There is a famous saying, frequently misattributed to Albert Einstein, that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” If that is true, then the GOP’s current pitch for the Jewish vote looks like another example of their detachment from reality. But looks can be deceiving. While Mitt Romney has no realistic chance of winning the Jewish vote in November, he could conceivably achieve his two real goals: winning Florida and shoring up support on the religious right.
Every four years conservatives hopefully assert yet again that this may finally be the election where Jews start voting like rich white people. As Milton Himmelfarb famously noted, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” The circumstances that would encourage Jews to switch parties—they are more assimilated, Republicans are less overtly anti-Semitic—keep improving, but the GOP’s performance among Jews does not. In every election since 1992 Democrats have received between 76 and 80 percent of the Jewish vote. In 2008 President Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote, to John McCain’s 22 percent.
And yet Republicans are trying again. Romney just went to Israel to pledge fealty to the Likud Party’s agenda and hoover up donations from a handful of rich Jewish-American donors like billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who flew out to join Romney for the occasion.
Meanwhile, the Republican Jewish Coalition has, thanks partly to generous donations from Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, launched an effort to capitalize on “buyer’s remorse” among Jews who voted for Obama. They have devoted $6.5 million to air commercials targeting Jewish voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. Why would Jews regret voting for Obama? Because of his supposed snubs to Israel, which are really just trumped-up Republican talking points. The first ad quotes a supposed former Obama supporter named Michael Goldstein, who says:
I was a big Obama supporter. I had a fundraiser in my home, gave money to his campaign. I really believed in him and believed in what he stood for. When he gave the speech about the ’67 borders, it was nothing that had come up in his campaign originally. That really changed my mind about him. When he had the prime minister of Israel, [Benjamin] Netanyahu, to the White House…he was disrespectful to him to the point that I’d never seen.
Goldstein, it turns out, donated $250 to Rudy Giuliani in 2007. But even if he is telling the truth about his political history, it just shows how easily he is snookered by misinformation from Republicans. The right-wing hysteria about Obama’s speech was much ado about nothing. American presidents have always called for using the 1967 borders with land swaps to make a peace deal. Obama did not specifically say Israel should be allowed to keep the settlements outside the Green Line. But then, he shouldn’t. As for Obama’s supposed mistreatment of Netanyahu, Glenn Kessler, who writes The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog notes, “Netanyahu also has been publicly tough with Obama, especially after the president’s speech on the 1967 boundaries. He in essence lectured Obama in full view of television cameras, suggesting the president had an unrealistic view of the region.” Kessler also points out, “By virtually all accounts, the Obama administration has been especially strong in bolstering security ties between Israel and the United States.”
Last week the Emergency Committee for Israel—a right-wing foreign policy advocacy group—launched two ads attacking Obama’s record. On Thursday they bought a print ad in twenty-three Jewish newspapers citing prominent American Zionists, such as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution, who say Obama has disappointed them on Israel. They also put out a thirty-second commercial on Friday complaining that President Obama has not visited Israel. It will air on cable news networks in Washington and New York and in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. I e-mailed ECI executive director Noah Pollak to ask why this matters, in light of the fact that President Bush did not visit Israel until the last year of his second term. Pollak responded that the ad, “criticizes Obama not simply for failing to visit Israel as president. It criticizes him for visiting the Middle East repeatedly but intentionally skipping [emphasis his] Israel as part of his ‘daylight’ policy that seeks to distance the U.S. from Israel.” I remain unconvinced that this is more than petty politics of symbolism.
Liberals are gleefully pointing out that Obama remains overwhelmingly favored in the Jewish community. A Gallup poll released Friday has Obama leading Romney 68 percent to 25 percent among registered Jewish voters.
So why are Romney and company even trying? Because winning the Jewish vote nationally is not the purpose. Thanks to the monstrously complicated strategic calculations brought about by the Electoral College, even a significant shift in votes in most states can be irrelevant, while a tiny shift in a swing state can decide the outcome of the election. In 2000 Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election because he nominally lost Florida by 537 votes. There are more than 600,000 Jewish voters in Florida. It doesn’t matter to Romney if the millions of American Jews in blue states like New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey vote for him. But a few voters switching sides in Florida can make all the difference in the world. And luckily for Romney, Florida’s Jews are disproportionately elderly, an age group that Obama struggles with and Romney appeals to. If Romney were to hold that 25 percent of the Jewish vote and pick up a few more points among the undecided, that would be the best Republican presidential performance among Jews since 1988. If we held national popular vote elections, as we should, this would hardly matter. In Florida, it could matter a great deal.
The other purpose of Romney’s Jewish outreach is a ricochet pander to evangelicals. Just like Romney spoke to the NAACP to appeal to moderate white swing voters, not black people, Romney pursues the Jewish vote as a proxy for a demographic he actually does need to, and can, win. Evangelicals are distrustful of Romney, due to his past support for abortion rights and gay rights. But another issue near and dear to their heart is Israel. They have become obsessed in recent years with supporting extremely hawkish stances on all Middle East issues. They favor settlement construction in the occupied territories and a pre-emptive strike against Iran. Romney has gone to Israel to declare his support for these pernicious policies—as well as the inane ones about visiting Israel as president and recognizing Jerusalem as its capital—to appeal to evangelicals as much as to Jews. Romney can never convince Christian religious conservatives that he is a true believer in their social agenda, but since he was a blank slate on foreign policy before running for president, he can at least try to do so on foreign policy.