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Change Jews Can Believe In

sympathy for the Palestiniansmeet with enemieslessproblematic

Here’s why: Jewish voters made up three percent of the national electorate in 2004, with their numbers concentrated in a handful of states where they constitute significant voting blocs. The states that have the highest Jewish populations, however, also tend to be reliably Democratic. Which means that even if McCain and the Republicans could somehow pry away most of the Jewish vote in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California (or if a lot of Jews were to decide to sit this election out), it’s likely that those states would nevertheless deliver their electoral votes to an Obama ticket. And most swing states, such as Ohio and Missouri, have too few Jewish voters to make much of a difference either way. Which, naturally enough, brings it all back to Florida.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, as the state does not track voter registration by religion, but a good, if perhaps slightly generous, approximation--based on population estimates from the American Jewish Committee’s 2006 yearbook and 2004 exit poll data--is that there are about 450,000 Jewish registered voters in Florida, out of 10.2 million total. Chris Korge, Clinton’s Florida finance chairman, warned in an interview last week that 30 to 40 percent of Jews might vote for McCain should Obama wind up the nominee. His worst-case, 40-percent scenario would result in a net loss of perhaps 150,000 votes for Obama--an awfully distressing number in a state where 2000’s magic number of “537” still makes Democrats break out in a cold sweat. Yet the Sunshine State’s Jewish community has been far too favorable to Democratic candidates for far too long to predict such a swing: While Jewish Republicans here are not as rare as black Republicans, the vast majority of Jews are Democrats, and they traditionally deliver about 80 percent of the vote to the Democratic presidential nominee. A more likely outcome--looking at numbers from previous statewide elections where the Democrat has failed to turn out the South Florida condos sufficiently--is that maybe ten percent of the Democratic Jewish vote will just stay home. That would result in a loss around 30,000 votes, or about one-half of one percent of the total likely to be cast.

“I’m a little skeptical of [Obama’s] problem,” pollster John Zogby told me. “When push comes to shove, Jewish voters will vote, and ... [they won’t] abandon the Democratic Party.”

In the condos particularly, where a retiree version of Tammany Hall plays itself out each election day--with organized turnout efforts to drag every registered Democrat to the centrally located community center, palm card in hand to remind him or her whom to vote for--Zogby’s analysis appears spot on. Many of these voters have pulled the lever, poked out the punch card, and pressed on the touch screen for a Democrat since the time of FDR.

And yet, the condo commandos are mighty ticked off right now at some of the things Wright has said and has put in his church bulletin about Israel. “His pastor has left a bad taste in the psyche of the Jewish population,” says Marvin Manning, the 81-year-old president of the Century Village West Democratic Club in Boca Raton. “Obama has a big, big problem ahead of him.”

The key phrase, though, is ahead of him, with the election still half a year off. Considering where things were in the presidential race last November--Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney the favorites on the GOP side, and Clinton awaiting her January coronation--even those angry today acknowledge there’s plenty of time for Obama to mend fences. “We have never missed an election, no matter what,” says Sophie Bock, the president of the Democrat Club at the Century Village complex some 20 miles south of Boca, in Pembroke Pines. “Today is a negative response. But the election is six months away.”

Remember, in states where Obama has campaigned heavily, which he hasn’t been able to do in Florida because of its problem with the DNC, he was able to confront the under-the-radar e-mails that, among other things, accuse Obama of being the preferred candidate of the terrorist group Hamas. In California, where Obama and his people spent about three weeks reaching out to the Jewish community prior to Super Tuesday, he actually won the Jewish vote, 49-47, while losing the state overall by nine points. In Massachusetts, similarly, Obama won the Jewish vote 52-48, while Clinton won the state by 15 points.

The Obama campaign says it understands its problem--and once the nomination is formally sealed, it plans to launch an intensive sales pitch to the South Florida Jewish community, much of which was part of the unofficial, yet highly organized, campaign to deliver a huge turnout for Clinton in the disputed January 29 primary. A prominent Democratic-oriented political committee endorsed Clinton, and much of the local party machinery was cranked up on her behalf like it was the first Tuesday in November. Clinton won the state 50-33, but took the majority-Jewish precincts in Palm Beach County by a 70-20 margin.

A key operative for Obama will be Eric Lynn, a Mideast policy advisor for the campaign and a Florida native, who was placed in charge of Jewish outreach last summer. But an even more impressive emissary is Representative Robert Wexler, who represents Florida's 19th district, encompassing Delray Beach and Boca Raton, perhaps the most-Jewish congressional district in the country.

Wexler is almost as well known for his pro-Israel agenda as he is for his attempt to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. Overlooking the Mediterranean from the Tel Aviv Hilton’s pool deck one night last summer, he recalled his increasing agitation when 2004 nominee John Kerry droned on about health care during a speech in Palm Beach County--despite Wexler’s warning that all the crowd really wanted to hear about was Israel.

 “I won’t have that problem with Barack Obama,” Wexler says now, explaining that Obama talks about Israel, without prompting, whenever and wherever appropriate.  McCain has already used Obama’s perceived weakness with Jews to raise money in Palm Beach County, but Wexler predicts that, once the nomination is secured, such entreaties won’t be particularly fruitful for the Republicans.

Wexler points to Bush’s 2004 push to win over the Jewish vote in Florida, which included radio ads featuring Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch. This came after Kerry had angered some Jewish voters by criticizing Israel’s new security fence. In the end, Bush pulled 20 percent of the Jewish vote--only a few points higher than what Bush got against Al Gore and first-Jewish-running-mate Joe Lieberman in 2000.

“[The ads] got a lot of laughs, it got a lot of attention, and no one voted for the man,” Wexler says. In the end, the Jewish split between Obama and Clinton may be like the other divisions in the Democratic race: young versus old, richer versus poorer, highly educated versus not. Are these the sort that will matter once the nominee is settled upon and the opportunity to place a Democrat in the White House is within reach?

Already, with the specter of Wright still looming over the potential nominee, a new Gallup poll shows that Obama’s support among Jewish voters is actually higher now than it was in March. And, in fact, some of Obama’s harshest critics in Florida’s Jewish community are offering the possibility of a rapprochement. Says Marc Sultanoff, president of the Kings Point Democratic Club in Tamarac, “The Jewish vote will go for him, if we have the understanding of where he’s coming from.” Here’s betting that six months from now, they will.

S.V. Dáte is a journalist in Tallahassee. His most recent book is Jeb: America’s Next Bush.

By S.V. Dáte