The rush of coastal states attempting to move their presidential primaries up to January or February of next year could provide Jewish primary voters with a much greater role than ever before in selecting a nominee.
Long an outsize presence among the activists and fundraisers who make up the lifeblood of national campaigns, Jewish Americans currently hold little clout as primary voters, due to their concentration in states that come late in the nominating season. That could change during the 2008 campaign, with as many as half of all states now potentially holding primaries on or before February 5, including New York, California, Florida and New Jersey, which have a combined Jewish population of more than 3.4 million, or roughly two-thirds of the total American Jewish community, according to the 2005 American Jewish Year Book.
“Not to take anything away from the bustling Jewish communities of Des Moines and Manchester — I’ve visited them both and love them dearly — but they’re not enormous players,” said Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz, who is supporting Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for president. “It will be interesting to see if… there will be for the first time very serious” outreach to Jewish primary voters.
Although exit polling conducted for major news outlets during the 2006 election found that Jewish voters make up only 2% of the national electorate, the percentage is significantly higher in several states with concentrated Jewish populations. In New Jersey and Florida, where the general electorate is roughly 5% Jewish, the community’s representation could be as high as 10% in the Democratic primary, given not only Jews’ disproportionate affiliation with the party but also their higher than average propensity to vote, Democratic insiders said. The numbers could be even higher in New York, where Jews accounted for 10% of the general vote in 2006, and somewhat lower in California, which has proportionally fewer Jewish residents.
A number of states are jockeying for early primaries in an attempt to gain influence over the nomination process, which currently favors a handful of small states such as perennial trendsetters Iowa and New Hampshire. According to political observers, the mass shift to the start of the primary season is likely to produce one of the most expensive and frontloaded campaigns in America’s history.
“It’s sort of alarming if you think about it,” said David Wasserman, co-editor of Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which is a political newsletter published by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “States are bunched more closely together than they have been ever before. There’s no time anymore for a candidate to recover from a loss in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
In previous years, when the nomination contests were spread out more evenly between March and June, larger states sometimes wielded critical influence. A victory in New York gave crucial momentum to 1980 Democratic contender Senator Edward Kennedy. More recently, Wasserman said, a compressed voting calendar has tended to create a “domino effect” of self-perpetuating wins, as when Senator John Kerry’s success in Iowa in 2004 created virtually insurmountable momentum for his campaign.
A 2008 calendar crowded with early contests is likely to favor the frontrunners — most notable among them Clinton, former first lady and current senator from New York — because of both their greater name recognition and their greater ability to raise the cash needed to pay for newly critical advertising in such expensive media markets as New York and Los Angeles.
In New York and New Jersey, earlier primaries are expected generally to boost candidates from the Northeast, including Clinton and GOP contenders such as former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Jewish activists are predicting increased opportunities — and challenges — as a result of the new schedule.
In New Jersey, where state officials have said they intend to move up primary day to February 5, John McCain supporter Ben Chouake welcomed a potential schedule change and predicted that activists like himself would respond with a new focus on mobilizing Jewish voters.
“If it actually makes a difference, people will turn around and say, ‘Whoa, you know, we better pay attention and we better do something, because we have an opportunity here to make a difference and to have an impact’,” said Chouake, who is a member of McCain’s finance committee and president of Norpac, a prominent pro-Israel political action committee.
But Donna Bojarsky, a public policy consultant in Los Angeles, called an earlier California primary a “double-edged sword” that would give more clout to the country’s most populous state — including Jewish activists— but also put greater demands on already taxed donors.
“Everybody realizes it; it’s happening already,” said Bojarsky, who advises actor Richard Dreyfuss and other Hollywood Democrats. “Anyplace there’s activist donors, there’s going to be a much greater emphasis on the need for them to contribute in order to make up for the sums of money that are required to compete in the California primary, not to mention Florida and New Jersey and everywhere else.”