During the post-election scramble in 2000, the entire election seemed to hinge on how Jews voted — or at least punched out the chads on their butterfly ballots — in three South Florida counties, Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade, which are thought to contain about a half-million Jews.
Returning to the Sunshine State for this Election Day, it was evident that both parties had put these voters at the center of their campaign efforts. The area is heavily Democratic, but the Republicans had high hopes of swinging some of the Jewish Democrats toward President Bush and closing the gap from 2000. The sprawling suburban streets of South Florida were awash in signs that had lettering in Hebrew with frequent references to Israel. Turnout in all three counties exceeded the totals from 2000.
Early returns showed that Senator John Kerry opened up even wider margins over Bush than Al Gore did four years ago. It was areas in Central Florida where the state seemed to tip for President Bush.
According to a poll conducted by Frank Luntz, Jews in Florida cast 74% of their votes for Kerry and 23% for Bush.
In 2000, polls found that Al Gore captured about 80% of the Jewish vote in Florida and across the nation.
While in recent weeks the Republicans brought several high-profile pro-Bush surrogates to the region in the hopes of moving Jewish voters into the Republican column, on Election Day there were few signs on the ground of any significant Republican outreach in Jewish areas like Boca Raton and Boynton Beach.
At a number of polling sites in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Jews, the campaigners in the parking lot were overwhelmingly Kerry supporters, frequently wearing stickers with Kerry’s name in Hebrew.
The highest-profile presence for Kerry, though, was Operation Bubbe, a project affiliated with the National Jewish Democratic Council designed to get elderly Jews out to the polls. More than 100 volunteers flew in from across the nation for Operation Bubbe. They went door to door during the week before the election, making sure each registered Democrat knew where his polling place was, and could get there in time.
The Republicans, though, were not totally invisible in the final days.
Campaign signs in South Florida supporting Kerry were defaced with stickers reading, “Arafat Endorses,” The Miami Herald reported. Meanwhile, the Florida Republican Party distributed brochures to Jewish homes featuring pictures of Kerry, former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamed, who has made antisemitic comments, and Arafat in an attempt to link the Democrat to those figures. Political operatives said identical campaign materials were seen in Ohio.
On Tuesday the Republican Jewish outreach did not have any door-to-door canvassers. Adam Hasner, director of Jewish outreach for the campaign in Florida, said their get-out-the-vote effort relied mostly on phone calls, though he said he could not provide any details on the exact numbers or goals of the campaign.
More Republican attention seemed to be poured into high-profile events, like the one the night before the election with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The event, hosted by Hasner, was in the main town square of Delray Beach, and drew close to 2,000 people.
Ephraim Goldberg, who was voting at Boca Raton’s El Grande Elementary School, said he had been hit with a tremendous number of mailings and phone calls in the weeks before the election. The only campaign solicitation he remembered, however, was a visit from a man in a yarmulke representing the Kerry campaign, who gave Goldberg literature on Kerry’s positions on Israel.
Yoni Boch, the head of National Jewish Democratic Council’s Florida operations, said, the Republicans “kept their operation at the 10,000-foot level. Our operation was very grass-roots focused.”
The immediate concern that many of the voters in South Florida had when they went to vote was not the political issues raised by the Democrats and Republicans, but instead the potential chaos that seemed to lurk in the election process after the 2000 vote. During that election, the results were seen to hinge on Palm Beach County’s infamous butterfly ballot, which is thought to have led thousands of elderly Jewish voters to vote for Pat Buchanan.
“None of our votes counted last time,” said Louise Levin, 65, after walking out of her polling point in Broward County. “We hope they’re being more vigilant this time around.”
The tension from 2000 was exacerbated by concerns about Florida’s early voting program this year, which took place during the 15 days before the election. There were, for example, only eight early voting sites for all of Palm Beach County (compared with 692 on Election Day), and the lines were frequently hours long, driving away many who wanted to vote early.
When polling sites opened on Election Day, many had lines snaking around the buildings. By midday, though, most precincts in Broward and Palm Beach counties had cleared out so that there was no wait. All of South Florida used electronic voting machines this year, and most voters coming out marveled at how smoothly it had gone.
“I was in and out in 10 minutes,” said Jeffry Silkin, 40, who voted just 30 minutes before his precinct in Palm Beach County closed. At 7 p.m., when the doors were shut, there was no one inside voting.
The concerns before the election about voters being challenged never materialized in any great numbers, and there were only minor complaints throughout the course of the day. In Broward County, Rep. Richard Wexler, a Democrat, complained that some of the electronic voting machines had switched voters’ choices to the Republican column on the last confirmation screen. Election officials acknowledged the problem and removed the machines. On the Republican side, a number of poll watchers complained about letters they received from the Democratic National Committee the night before the election, explaining that they would be prosecuted if they wrongfully challenged any voters.
For the Democrats, most of the energy during Election Day itself fell on turning out as many votes as possible. The liberal group America Coming Together, which had more than 10,000 volunteers in Florida on Election Day, directed Operation Bubbe.
The volunteers from Operation Bubbe were assigned neighborhoods that were heavily Jewish, but they hit every registered Democrat and Independent in the areas they canvassed. On Tuesday morning, one group of seven volunteers got out of their rented Sport Utility Vehicle on a twisting street in western Palm Beach County that was lined by mobile homes, some stilted up on cinder blocks. Operation Bubbe visited each neighborhood four times, so many of the houses already had been reached.
One of the Democratic canvassers, 47-year-old Judy Hante, said she did not feel as though she had changed many minds since last week — either about whom to vote for or whether to vote at all. But for Hante, who flew in from San Diego, the process of being involved in such a momentous election was enough of an experience.
“I was marching for Soviet Jews when I was a kid,” said Hante, who is an executive at a high-tech firm, “but it’s been a long time since I did anything like this.”
Many of the younger volunteers were former supporters of Howard Dean, and Operation Bubbe carried the same sense of youthful activist vigor that infused Dean’s campaign. The night before Election Day, a group of about 20 volunteers sat around a pink-tiled pool at their hotel, talking politics and singing the Operation Bubbe theme song.
Even before the election returns arrived Tuesday night, there was a palpable sense of anxiety about the outcome of the overall campaign.
With Kerry’s loss, one of the major questions moving forward is what will happen to the large army of youngsters who were energized by the campaign during the past year. America Coming Together alone had 45,000 volunteers nationwide.
“I really feel like my generation mobilized for this,” said Jeremy Manela, a 22-year-old Operation Bubbe participant who just graduated from the University of Wisconsin. “We put aside our differences to come together behind Kerry. But if we can’t make a difference this time, I don’t know how we’re ever going to care again.”