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Although Obama apparently has not done as well here among big givers as some of his Democratic predecessors, especially Bill Clinton, both camps say he has out-raised Romney. One of his biggest local boosters is David L. Cohen, a former chief of staff to Gov. Rendell and now Comcast Corporation’s executive vice president. He hosted two fundraisers for Obama last year — with the president in attendance — that netted $1.2 million.
The most interesting aspect of the race, as is often the case, is the view from the ground. Pennsylvania Jews, like all Jewish communities, are not monolithic. Philadelphia boasts a particularly diverse collection of Jews, with its share of Rabbis for Obama as well as a growing and vibrant Orthodox community, most of whom skew Republican; activists around the state are engaged in Jewish outreach for Obama, while the RJC has its foot soldiers, too. It’s always tricky trying to take the pulse of a community, but in both camps, you can find a mix of passion and disillusionment.
The passion is apparent anywhere Jews gather, but it is particularly public among the dueling advertisements and letters to the editor in the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia and other Jewish media outlets. The missives lament, ridicule and plead the case for their respective candidate.
Among many Republican diehards, the passion appears to be less for Romney and more a matter of dismay and fear over Obama’s economic policy and attitude toward Israel. For some Obama supporters — and there’s no question that’s the majority among both machers and the grassroots — some express private disappointment on a series of issues, including his missteps in the Middle East and his bruising public battles with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But they also express fear of what a conservative Romney-Ryan government would mean for health care, Medicare and other social safety net programs, as well as concerns about women’s access to reproductive health services and other social issues like gay marriage.
There’s no question that disillusionment exists on both sides. A particular telling incident suggesting that Obama has lost some of his luster among former supporters occurred in August in Margate, N.J., the summer playground for many Philadelphia-area Jews. Walking along the town’s main drag, a woman in beach garb stopped a complete stranger to express dismay at an Obama bumper sticker she had just seen. “That doesn’t belong here anymore!” she exclaimed.
On the other side, a young Orthodox man from Philadelphia who had spent months volunteering first for Republican candidates and then the RJC recently expressed frustration that in his perception, the campaign has already determined that it is going to lose the Jewish vote, so it isn’t worth engaging. He cited as an example the fact that no Romney official came to a local RJC outreach event in September to rally the troops. He said a lot of his peers will vote for Romney because they are Republicans, but they don’t like him and they see him only as the better of two evils.
We don’t yet know how the Jewish vote will break down — locally or nationally. In the end, it may not really matter whether Obama gets the 65% that the latest American Jewish Committee polls put him at or the more than 75% he got last time around. Most likely, each side will parse the numbers to claim victory.
Until the votes are cast, Pennsylvania’s Jews will keep swinging, even if they’re doing it out of the national limelight.
Lisa Hostein is the executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.