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Candidates Woo Florida Jewish Vote

Last December, top officials from the Obama campaign outlined five different paths to re-election for the president. Four of those plans conceded that Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, might be a lost cause, even though Obama won the state impressively in 2008.

Democrats have plenty of reasons to be worried about losing Florida, most of which stem from its particularly poor economic condition: The state has the fifth-highest foreclosure rate in the country, and an unemployment rate remaining stubbornly higher than the national average. But Florida has a knack for swinging presidential elections, and the decisive voting block this year may be a group of 635,000 Jews fixed along Interstate 4.

President Obama at a campaign rally in Miami last June. (Photo by Christopher Dilts for Obama for America/http://bit.ly/zNg8Yi)

Within this concentrated community, the smallest shift in support can determine the entire general race.

“Even if it is a marginal shift in a state that’s closely contested, that could make the difference in a close election overall,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.

David Ingall and his wife may be among the voters worrying the Democratic Party. Originally from Illinois, the Ingalls have been reliable Democrats for decades and hosted a number of campaign events for Obama supporters in 2008. David Ingall now speaks with winded enthusiasm for Obama’s presidency.

“He’s not really a leader,” Ingall says. “That’s his major deficit.”

Elliot Jakubowitz, a manager at the family-owned Jerusalem Pizza in Miami, says his entire family has traditionally voted Democratic — but that this year might be different.

“We all voted for Obama the last time. But with his stances on Israel, I can’t see voting for him this time,” says Jakubowitz. “It would be tough.”

A majority of Jews have voted for the Democratic candidate for president every year since 1928, though the margin has fluctuated from 60 percent for Adlai Stevenson in 1956 to 90 percent for Franklin D. Roosevelt (1940 and 1944) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1964). Obama got 78 percent of the Florida Jewish vote in 2008. The question is how much ground the Obama campaign can win or lose.

Thomas Steinfatt, professor of communication at University of Miami, said,  “I am certain that people on his campaign are saying that they don’t want to lose a single percentage point.”

Robert Watson, professor of American studies at Lynn University, says: “The Republicans won’t win the Jewish vote in Florida, but I do think Obama will be hard pressed to get that 78 percent again.”

The most recent poll from the American Jewish Committee indicates that, for the first time, more American Jews disapprove of the president’s job performance than approve, with 48 percent disapproving, 45 percent approving and 7 percent unsure. The same poll showed that 60 percent of respondents disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy, and 53 percent disapprove of his policies toward Israel.

Watson has been witnessing shifts in this community every other day for the past three years. In town hall meetings across South Florida, the professor, who has published books on the presidency, election campaigns and Israel, says he hasn’t gone a day without hearing the same question: Is Obama as bad for Israel as they have been told?

Martin Ingall, David’s nephew, would say so. For six years, Martin served as a lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. Martin, who moved to Jerusalem two years ago, says American Jews see a conflict of interest between their ethnic identity and their national one — and that, eight times out of 10, they follow the latter.

“You’re an American and you’re saying, what’s more important: abortion, or Israel? Helping the poor, or Israel? Separation of church and state, or Israel?” Martin says. “You have a swing vote in the Jewish community of about 20 percent — and all of that tends to be more Democratic.”

Rabbi David Steinhardt at B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton also says the Jewish vote is based less on a single issue such as Israel than it is on the conditions of the Jewish community within American society.

“Many Jews vote as their socioeconomic class votes,” Steinhardt says. “It’s more that than a reflection of Jewish values or an allegiance to Israel. And the farther we are from the immigrant experience and the great crises of Jewish experience, the more Jews will diversify.”

Casey Klofstad, professor of political science at the University of Miami, says that Jews typically pay attention to foreign policy more than the average Florida voter — but that in this election, economic issues will be the top priority across the board.

“Even among an older, wealthier group such as Jews in Florida, these issues still dominate because of friends and relatives, and the state of Social Security and how that reflects the economy,” says Klofstad.

Steinhardt adds of Boca Raton: “There’s no question that the current economic state, and what it’s meant for real estate and jobs, has had an effect on this community, like most others. But I don’t see it as a great problem in my community.”

Indeed, nothing changes numbers more than a nominee, and the Republicans have yet to choose theirs. But when they do finally settle on a leader, at the Republican National Convention, this year in Tampa Bay, Fla., they might benefit from choosing someone who can relate to this key demographic on cultural grounds.

“Mormons are religious outsiders,” Pitney notes, “and Jewish voters might have a sense of sympathy with that.”

E-mail: maw2192@columbia.edu

February 27, 2012