Beachwood, Ohio — With independent polls showing Ohio to be a tossup in the presidential race, the state’s large number of undecided Jewish voters are considered critical by both sides to winning the White House.
Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican nominee John McCain and their surrogates have been intensely wooing the Buckeye state’s Jewish voters, located largely in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs, as well as in Columbus and Cincinnati.
They are being inundated with ads in a Jewish newspaper in Cleveland and visits by prominent Jewish leaders who aim to persuade wavering voters with personal anecdotes and talk of Middle East policy decisions. The campaigns hope these visits will create a personal connection that will last until voters cast their ballots.
“From a vote standpoint, the Jewish vote really matters,” said Matt Ratner, the Jewish outreach coordinator the Ohio Democratic Party hired for the election, at a forum for Obama near Beachwood.
Ratner estimated that 100,000 Ohio voters could still be persuaded, just three weeks before the November 4 election, and as many as 30,000 of those undecided voters may be Jewish.
“We represent 1% of the population of Ohio and we could make up as much as one-third of the margin,” Ratner said.
That would make the estimated 700 Jews attending the October 12 Obama event at the Landerhaven banquet hall “the center of the political universe,” as Ohio’s lieutenant governor, Lee Fisher, told them, hoping to convey their potential for once again deciding the election.
The mostly middle-aged and older crowd sat and listened politely to the speeches during the 90-minute forum. The crowd’s silence was interrupted periodically with bursts of heavy applause, like when Rep. Jane Harman of California reminded them that Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, supported abortion rights.
Alan Solow, a Chicago attorney and friend of Obama shared stories about the candidate’s understanding of Israel and Jewish values. “I like to say he’s going to be the first Jewish president of the United States,” Solow said, to hearty laughter.
In 2004, George W. Bush won Ohio by just 118,000 votes of the 5.6 million cast in the state that year. This year, Ohio, with its 20 electoral votes, is seen as a must win by McCain to have a chance of moving into the White House. A victory here by Obama would almost guarantee him the presidency.
If the Cleveland area Jewish population is a major focus of the campaigns, then the heart of the Jewish community in the neighborhoods of Beachwood, Mayfield Heights and Solon, a booming Jewish suburb to the east, is ground zero. One doesn’t have to go far in these few miles from the popular Corky & Lenny’s deli to the nearby JCC and nearby synagogues to find the election a popular topic of discussion.
“Everyone’s talking about it, and everybody has an opinion,” said Earl Stein, the deli’s co-owner.
Jews in Ohio cite as their top concerns the economy, the Iraq war, Iran, Israel’s security and social justice. Ohio is home to an estimated 144,000 Jews, but it was unknown how many of them are registered voters.
On the same day as the Landerhaven rally, the large Jewish population in Columbus was also receiving its share of attention from both camps. Former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross attended a rally in Columbus for Obama before attending a campaign event in Cleveland. Meanwhile, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was stumping for McCain in Columbus.
One example of how this battle has manifested itself is the air war. The non-partisan Wisconsin Advertising Project estimates the two sides spent $3.9 million — more than in any other state — on television commercials during the week of Sept. 28 to Oct. 4. The campaigns also have large staffs on the ground and the candidates have visited Ohio so frequently that Fisher joked that McCain and Obama could buy homes there.
The fact that so many Jewish voters, traditionally a bloc that favors Democratic candidates nationally and in Ohio, remain undecided illustrates the opportunity that both campaigns have to sway voters in the Jewish community, which appears extremely divided based on interviews with voters, rabbis and other community leaders.
Jewish leaders in the state predict Obama will garner a majority of Jewish votes. Gains by McCain with Jewish voters in urban and suburban areas would put less pressure on him to draw heavily in rural parts of the state that traditionally vote Republican.
With that in mind, both campaigns are pulling out all the stops to reassure Jewish voters that McCain and Obama can be counted on to be good friends of Israel, and to address lingering concerns among some voters. Those worries include fears that Obama will put pressure on Israel to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians or may be unwilling to pull the trigger on Iran, as well as the unease many Jews voiced about McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.
A look at how the campaigns are deploying their resources in Ohio—as well as two other battleground states, Pennsylvania and Florida—shows just how important they consider these states. For example, Ratner’s job didn’t exist four years ago, and Obama’s top national Jewish coordinator, Dan Shapiro, plans to practically take up residence in Ohio until Election Day.
“Those three are the three swing states with the largest Jewish population that really has the most likely chance of affecting the outcome,” Shapiro said.
About the same time as the Landerhaven rally, Lieberman was speaking to about 200 McCain volunteers at a nearby campaign call center. He also met with dozens of area Jewish leaders the next morning. “I think he pulls a great deal of weight,” Josh Mandel, a Jewish Republican and state representative said after the breakfast.
This fight for Jewish votes has at times become a pitched and bitter battle. Fueled in part by competing ads from the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council, some individuals in the community have taken out their own ads in the Cleveland Jewish News to rebut charges and advocate for their candidate.
“The only thing I have not run into is people who don’t care,” said Stephen Hoffman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.
Negative messages, particularly those by RJC and other McCain surrogates, have hurt the Republican’s campaign message among Jewish voters, said Rabbi Richard A. Block, who used his Rosh Hashanah sermon at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood to complain about the “coarsening and poisoning of our public discourse.”
Until recently, many Jews in the Cleveland area said they sensed a possible shift in some Jewish voters that would favor McCain. But McCain’s selection of Palin as his running mate and the nation’s financial crisis may be turning the tide in the other direction.
Rabbi Melvin Granatstein of the Green Road Synagogue, one of the region’s largest Orthodox shuls, said of the financial crisis now gripping the entire country:“I have to believe it changed some minds.”