Female, Jewish and undecided: Jewish women are members of two highly courted groups in campaign

As the presidential election draws nearer, both the Republican and Democratic parties are ramping up attempts to appeal to undecided voters. But who exactly are these people who haven’t yet decided?

Judging by conversations at a recent panel discussion in San Francisco, some of them are Jewish women — especially those with deep personal connections to Israel. Though “female” and “Jewish” are two demographics that traditionally sway Democratic,  perceptions of the president’s stance on the Jewish state give pause to some female voters.

“I’m a liberal on so many other things: Medicare, Social Security, women’s rights. But I’m more Republican in terms of how the party treats Israel,” said Einat Yogev, a native of Israel who now lives in Los Altos.

Federation CEO Jennifer Gorovitz introduces speakers at Sept. 10 event. photo/courtesy blc

Yogev was one of about 50 attendees at a Sept. 10 panel discussion titled “Winning the White House,” held by the Business Leadership Council, a division of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

“Israel’s extremely important to me, and when I talk to my family there, they believe Obama doesn’t understand the threat of Islam, that he doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation with Iran,” added Yogev, who confessed she was undecided about her vote.

In the spring, an American Jewish Committee poll found that 61 percent of Jewish voters planned to vote for Obama, as opposed to 28 percent for Romney — an improvement for the president over a similar survey in September 2011, when 50 percent of voters favored Obama and 32 percent said they’d go for Romney. More recently, a Gallup daily tracking poll between July 1 and Sept. 10 found that 70 percent of registered Jewish voters favored Obama, with 25 percent favoring Romney.

And then, of course, there are the undecideds — some of whom came to the BLC panel discussion hoping to gain perspective on their choice. The two speakers were Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who served as special assistant counsel to President Bill Clinton and press secretary for Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign; and Dan Schnur, a Republican political strategist who served as director of communications on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign and served as media spokesman for former California Gov. Pete Wilson.

The conversation — the pair stressed early on it would not be a “debate” — was moderated by Sam Lauter, a longtime political consultant and past chair of the Northern California board of directors of AIPAC. And while the discussion touched briefly on Israel, more candid comments on the Jewish vote were made before and after the meeting, as attendees voiced where they stood.

“I’ll be voting for Obama because I think he needs more time,” said Gail Schechter, a medical researcher who lives in San Francisco. “I think he has good people working for him, and I think he’s the best person to accomplish what needs to happen in this country.” Schechter said Israel was a consideration in her vote, but not a primary concern. “It’s so hard to prioritize everything,” she said.

A woman who did not wish to be identified, and who voted for Obama in 2008, said she was undecided. She didn’t say it was because of Israel issues, but because the president “has changed his tune” on other things.

If she does end up voting for Romney, she’ll still be in a minority among Jewish women, Schnur said.

“Jewish female voters, as a demographic, do lean Democratic. To the extent that there’s been slippage in the Jewish vote for Obama, it’s been almost entirely among men,” Schnur said after the panel discussion. “Some female voters may make their vote based on the economy or on Israel, but a larger number will tend to prioritize social issues, so they vote on health care or on being pro-choice.”

The tension between economic and social issues — in particular, abortion — was apparent in the group of three women who approached Schnur after the panel with questions about the GOP’s take on women’s issues.

None wanted to be identified, but each woman had independently prepared a version of the same question. Basically, they asked this: “Even if I agree with a lot of the GOP’s policies (or I am disillusioned with Obama), I don’t like the Republican views on abortion — so how am I supposed to feel good about voting for Romney?”

Schnur attempted to answer each woman diplomatically.

Also in attendance was Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO of the S.F.-based federation. She said that, regardless of differences in opinion, she hoped female voters would get involved and be as educated as possible about the upcoming election.

“It’s so important that women realize they have a voice, that it matters when they stand up and speak,” she said.

Emma Silvers