Economic Anxieties Add to Political Mix as Candidates Compete for Florida’s Votes

‘We Don’t Have That Much Left of Our Lives,’ Said One Senior

By Brett Lieberman

Published October 23, 2008, issue of October 31, 2008.
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Boca Raton, Florida — Much like the snowbirds who flock to sunny South Florida each fall, older Jewish voters may be warming to Democrat Barack Obama as pragmatic pocketbook concerns about Social Security, health care and paying bills push their doubts aside.

Democrats and many seniors who support Obama say they have seen a shift among older voters in the last six weeks. They are more optimistic that Jewish retirees, a traditionally strong and crucial voting bloc for Democrats, will return to the party fold. Republicans, for their part, still believe that the block of undecided and wavering Jewish voters will break their way.

A Quinnipiac University poll released October 23 showed a tightening Florida race with Obama leading 49% to 44%. While the sample of Jewish voters may not be large enough to draw strong conclusions, the poll showed Obama winning the Jewish vote by 77% to 20%, with a 10% margin of error.

Kenneth Wald, a University of Florida professor, wasn’t quite as optimistic about Obama’s chances, predicting that Republican John McCain could garner as much as 30% of Jewish seniors’ votes. Still, he noted, “it’s not going to be radically different from years past.”

Many of the doubts — race in particular, as well as questions about Israel, foreign policy positions, Obama’s readiness to be president and concern about his affiliations — haven’t gone away. But economic concerns may be trumping other factors for many Jewish seniors, who, like everybody else, have watched with alarm as the values of their investments declined sharply over the last month.

“A lot of seniors are running scared,” said Marvin Manning during a tour of the sprawling Century Village retirement community that nearly doubles in population to around 12,000 residents during winter and has been a Democratic stronghold.

“We don’t have that much left of our lives,” said Manning, 82, the president of the local Democratic club. “We have the fruits of our labor, we’re struggling to keep it and we’re falling back on the concept that the Democratic Party has always taken care of the little guy.”

Democrats had been in a near state of panic over the hostile environment in South Florida, fueled by Internet rumors, a well-funded advertising campaign by the Republican Jewish Coalition, and Senator Joe Lieberman’s visits on McCain’s behalf. It didn’t help that Obama was late to campaign in Florida. While the Clintons have been known entities for years, Obama is still new here. He didn’t campaign in Florida after the state moved up the primary date in violation of national party rules.

Among the worried was State Senator Steven Geller, who less than two months ago broke ranks at the Democratic National Convention to warn Jewish and party leaders about the hostile atmosphere that he and other Obama supporters were facing. Now, he said last week, “I’ve seen an absolute tremendous change in the Jewish community.”

One key reason for the shift, said Geller, the state Senate minority leader, is Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her campaign events on Obama’s behalf have proven critical in the retiree condo communities where the Clintons remain popular.

A steady stream of visits by leading Jewish and Democratic surrogates such as former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Senator Barbara Boxer of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, hasn’t hurt either. The campaign has dispatched five senior operatives, including Eric Lynn, its top Jewish outreach coordinator, to Florida.

“They’re getting used to him. He’s not scary anymore,” said Geller.

The McCain campaign has sent its own surrogates, some of whom — like former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Ari Fleischer, President Bush’s former press secretary — are very popular with older Jewish voters. The Republican effort has also been aided by Alan Hasner, the first Jewish Republican to be majority leader of the Florida House.

But the linchpin has been Lieberman, and while he continues to draw large crowds, his influence may be waning. He remains a trusted figure within segments of the Jewish community, but the crowds are smaller these days. Fewer than 150 people, for example, attended an October 22 event at the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, where Schumer drew a similar-sized crowd a few weeks earlier. McCain organizers had anticipated a crowd of 400 to 600.

Opportunities by the McCain campaign to make inroads among Jewish voters, and especially seniors, have been somewhat counteracted by his choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. “I don’t think McCain by himself horrifies Jewish voters, but Palin certainly made the Jewish community uncomfortable,” said Joe Geller, Steve’s brother, who is mayor of North Bay Village and president of the American Jewish Congress’ southeastern region.

To be sure, Obama and his supporters still have their work cut out for them. Many older Jews interviewed during a recent swing through South Florida remain undecided or say they plan to support McCain. And many say it will be the first time in years that they have voted to elect a Republican president.

Outside Mo’s, a restaurant in Aventura, Norman Friedman, 76, a retired attorney from New York, and his son and daughter stopped to talk. Norm was once a Democrat but is now a Republican who plans to vote for McCain; his kids are both Democrats.

“At first, I was open-minded. In fact, I find [Obama] appealing. [But] I don’t think I can rely on him as far as Israel is concerned,” the elder Friedman said. “He has no experience. Obama is just not ready. He has no record, he’s three years in the Senate, and I don’t like his associations.”

His son Michael, 32, said that he believes there is backing for the Republicans from a silent minority of younger Jews. “I think a lot of younger Jews are afraid to speak up and support McCain,” he said. His sister, Lisa Kaplan, agreed.

“What we’re hearing is very mixed,” said Milton Goldberg, an Obama organizer at the Wynmoor, a condo complex that has a large Jewish presence in Coconut Creek and where tensions have run high. His neighbors question Obama’s religion, experience, and whether he would support Israel. And then there’s race.

“They say schvartse, when they really mean” an epithet, Goldberg said. “This is what we face.”

And for that reason, predicting the Jewish vote in the all-important state of Florida is still a tricky business. As Manning noted: “A lot of people up until the end will be questioning themselves.”

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