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The local retirement community known as Century Village is just one outpost in a statewide network of Century Villages, Florida’s largest chain of retirement complexes. It is also a time capsule of the New York Jewish gestalt, circa 1965, transplanted intact to the golf greens of Palm Beach County. If a small, unscientific sampling of the shoppers in the Hamptons Plaza mall, directly across from the complex, is any indication, John McCain’s choice of running mates may have pushed the residents of this heavily Democratic enclave back in Barack Obama’s direction.
“I was leaning towards McCain,” growled Marvin Weinstein, 74, as he strode to an appointment in a doctor’s office. “But I think his choice of her has turned me off.”
“What I hear is she’s an awful anti-Semite,” George Friedberg said as he sat curbside in his Escalade. “She won’t be getting my vote.” Friedberg’s wife, Florence, appeared at the passenger-side door, shopping bags in hand. “I was leaning towards McCain, but after he selected her I’ve ruled him out completely. I find her offensive.”
Just a month ago, Florida was not considered top of the list among likely electoral vote pickups for Barack Obama. Since the spring McCain had held a consistent lead in the state, which dovetailed with rumors that many of South Florida’s Jews, a major building block of the state’s Democratic coalition, were wary of a black candidate with a Muslim middle name.
But that was before Wall Street’s meltdown — and before the full import of the Palin pick began to sink in. A poll from Quinnipiac University put Obama ahead of McCain in Florida by a substantive 51 to 43 percent as of Sept. 29, and cited “Gov. Sarah Palin’s sagging favorability,” among other things, as an influence.
Only about 5 percent of Florida’s voters are Jewish, according to exit polls from the 2004 election. But this is a swing state with 27 electoral votes and elections here are often decided by slim margins. “You never, ever take a vote for granted in Florida,” notes Democratic pollster Thomas Eldon, of Schroth & Eldon Associates. “All the votes here count, even if we don’t count all the votes.” George Bush owed his victory in Florida in 2000, and the presidency, in large part to the difficulty that the elderly Jewish voters of Palm Beach County had with a butterfly ballot.
In 2000, one of Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore’s prime electoral-vote targets was Florida, and his running mate was an Orthodox Jew. Would-be veep Joe Lieberman made repeated trips throughout the campaign to South Florida to deliver the base. It worked: George Bush received only 12 percent of Florida’s Jewish vote. Four years later, Bush improved his total, taking 20 percent, and winning the state by 5 points.
In 2008, Joe Lieberman is back, but this time to make his case for the Republican candidate. Lieberman, now an independent, was reportedly McCain’s personal choice for vice president, before party pressure forced him to look elsewhere. Lieberman cut a swath through South Florida this summer on behalf of McCain, an old friend and fellow Iraq hawk. Lieberman toured a synagogue, a cafe and a Jewish community center, in Broward and Miami-Dade counties in late July, then returned in early August, a trip notable because his campaign bus hit another vehicle. He is scheduled to return to Boca Raton Monday to conduct a town hall at the local Chabad center.
This year the Republicans thought they had an opening to exploit, a poor fit between the Democrats of South Florida and their party’s presidential nominee. Much of the party leadership had been aligned with Hillary Clinton; Clinton also beat Obama by 17 points in the state’s controversial Jan. 29 Democratic primary. Then there was Obama’s race, his middle name, rumors about his religion, and doubts about his support for Israel.
Polls seemed to confirm Obama’s relative weakness. Clinton outperformed him by 5 points relative to McCain among Jewish voters nationally, according to Gallup. Obama was still winning a majority of the Jewish vote, but at around 60 percent he was lagging behind John Kerry’s 2004 numbers.
The numbers weren’t as bad as they seemed, but word that older Jewish voters were resisting Obama persisted through the primaries and into the fall. There were the disaffected Hillary supporters, and some who, in common with other older white voters across the country, couldn’t get past Obama’s race. “I play mah-jongg with someone who said, ‘I would never vote for a black man.’ And that just made me so angry,” Obama supporter Bertha Griffith huffed outside the Hampton Plaza.
Others focused on Obama’s supposed ties to Islam. “I think it has affected some people, unfortunately,” says Marcy Selko, a committed Democrat and 69-year-old retired librarian who lives in Palm Beach County. “I’ve heard some people say, ‘How could we have a president whose name is Hussein?’ They said this even though they were Democrats!”
