Delray Beach, Fla. — Here in Florida, in a year when the entire presidential race could hinge on a few electoral votes, Republicans hope that peeling away Jewish support for President Obama could help swing the election. But interviews with Jews in South Florida suggest that the GOP will have a much tougher time with that key demographic if Newt Gingrich takes the party nomination.
In a conversation at the Huntington Pointe condo development favored by elderly Jews in Delray Beach, three of nine Jewish retirees said they would vote against Obama if Mitt Romney were the nominee. Only one said she would vote for Gingrich over Obama.
“Romney is the capitalist and the businessman we need now to get this economy in order,” said Jack Davidson, 80, a Republican who voted for John McCain in 2008, as he sat in the card room at the community’s clubhouse. And while Davidson allowed that Gingrich is “brilliant,” he said he wouldn’t vote for him. “He’s nasty, in my mind. I don’t like nasty guys.”
Davidson doesn’t vote in Florida. But his views were shared by other moderate Republicans and disaffected Democrats interviewed by the Forward before and after Gingrich’s dramatic win in the January 21 South Carolina primary.
Jewish voters didn’t see much difference between Gingrich and Romney on issues relating to Israel. And they expressed faith in Romney’s ability to fix the economy while raising concerns about Gingrich’s character and temperament.
“I’m probably going to vote for Romney, because I think that the label they are pasting on him as being moderate is probably good,” said Adele Lurie, 68, a retired realtor, registered Florida Republican and year-round resident of Huntington Pointe. “I think that the problems that we have need solving, and I don’t see in any of the other candidates the ability to do that.”
Florida’s population is 3.4% Jewish, more than any other swing state. Nearly half a million Jews are expected to vote in the general election. Much of that population is made up of elderly retirees clustered in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Those voters likely won’t be a deciding factor in the Republican primary here on January 31, since most are registered Democrats and Florida’s primaries are open only to registered party members.
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But Democrats and Republicans agree that a significant hit to Obama’s Jewish base in Florida could hurt the president’s chances in the state, and in the election overall.
“Part of winning this battleground state is reaching out to the Jewish Democrats and independents,” said Ned Siegel, the Romney campaign’s national Jewish outreach chair and a major Republican donor. Siegel, who served as ambassador to the Bahamas during George W. Bush’s administration, has a collection of elephant figurines in his Boca Raton real estate development office and a mezuza on the door.
“You get the Jewish vote, it changes the result,” Siegel said. “In a close election, it’s the difference.”
Florida Republicans feel they are gaining traction among the state’s Jews, who heavily favored Hillary Clinton over Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, according to exit polls. Clinton won that primary, and Obama squeezed out a 3% victory in the general election.
Palm Beach County Republican Party Chairman Sid Dinerstein said that one gauge of a shift among Jewish voters was media interest in the issue. “This is the first time reporters are asking about the Republican Jewish vote,” Dinerstein said.
The Obama campaign is fighting back in the contested state. The campaign has nine offices in Florida, is opening an additional office in Boca Raton in January, and is holding Jewish outreach events and training for volunteers in the area.