In a year when polls suggest that Senator John McCain is positioned to garner more Jewish votes than any Republican candidate in the past two decades, his campaign is attempting to woo Jewish voters with a small, decentralized operation that critics are charging has no single address.
In contrast to the corporate discipline of George W. Bush in 2004 and the well-staffed ground operation of Democratic opponent Senator Barack Obama, McCain is counting on an ad hoc, almost informal approach to reaching Jewish voters. To date, the McCain campaign’s Jewish outreach has been conducted through a combination of political donors and campaign surrogates that campaign insiders defend as reflecting sensitivity to needs on the ground.
“There is a whole different approach being taken by the McCain campaign, which is much more of what I call a bottoms-up approach rather than a top-down approach,” said Fred Zeidman, one of the co-chairs of the McCain campaign’s Jewish outreach efforts. “The people in each city and each state tell us what they need.”
The McCain campaign’s Jewish outreach strategy reflects the senator’s overall approach to the campaign, which has devolved broad powers to regional directors rather than a strong central operation. That decentralized approach has had its downsides, as McCain nearly ran out of money during his primary bid and more recently shook up his campaign again, when he tapped a new day-to-day manager for the national operation.
Some Republican Jewish insiders have criticized this approach, arguing that it has led to competing centers of influence and no clear lines of authority or communication. These critics point out that at this point in the 2004 campaign, the Bush campaign had dispatched Jewish outreach teams to several states, organized multiple fundraisers and was well into the planning stage for a Jewish leadership event at the Republican convention.
McCain’s defenders respond that the senator is simply running a different campaign, reflecting both the aftermath of a chaotic primary season and McCain’s own management style.
The debate comes in a year when a number of observers have suggested that McCain is uniquely well positioned to reach Jewish voters. Recent polls released by Gallup and by the left-leaning lobbying organization J Street both showed McCain running well for a Republican candidate, polling 29% and 32%, respectively. Supporters cite McCain’s long record on Israel-related issues and national security, and McCain faces, in Barack Obama, a candidate who has struggled to define a positive image for himself in the Jewish community, particularly on issues related to Israel. Jewish voters could be especially significant in a number of potential swing states, particularly Pennsylvania and Florida.
But McCain’s Jewish outreach also must go up against a formidable Obama operation that has had a staff member serving as a Jewish liaison for more than a year and began building a national grass-roots operation during the primary season.
Democrats have also had a number of historical advantages, as the Jewish community has long voted Democratic in national elections, and there are far more elected Jewish Democrats who can serve as campaign surrogates than there are elected Jewish Republicans.
By contrast, Republicans have generally aimed more at the margins of the Jewish electorate, turning to Jewish donors for fundraising and seeking to peel off a few percentage points. Still, in 2004 the Bush campaign pursued Jewish votes with vigor, with a centralized operation that included a full-time Jewish liaison crisscrossing the country and the development of a number of local grass-roots organizations. Zeidman even moved to Florida from Houston to direct outreach operations.
But Jewish officials say that this year, the campaign’s lack of a clear address has made it harder for local Jewish groups to connect with it.
“We’ve worked with synagogues and other Jewish organizations around the country where they’ve said, ‘We want to have a surrogate session,’” said a Jewish communal official who requested anonymity for fear of antagonizing the McCain campaign. “And they have three or four people on the Obama campaign to call who are working on Jewish outreach. On the McCain side, there’s no address for Jewish outreach. There’s no staff responsible for dealing with that constituency.”
The McCain campaign’s official chair of Jewish outreach is Mark Broxmeyer, a Long Island, N.Y., developer who is best known in Washington circles as the chairman of the Jewish Institute for National Security affairs, a hawkish think-tank that is well connected to the defense establishment. A number of Washington insiders say that Broxmeyer has been a successful fundraiser but so far hasn’t played a hands-on role in arranging surrogates and reaching out to Jewish groups, as is typical of Jewish outreach operations.
Also leading the Jewish outreach campaign are Zeidman, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and a longtime Republican insider, and Eric Cantor, chief deputy whip of the House of Representatives and the only Jewish Republican in the House. Cantor has been mentioned in political circles as a potential vice presidential pick for McCain.
In addition to the campaign’s outreach, Republican efforts will depend heavily on the not-for-profit Republican Jewish Coalition. Though legally prohibited from coordinating with the presidential campaign, the RJC has been a major part of Republican advertising and organizing directed at Jewish voters.
“The reactions I am hearing [from Jewish voters] are excellent,” Cantor told the Forward. “The polls are also showing that more than 32% of Jewish voters support McCain. We know that for the Democrats, they never had a president who got less than 70% of the Jewish vote.”
Some involved with the campaign have argued that given these prospects among swing voters, an extensive ground operation is less important than presenting figures who command respect across party lines, like Senator Joe Lieberman, McCain’s most prominent Jewish surrogate.
“We never had a Jewish Democrat of [Senator Lieberman’s] stature to be able to help us woo Jewish voters for the Republican nominee,” said Adam Hasner, the majority leader of the Florida House of Representatives and co-chair of the state’s Jewish outreach program. “It puts us far ahead of where we were in 2004. We’re aimed at a bigger audience.”
Indeed, as in the past two elections, Florida could prove to be a decisive state in the this time around. But not all observers agree that the elderly Jewish vote there, seen as especially ripe for McCain’s plucking, will play to Republican advantage.
“[Florida] is a close state where the percentage of Jewish voters could make the most difference,” said L. Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College who has studied Jewish political influence. But, he added, the number of Jewish voters who are voting solely on Israel has been declining. “That demographic that they’re looking at is very concerned about the economy and how far their retirement dollars are going to go in the next decade or so. For most of them, that’s a bigger issue.”
With reporting by Nathan Guttman in Washington.