Why the Jews finally came home to Obama

By late last spring, concerns about Jews deserting the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, had reached a fever pitch. Writing in his popular blog for Politico, Ben Smith declared that Obama had a “Jewish problem.” In late May, Jodi Kantor of The New York Times traveled to Florida to interview the elderly Jews who were thought to be most skeptical of the Illinois Senator. Kantor’s article--“As Obama Heads to Florida, Many of Its Jews Have Doubts”--included one octogenarian’s ominous warning: “The people here, liberal people, will not vote for Obama because of his attitude towards Israel.” When State Senator Stephen Geller, who represents a heavily Jewish section of South Florida, went to tout Obama to his constituents, he felt as if “they were going to get out of their walkers and crush me,” he told me.

Geller’s fear seemed, as least in part, to be based in fact: Polls at the time showed Obama struggling in comparison to earlier Democratic candidates. A Gallup poll from May showed that Barack Obama would receive merely 60 percent of the vote in a then still hypothetical match-up against John McCain--a far cry from the 75 percent that John Kerry enjoyed in 2004. In private, some Jewish Democratic leaders feared the final Obama numbers would be even worse. Smear campaigns involving “Barack HUSSEIN Obama” e-mails frightened off some Jews, and fears that Obama would be dovish on Israel (heightened by e-mails that named “Zabrinski” as one of his closest advisers) alienated others.

Now, however, with the election only days away, it’s clear that Jews have come home. According to Gallup’s latest numbers, 74 percent support the Illinois senator. It’s true, of course, that Jews generally vote Democrat in the end, and reports of their party-switching are almost always exaggerated. But Obama has been especially savvy about keeping the chosen people on his side--a strategy that could prove very helpful next Tuesday.


Obama managed to hold onto the Jewish vote in part because of choices he made early on in the election, namely his struggle to prove himself tough on Jewish issues and to combat the viral smear campaigns with information campaigns of his own. When his Middle East policy adviser Robert Malley admitted to having met regularly with Hamas, Obama fired him from the campaign. He also distanced himself from President Carter under similar circumstances. For outreach coordination, Obama hired Dan Shapiro, a well-regarded former Bill Nelson staffer who put together a relentlessly on-message operation that distributed endless talking points to allies and potential allies. Last January, for example, the campaign circulated a letter signed by the heads of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center denouncing the smear campaign.

“[Obama’s people] weren’t doing more than Hillary,” says long-time Jewish Democratic operative Steve Rabinowitz, who supported Clinton in the primaries. “But Obama needed it more. And they were as aggressive as possible.”

The early anxiety that fueled a stronger-than-expected internal operation simultaneously led to the creation of a number of pro-Obama Jewish groups outside the campaign. “The Great Schlep,” an effort by a start-up group called the Jewish Council for Education and Research to bring young voters into Florida to convince their grandparents to vote Obama, has been the most visible, if not necessarily the most productive. A video promoting the project, featuring the comedian Sarah Silverman, was one of Youtube’s most watched videos in October. Other grassroots group, such as Jews for Obama and Rabbis for Obama, sprung up last spring and are still in operation. And, although it declines to release specific figures, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) says it is spending more money this cycle than it ever has in the past on direct mail, phone banking, advertising in the Jewish press, and canvassing Jewish voters. Surrogates like Dennis Ross, Chuck Schumer, and even Ed Koch, who endorsed Bush in 2004, have made the synagogue and community-center rounds, helping to shore up Obama’s credentials on Jewish issues.

At the same time, the response of Jewish Republicans and McCain supporters to Obama’s late surge with Jewish voters has been disorganized and inept. In late October, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), the major independent Jewish group on McCain’s side, released a flurry of direct mail and TV advertisements reminding voters of Obama’s ties to Reverend Jeremiah Wright and former terrorist William Ayers. Targeted to swing states with large Jewish populations, the RJC’s campaign cost upwards of $1 million. But voters yawned--the campaign was on the air just as Obama’s numbers among Jewish voters were going up. Part of the problem is that McCain’s initial appeal to the Jewish community was largely predicated on his position as a moderate Republican. As he’s shed his moderate image--or as Obama’s campaign has undermined it--his appeal to Jewish voters has declined. And attacks that seem too partisan further alienate Jewish voters, who tend to be center-left to liberal--perhaps a reason why McCain’s recent attempts to associate Obama with Palestinian-American professor Rashid Khalidi haven’t stuck.

Finally, the contrast between the two vice-presidential nominees provided a major lift for Obama and may have been the central factor in turning the Jewish vote around. When Joe Biden spoke to the NJDC’s annual convention in late September (after the Council initially requested Obama), he was greeted like an old friend coming home. He was affectionately introduced by Michael Adler, a former NJDC chair; the two have known each other for 30 years. In a hushed, passionate tone, Biden recalled bringing his children to visit Auschwitz, as well as his own trips to Israel. When hearing politicians speak about Israel, “Jews want to see the emotion,” says Jay Footlik, who directed Jewish outreach for John Kerry. Even Benjamin Chouake, chairman of the hard-line Norpac and a member of John McCain’s finance committee, concedes Joe Biden’s bona fides on foreign policy. “His heart is in the right place,” says Chouake.

Conversely, it would be hard to overestimate the role that Sarah Palin has played in bringing the Jewish vote solidly behind Obama. During the national honeymoon that followed her selection and convention speech, Jewish voters simply did not share the rest of the country’s enthusiasm--and that was the very moment when Jewish polling numbers began to tip back in Obama’s favor. According to an American Jewish Committee poll, 54 percent of Jews disapproved of her selection. As Koch told me, perhaps summarizing the Jewish community’s collective response: “She scares the hell out of me.”

After choosing Palin, McCain was no longer running the campaign of a moderate Republican. He could no longer hammer away at Obama on Israel, for he had selected a nominee with literally zero record on the issue. When the RJC was asked to defend her initially, the group argued that her pro-Israel credentials were proven by the photo of an Israeli flag on her desk. (That’s the kind of qualification, of course, that is probably shared by every member of Congress, save maybe Jim Moran.) Dov Hikind, the unusual New York State Assemblyman, broke with the Democrats to endorse McCain. But he gets tripped up when queried about Palin. He criticizes Obama for lacking experience, before explaining that, when it comes to Palin, “Experience should not be an issue in this campaign.” The Palin selection cut against McCain’s best argument, and the consequences for the Jewish vote--as, of course, for the vote in general--have been clear.

Of course, contrary to the early punditry, the mass migration of Jewish voters might never have been a real risk. The generation of Jews Democrats have been worried about--elderly Jews, especially those in Florida--is the same generation responsible for making Jews a base constituency of the Democratic Party. It seems unlikely that these Jews, many of whom refer to themselves as “New Deal Democrats,” will abandon the party en masse. As State Senator Ted Deutch, who represents Boca Raton as well as several Century Villages, told me, “There’s a reason that they’ve been voting for Democrats all their lives.” Nonetheless, the fear that Jews might desert the Democratic Party comes up every four years. (One former Kerry staffer who worked on Jewish outreach recalls being hired precisely because the campaign was worried that the candidate would lose an unprecedented number of Jews to Bush.) If Obama performs as well as expected on November 4th, this theory might finally be put to bed.

Ethan Porter has written for The Forward and is the associate editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

By Ethan Porter