On a trip to Israel, Mitt Romney is trying to win over a tiny sliver of a small — but powerful — section of the American electorate. President Barack Obama is doing the same at home.
But while Romney’s trip is unlikely to change the broader presidential campaign against Obama, he’s hoping to close the gap among Jewish voters.
For all the wooing of American Jews in presidential campaigns, those who say Israel’s fate drives their vote make up 6 percent of a reliably Democratic bloc. The tiny numbers are overlaid with an outsize influence. Campaign donations from Jews or Jewish and pro-Israel groups account for as much as 60 percent of Democratic money, and groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee can bring strong pressure on candidates.
“This is going to be a close election. We are in a tight, tight race,” said Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein. “But this race will not swing on the Jewish vote.”
The notion of being an American Jew has changed over the years. Jews have married outside their faith and ethnic enclaves have given way to integrated cities. In the process, Israel has faded as a driving issue in their homes and seems to have faded as a flashpoint in politics.
“They’re disconnected from their ancestral roots,” Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based consultant, said of Jewish voters. “People are becoming less observant so they’re less tied to Israel, less tied to their faith, less tied to their history.”
In turn, Jewish voters look at the election through secular lenses. Although the campaign rhetoric skews toward them when the candidates talk about Israel, assuming that Jews vote based on U.S. policy toward Israel is a losing proposition.
Romney also needs to show his commitment to Israel because the reliably Republican evangelical Christian vote also holds candidates to account on that topic.
“Jewish Americans, like most Americans, have come to assume that mainstream politicians and elected officials will stand strongly with Israel so there’s oftentimes no urgency that is reflected in the polling,” said Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman from Florida whose district was heavily Jewish.
“Even partisan people who cherish the American-Israeli relationship cringe when Israel is used as a political football,” said Wexler, who was a co-chairman of Obama’s 2008 campaign and now leads the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
That hasn’t stopped Romney.
“I think, by and large, you can just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite,” Romney said earlier this year when asked about Israel.
Obama has riled his critics, including Romney, by urging the Israelis and the Palestinians to make good on their promises to bring peace to the troubled Middle East. Specifically, Obama publicly has chastised Israel for continuing to build housing settlements in disputed areas and has pressured both sides to begin a new round of peace talks based on the land borders established after the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
That has raised the ire of groups such as AIPAC, which feel he’s been disloyal to Israel. Obama’s strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a longtime Romney friend — hasn’t helped that perception.
“The current administration has distanced itself from Israel and visibly warmed to the Palestinian cause,” Romney told AIPAC’s annual conference earlier this year, where Obama also spoke.
Previous presidents have sided with Israel on all points, at least in public.
“This is the most hostile president since the state of Israel was created,” Romney supporter and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said recently. “He’s demonstrated that hostility right from the beginning of his administration.”
Such language is designed to whittle away at the Democrats’ long-held advantages and nip away at the 78 percent support Obama enjoyed among Jews on Election Day 2008.
The Gallup polling organization reported Friday that Obama’s standing stood at 68 percent among Jews, while 25 percent favored Romney.
“They elected him with historic numbers but they have to look at how President Obama has handled the whole situation,” said Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director. “Voters can say, ‘I’ve not made a mistake, but he has not lived up to what he promised and it’s OK to (vote for someone else).’ Every vote that we can peel off from Barack Obama helps.”
That approach fuels the on-the-ground effort to continue Jewish voters’ slide away from the Democratic fold. Romney allies at the Republican Jewish Coalition are planning a $6.5 million campaign to help GOP candidates, and Romney himself is looking to reach into Jewish communities in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Nevada.
But the Jewish vote won’t make a difference in this election. Exit polls show Jewish voters typically make up 2 percent to 4 percent of the electorate nationwide. In 2008, they were 2 percent of voters nationwide and Republican Sen. John McCain won just 21 percent of them.
In 2004, George W. Bush fared a bit better, winning 25 percent of the vote, the largest share of the Jewish vote any Republican has earned since 1988.
But that’s not to say they don’t have clout.
“Jews are less important as voters than they are as activists and contributors. Jews provide pretty close to half of the money available to Democratic candidates,” said Benjamin Ginsburg, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.
And it’s not as though Israel alone will even decide Jewish voters’ preference. A survey earlier this year by the American Jewish Committee found only 6 percent of American Jews listed U.S.-Israel relations as their top priority. The economy was the top concern, at 29 percent, followed by health care, at 20 percent.
“When it comes to determining votes in the American Jewish community, it is not a safe assumption that Jews are single-issue constituency that cares only about Israel,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a pro-Israeli group that promotes a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through diplomacy instead of military action.
“Jews are just like all other Americans. They’re fully integrated in the United States. They are concerned about their jobs, their kids’ education and just like all other voters, the voting patterns and approval ratings move in the context of the larger race,” Ben-Ami said.