Election 2012: Campaign reporters ponder the Jewish vote

With Election Day looming, pundits are once again hauling out the age-old question asked every cycle: Is this the year the Jewish vote finally swings away from the Democratic Party?

On a recent conference call for reporters hosted by the Jewish Daily Forward, the question came up, but no one yet knows the answer.

Participating in the Oct. 23 call were Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner, along with Washington, D.C., bureau chief Nathan Guttman and reporter Josh Nathan-Kazis, both of whom have been on the campaign trail interviewing Jewish voters for their New York-based publication.

Eisner noted that with casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into the Romney campaign and Republican super PACS, “Jewish money” may play a bigger role in the election this year.

She also said that Israel’s security, as always, remains a key issue for Jewish voters, but not the only one.

“Jews always say Israel is an important part of the voting decision,” Eisner said. “It’s not clear how important, and whether that issue trumps others. There is disconnect between leaders of the American Jewish community and the bulk of Jewish voters. Leaders tend to be more conservative, right-wing, and almost all male.”

Though she believes the economy trumps every other issue in the voting booth, Eisner also said other issues matter to Jewish voters, including preventing a nuclear Iran and social issues, such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

Those social issues have polarized the Jewish community, she said, with Orthodox and Conservative Jews going along with what Eisner called the Republican Party’s “overt attempt to represent Christians,” and more liberal Jews still standing “strongly for separation of church and state.”

Guttman noted that in the third presidential debate, held Oct. 22, the candidates mentioned Israel 34 times, signaling the centrality of Israel as a campaign issue. However, he saw few differences between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on substance.

“The debate had to do more with the kishkas factor than policy,” he said.

The Israeli-born reporter added, “There is a feeling [in Israel] Obama does not like Israel enough. It’s no secret Obama and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu have a tense relationship. Conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu would prefer a Romney administration.”

Still, he felt there was no reason to believe Romney “would be more likely to use a military option [in Iran] than Obama.”

Nathan-Kazis spoke of his observations in swing states such as Florida and Nevada. He said in the Sunshine State he expected to find “a stereotype of the hyper-engaged, hyper-passionate Jewish voter anxious about Israel and Medicare. That was there, but my overall impression was different.”

He said that with many Jewish Floridians hit hard by the housing crisis and financial meltdown, many had a sense that “the system had failed and the election would not change that. Both Republicans and Democrats worried about Medicare and shared a diminishing faith in the electoral process.”

During a Q&A session, Eisner noted how during the Oct. 22 foreign policy debate, Obama worked hard to come off as a good friend to Israel, perhaps to counter the oft-repeated perception that he has opened a rift between the two nations.

Nathan-Kazis thought both candidates used the debate to shore up their Middle East credentials, Obama showing Israel some love by mentioning the country “early and often,” and Romney mentioning the Palestinians to prove a measure of even-handedness.

However, he added, the debate discussed neither the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks nor any American initiative to jump-start them.

No matter how the election goes, Eisner said, there will be fewer Jews in Congress come next January.

“By our calculations, we expect that the number of Jews in Congress will decline,” she said. “There are still some close races, and there will be a Jewish presence, but there is only one Jewish Republican (Rep. Eric Cantor, D-Va.) and a diminishing number of Jewish Democrats in the House and Senate.”

According to the Forward, in the next Congress approximately 5.6 percent of members will be Jewish. Currently, that figure stands at 7.3 percent.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.