Egypt and its first Orthodox ambassador to Israel.
Among Clinton’s high-profile surrogates was actor-director Rob Reiner, who visited with 250 senior citizens at a Jewish community center in Philadelphia last week. The next morning, on April 19, Chelsea Clinton paid a visit to Congregation Beth Sholom in Elkins Park along with a college friend.
According to Groen, the visit was “not political.” She stayed for about two hours and attended a study session.
Groen said Chelsea Clinton also attended a Passover seder over the weekend, while a report in the Jerusalem Post described how some 40 Clinton staffers celebrated the second night of the holiday at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel.
“That kind of stuff is meaningful, I think, to a lot of Jewish voters,” Groen said. “It’s the kind of stuff that goes to your kishkes, if you will.”
Shapiro countered that Obama’s meeting with Jewish leaders was “unprecedented” in terms of the lengthy dialogue he engaged in with the community.
“I don’t think Senator Clinton did that in her campaign, at least in Pennsylvania,” he said.
Obama had a difficult couple of weeks leading up to the Pennsylvania primary as he worked to contain the continuing fallout from his relationship with Wright, and from recent comments about working-class voters that critics have portrayed as signs of his elitism.
The Wright issue in particular came up repeatedly at campaign events aimed at Jewish voters. During the April 16 meeting with Jewish leaders, Obama sought to further distance himself from Wright, saying he was “my pastor,” not “my spiritual adviser.”
At another point, Obama asked his audience “to not base decisions on who to support or not on e-mails or superficial characteristics or associations that are tangential to who I am or what I believe in.”
Clinton pounced on the issue in her interview with the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, saying that she would have left the church.
“We don’t have a choice when it comes to our relatives,” she said, “but we do have a choice when it comes to churches or synagogues.”
Burt Siegel, the executive director of the Philadelphia Jewish community relations council, said it was impossible to know for sure whether the Wright issue tipped the Jewish vote. But Siegel said he was confident that much of the divide between Obama and Clinton was generational, mirroring trends in the wider electorate.
“I know it was generational just from conversations at my Passover seder,” Siegel said. “All the younger people were really excited about Obama.”
Obama told the Jewish leaders on April 16 that many of the concerns raised about him have been generated by “scurrilous e-mails,” as well as by the fact that his middle name is Hussein and that he is an African American in an era of strained relations between the black and Jewish communities on some issues.
“I just want to emphasize I guess what’s in my heart, which is that my ties to the Jewish community are not political,” he said. “There’s a kinship and a sense of shared commitments that pre-dates my politics and will extend beyond this particular election.”
Clinton’s victory on Tuesday, while not doing much to break into Obama’s lead in votes and pledged delegates, will nevertheless enable her to persevere at least through the next round of primary contests. Indiana and North Carolina will hold their primaries May 6.
But the continuing uncertainty surrounding the Democratic nomination battle has begun to worry some activists, who caution it may harm the party in November in the general election against the presumptive Republican candidate, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“The main issue among all Jewish Democrats is a sense of coming together for November,” Sheerr told JTA. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of concern about healing within the party no matter what happens and an attempt to keep our eye on the ball, which is beating McCain.”