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A Few Old Jews

“The fate of the world for the next four years,” a Florida rabbi said to The New York Times the other day. “It’s all going to boil down to a few old Jews in Century Village.”

The rabbi was referring to the pitched battle for Jewish voter support that appears to be looming as the fall presidential campaign takes shape. Jews make up a small percentage of the national electorate, but they can provide a crucial swing vote in a few big states that will be critical to the outcome in November. That’s especially true in Florida.

It was in Florida that the votes of a few thousand old Jews were accidentally drained from the Democratic column in 2000 because of the confusion caused by the so-called Butterfly Ballot. Those few thousand votes cost Al Gore the state. George Bush ended up winning Florida, and the presidency, by fewer than 400 votes.

Barack Obama will need those Jewish votes, and a few more like them in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona and elsewhere, if he hopes to win a tight race this fall. Right now he doesn’t have them.

The last few weeks have seen considerable media attention devoted to Obama’s Jewish problem. Reporters and pundits have puzzled over the anti-Obama e-mails bouncing around the Internet, wondering who sends them and whether they have an impact. They have interviewed rabbis and congregants to learn their views. What they have found is a surprisingly widespread suspicion of the candidate.

Part of the unease comes from news reports about the Obama’s views and associations, notably his decades-long relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Part of it reflects nervousness about his willingness, as a liberal Democrat, to use force against enemies. Part stems from malicious cyber-gossip. Part undoubtedly reflects straightforward, unsavory racism.

Much of this unease ought to be embarrassing to a community proud of its values and its history. But some of the questions are legitimate. The senator needs to answer them if he hopes to keep Jewish voters on his side.

Some Democrats, particularly Jewish Democrats, seem ambivalent about focusing heavily on the Jewish vote. They point to Obama’s consistently pro-Israel voting record. Some argue, as Obama has done, that support for Israel shouldn’t be measured by the hard-line standards of the Israeli right. Some object to what they see as pandering. Some question the very notion of a Jewish vote.

Moreover, Democrats note that Obama is already running strong among Jewish voters. A Gallup poll of likely Jewish voters in early May found Obama favored by 61%, compared to 31% for Republican John McCain. Indeed, Obama is doing better among Jews than among whites overall.

But 61% of Jewish voters is not a strong showing for a Democrat. The only Democrat since World War II who has done worse was Jimmy Carter in 1980, with an estimated 45%. In every other election, the Democratic share of the Jewish vote has ranged from a high of 90%, won by Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964, to the modest 65% taken by Michael Dukakis in 1988, George McGovern in 1972 and Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

In between those two extremes lies a Jewish swing vote of some 25%. That’s about 1 million votes nationwide, most of them in seven or eight states where most American Jews live. In a close contest, those marginal Jewish votes make a big difference. Obama has yet to reach them.

The fate of the world does indeed hang in the balance, as the rabbi said. This election will be a watershed, determining America’s choices on such fateful issues as global conflict, sustainable resources and climate change.

With all that at stake, Democrats can’t afford to underestimate the votes of a few old Jews. They need to wake up and smell the Manischewitz.

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