The Florida GOP jumped to exploit Obama’s name and his light legislative record on Israel. “When you look at the whole picture, you realize Obama is not a friend of Israel,” says Sid Dinerstein, chairman of Palm Beach County’s Republican Party, who is Jewish. “It is very important for the Jewish community of Palm Beach County to make an informed decision.”
Dinerstein is happy to provide information. Within a day of talking with Salon, Dinerstein forwarded nearly a dozen articles and opinion pieces from the Jerusalem Post, the Washington Times and a wide variety of other publications critical of Obama’s commitment to a safe and secure Israel. One of the broadsides was an anonymously authored document titled “Obama and the Jews: Truth Checklist,” and pointed out Obama’s association with the Rev. Wright, and by extension Louis Farrakhan.
Then there are the anti-Obama Internet smear campaigns, not officially affiliated with any campaign, which have also reached South Florida. These accuse Obama of being a closet Muslim whose campaign is funded by Hamas. One of the most insidious is a fake Maureen Dowd article titled “Obama’s Troubling Internet Fundraising.” Dated June 29, 2008, the Times columnist purports to assert that a series of big money donations were made to Obama from Saudi Arabia, Iran and China. In fact Dowd wrote no such piece (she didn’t even publish on June 29). “Ms. Dowd did not write the column,” a Times spokeswoman states flatly. A copy of the e-mail was supplied to Salon by state Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, Democratic leader of the state house and a Florida superdelegate, who had received it from an alarmed friend.
“It’s just made-up stuff, it’s so silly,” says Gelber, who is Jewish. “But it’s like getting an e-mail about your child, even though you know it’s not true or from a source you don’t believe, you feel obligated to read it. And that’s how these people feel about Israel, it’s like their child.”
In this environment, the Obama campaign made its bid for the Jewish voters of South Florida by selecting one of the region’s most prominent Jewish Democrats, Rep. Robert Wexler, to co-chair the state campaign. (Rep. Kathy Castor from Tampa is the other chair.) Six-term incumbent Wexler’s seat in Florida’s 19th Congressional District, centered in Palm Beach County, is so safe that he has run unopposed three times. An Orthodox Jew and self-described “Fire Breathing Liberal,” Wexler counterintuitively endorsed Obama right out of the gate, against the grain of the state Democratic leadership.
Wexler thinks the GOP has underestimated South Florida’s Jews. “There’s this misnomer among some in the press that the Jewish community is a one-issue community. It isn’t,” he says one summer afternoon following a talk at a Democratic Club in West Palm Beach. When his constituents learn “that John McCain supports privatizing Social Security” and “wants to appoint justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade,” he says, “I assure you they will have nothing to do with John McCain.” But Wexler also says his support for Obama is based on the fact that he’s such a strong supporter of Israel, and because Obama recognizes that Iran is the greatest threat to Israeli and American security.
And that was all before Palin hit the stage. Her selection was a calculated risk by the Republicans, who badly needed to shore up support among the Christian right in battleground states like Florida. But it carried a special risk in Florida, one of the swing states with a significant Jewish population. “Kissing the Jewish vote goodbye,” headlined England’s Guardian newspaper after McCain announced his running mate. “Small Town Palin Big Problem for Jews,” New York Jewish Week warned.
Wexler, known for his bombast, immediately declared the Alaska governor “a direct affront to the Jewish community.”
“She was obviously selected to galvanize the conservative base, and she’s done that,” Gelber notes. “But for people with other issues, well, elderly Jewish voters are really not comfortable with that level of religious conservatism. They’re generally pro-choice, don’t believe creationism should be taught in schools, and they support stem cell research.”
Among those Salon spoke to at the Hamptons Plaza mall — outside the Bagel Tree Diner, the Boca Kosher market, and the Beltone Hearing Center — “she stinks” was a common refrain. Palin’s anti-choice stance chafed the retirees, as did her fundamentalist Christianity. No one mentioned having seen a videotape of the blessing she received in the Wasilla Assembly of God church prior to her run for governor, in which the pastor who blessed her against “witchcraft” also noted in passing that “the Israelites” run the nation’s economy.
Now it’s the Democrats who see an opportunity in South Florida. The Jewish Council for Education and Research, which endorsed Obama, is trying to capitalize on McCain’s stalled momentum by sponsoring “the Great Schlep,” which “focuses on encouraging young Jews to visit their grandparents in Florida during the Columbus Day Weekend” and convince them to vote for Obama. As an added incentive to Bubbe and Zayde, the JCER provides pledges for the grandkids to sign promising to call more often during an Obama administration.
Tristram Korten is a journalist living in Miami Beach.More Tristram Korten.