The GOP’s Jewish vote dream

Republicans have been trying to use Israel to pick off one of the Democrats’ most loyal constituencies for years

Published July 30, 2012 11:58AM (EDT)

There are a few ways to understand the hard-line tone Mitt Romney adopted for his speech in Israel on Sunday.

Substantively, Romney didn’t actually say much, explaining in a pre-speech interview that “because I’m on foreign soil, I don’t want to be creating new foreign policy for my country or in any way to distance myself in the foreign policy of our nation.” But rhetorically, he left no distance between himself and Israel’s right-wing government, demanding that the U.S. lead an all-out push to deny Iran nuclear capability and ridiculing the notion of containment. One of his top advisors also caused a stir by seeming to say that Romney would back an Israeli strike against Iran, but Romney and his campaign clammed up after that.

The obvious audience that Romney was trying to please is his own party’s base, particularly evangelical Christians. Recall that Romney continued to struggle among evangelicals deep into the GOP primary season, even when it was clear he’d be the nominee. There are several reasons conservative evangelicals don’t particularly trust Romney, and few issues matter more to them than Israel. Thus, Sunday’s speech was an opportunity for Romney to generate enthusiasm with a bloc of voters that he badly needs to turn out for him in droves this fall.

Romney probably had swing voters in mind too, under the assumption that they’ll equate tough-sounding rhetoric with foreign policy credibility. Whether this is actually how they think is another matter, of course, but one of Romney’s goals on his overseas trip is to convince voters to see him as a plausible world leader. Clearly, his campaign believes that the speech he delivered Sunday will help with this.

But Romney may have been targeting another audience as well: Jewish voters.

As the Republican Party has moved into alignment with the Israeli right in recent decades, it’s not been uncommon to hear conservative leaders and GOP-friendly Jewish voices talk of breaking the Democratic Party’s long-standing hold on the Jewish vote. Since 2009, this talk has been particularly pronounced, with the right blasting President Obama day in and day out for supposedly abandoning Israel. On his trip to Israel, Romney was joined by Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who came to the GOP through pro-Israel activism and who is now bankrolling a serious effort to turn Jewish voters against Obama.

Theoretically, there’s real potential here for Romney. After all, the Jewish vote looms large in one of the most important swing states, Florida. It’s also a factor, though not to the same degree, in Ohio. So if he can eat into the massive margins Obama racked up with Jewish voters in ’08, it could have serious Electoral College ramifications.

The problem: We’ve heard this song before, and it never really amounts to anything.

Last time around, for instance, Republicans encouraged the notion that Obama had a problem with Jewish voters because of his willingness to talk with Iranian leaders and his ties to Jeremiah Wright. His own background, and the rumors that he’s actually a Muslim, was also supposedly a problem for him, as were John McCain’s staunchly pro-Israel views. But Obama ended up crushing McCain among Jewish voters 78 to 22 percent.

We heard it in 2004, too. Eight years ago today, just as the Democratic convention wrapped up, MSNBC’s Tom Curry filed this report:

A few thousand or even a few hundred votes cast for John Kerry or George Bush in key states such as Wisconsin and Florida — or votes not cast at all in a stay-at-home protest — could determine the winner Nov. 2.

That is why the anxiety voiced here in Boston this week at the Democratic National Convention by Jewish Democrats is worth paying attention to.

The source of that unease: the sense that Bush, due to his removal of Saddam Hussein, his resolve in fighting Islamic terrorists, and his robust support for Israel’s government led by Ariel Sharon, is gaining ground among those Jewish voters who place their highest priority on Israel’s survival.

Three months later, Kerry won the Jewish vote 76 to 24 percent.

Overwhelming Jewish support for the Democratic nominee has been the rule for nearly 100 years. There’s really only one exception in the modern presidential campaign era: 1980, when Jimmy Carter won just 45 percent among Jews, just six points better than Ronald Reagan. (The rest of the Jewish vote went to independent John Anderson, whose campaign attracted some liberals who felt alienated by Carter but saw Reagan as too conservative.) The Carter example is telling, because his presidency was defined by relationships with Jewish political leaders that ranged from poisonous to simply nonexistent. Carter had a clear political problem with the Jewish community and made little effort to address it.

That’s not at all how the Obama presidency has gone. His relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu is obviously strained (to put it mildly) and he’s irked Jewish leaders on occasion, but the Obama White House has made preventing the kind of mass Jewish defections that Carter suffered  a priority. This has been reflected in Obama’s policies – for instance, the bill he signed last Friday, just before Romney arrived in Israel – and in the close dialogue his administration has maintained with Jewish leaders.

The result: A few prominent Jewish political voices have turned on Obama hard, but their anger hasn’t trickled down to the masses. A Gallup poll last week showed Obama crushing Romney 68 to 25 percent among Jewish voters. That puts him on pace to do just slightly worse with Jews than he did in ’08 – which only makes sense, given that his poll numbers are down from ‘08 with just about every group, thanks to the economy.

Shared social and economic values have bound Jewish voters to the Democratic Party for decades. It’s not unimaginable that these ties could be severed, but it would take something truly dramatic, and what’s happened on Obama’s watch just doesn’t meet this test.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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