Observers and participants from all points on the political spectrum agree that the 2008 presidential election has focused, to an unusual degree, on Jewish issues and Jewish voters.
“The intensity of the interest in the Jewish vote started much earlier and is more intense in the larger press,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Even Forman’s partisan rival agreed. “I think it’s been much more intense, it’s much greater,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Interviews with a wide range of experts drew forth a number of reasons that Jewish issues have come up so often in this election, ranging from the length and breadth of the primary season to doubts about Democratic Senator Barack Obama. But there was a general consensus that one of the main reasons was that Jewish voters themselves, a normally reliable Democratic bloc, were seen as being up for grabs, and thus as a source of drama.
“I think the extent to which some commentators thought the Democrats would lose the Jewish vote, and the extent to which Republicans tried to exploit that, was exacerbated this year,” said L. Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College who has studied Jewish politics.
It’s not that Jewish voters themselves changed dramatically, these observers say, but rather the unique circumstances of this election that threw Jewish concerns into relief.
One of the most prominent of those circumstances was Obama himself. Both supporters and detractors of Obama cited him as a figure who simultaneously aroused excitement and fear in the Jewish community, throwing the Jewish vote into question. Many said that his short public record on Israel-related issues, his unfamiliarity to the Jewish community and his race contributed to an atmosphere of uncertainty for Jewish voters.
“The Jewish community perceives a higher level of antisemitism among blacks and white evangelicals than among anyone else,” said Kenneth Wald, a professor of political science and Jewish studies at the University of Florida. “I think the uniqueness was the Chicago connection, because [Louis] Farrakhan and [Jesse] Jackson, those are the people Jews worry about. Those people told me, ‘How could he get ahead in Chicago if he didn’t deal with those people?’”
Those questions surfaced in one of the ongoing story lines of the election — namely, the fears of elderly Jewish voters who worried openly that Obama was a secret Muslim or a disciple of Farrakhan, or who simply said they wouldn’t vote for a black man. Some observers suggested that those elderly Jewish voters became an entrée for a broader discussion about voters and race.
“I think in a way that they did become that proxy, because that’s how people started talking about it,” said Matt Dorf, a Democratic consultant who also works with Jewish groups. “Those kinds of stories happened first in our community.”
They also spawned extensive coverage in The New York Times and in a series of segments on “The Daily Show.” And they led to an extensive organizing campaign by Democrats to counter those arguments, including a much discussed Internet video by comedian Sarah Silverman. As part of a campaign called “The Great Schlep,” Silverman warned, “If Barack Obama doesn’t become the next president of the United States, I’m gonna blame the Jews.” She then implored young Jews to call or visit their grandparents and urge them to vote for Obama.
The Republican primary, too, offered an unexpectedly Jewish twist in the form of Senator Joe Lieberman, who endorsed Republican Senator John McCain last December. Lieberman’s support gave McCain’s struggling campaign a shot in the arm going into the pivotal New Hampshire primary, where a victory cemented McCain as the Republican frontrunner.
Jewish issues also surfaced among national security concerns in connection with questions about Iran’s nuclear capability — often focused on Obama’s statement that he would meet Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions, which became a subject for debate in the primary with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and in the general election.
“The Iran issue has clearly been a ‘twofer’ for the McCain campaign,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic political adviser. “It was an issue high on the Jewish agenda that became high on the overall political agenda.”
Those elements added up to what many described as a visceral sense of fear among many Jewish voters about Obama — a fear that threw traditional Jewish Democratic support into question. That sense was augmented in April, in a poll conducted by the Gallup Organization. The poll showed Obama pulling 61% of Jewish voters and McCain 32% — a decidedly Republican skew for a voting bloc that had gone at least 75% Democratic in each of the previous four presidential elections.
“The Jewish community has been more up for grabs to a certain degree,” said Michael Fragin, a Republican political consultant. “I don’t know that the Republicans have exploited it all that significantly or all that effectively.”
What resulted was a closely watched battle to win over Jewish voters who apparently were undecided, particularly in swing states such as Florida. Obama made high-profile appearances to shore up his strength on Jewish issues, including a heavily covered speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in June, and a swing through Israel in July as part of a larger foreign tour.
The Obama campaign also developed a Jewish outreach operation that Democrats described as unprecedented. McCain, in turn, deployed Lieberman to Florida as his chief Jewish surrogate, and Republicans predicted that they would win a record share of the Jewish vote.
“Senator Lieberman virtually took up residence here,” Wald said.
But McCain’s efforts to woo Jewish voters seemed to take a blow with his nomination of Sarah Palin, which spawned a second round of news stories — these about elderly Jews who were now grudgingly planning to vote for Obama. Between Palin and the burgeoning economic crisis, McCain’s poll numbers among Jewish voters appeared to take a late tumble. By the time the election rolled into view, Republican proclamations about the Jewish vote had become more muted, and many observers suggested that, predictions to the contrary, the Jewish vote would not be seen as radically different from those of past years.
“I have been saying to everybody since the summer that the Jewish community’s going to come back,” Maisel said. “In fact, this election is about the same issues that many elections have been about, and the Jewish vote has been consistent about those issues.”