CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (JTA) — Jewish swing voters could make or break President Obama’s bid for reelection.
At least that’s the case that Democratic Party leaders made in a training session that packed one of the larger halls at the convention center here on Monday, the day before the formal start of the Democratic National Convention.
It came with a message delivered to Jewish volunteers at the convention in Charlotte: Some Jewish voters matter more than others. And when it comes to issues, Israel is especially important — but don’t forget domestic policy.
At the session, Jewish public officials such as Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) shouted out the party’s new Jewish tagline: “I’m here because I’m a Jew and I support the president and I support Israel.”
Both parties are aggressively targeting Jewish voters in swing states. Next week, the Republican Jewish Coalition will conduct a voter outreach drive in South Florida, Cleveland and Philadelphia. The blitz, part of an overall $6.5 million RJC effort to sway Jewish voters, will be based on prior polling that will “micro-target” Jewish undecideds.
Despite their relatively small number in America — approximately 2 percent of the population — Jews remain a key electoral demographic.
Ira Forman, the veteran Jewish Democrat who has been running Obama’s Jewish outreach campaign, listed seven states — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Michigan — where a 10 percent swing among Jewish voters could change the election.
A drop in support for Obama from the approximate 75 percent of the Jewish vote that he received in 2008 to 65 percent this year would cost him 83,500 votes in Florida, 41,500 in Pennsylvania and 19,000 in Ohio, according to Forman. The figures were based on educated guesses about eligibility and voter turnout.
The most recent Gallup tracking polls of Jewish voters, from June and July, had Obama at 68 percent of the vote — ahead of the 61 percent level at which he was polling in July 2008, when he was facing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
The speakers at Monday’s event said that swing voters tended to be exercised by concerns about Obama’s Israel policies, though their principal concerns are about the economy, health care and social issues like abortion rights.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the DNC chairwoman and the party’s highest-ranking Jewish member, said Republicans hammer on the Israel issue because the Republican Party has little common ground with Jewish voters on domestic policy.
“The natural political home for Jewish voters in this country is with the Democratic Party,” she said.
Republicans cite changing Jewish demographics and voter patterns — including the increasingly large Orthodox community, which is more politically conservative than other Jewish denominations — as evidence that is changing.
Based on Monday’s training session — similar to a number that Democrats say the party has held throughout the swing states — it’s clear that the campaign waged by Republicans to depict Obama as lacking commitment to Israel has had an impact.
For the Israel argument, Democrats unveiled an eight-minute video titled “Steadfast” that features an array of Israeli leaders, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, extolling what is depicted as an unprecedented level of cooperation on defense and intelligence sharing with the Obama administration.
Also featured in talking points handed out to attendees are the Obama administration’s efforts to isolate Iran in a bid to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program, including intensified sanctions.
Republicans acknowledge the close relationship between the Israeli and U.S. administrations on defense, but say that Obama has undercut its benefits by making public his disagreements with Israel over peacemaking with the Palestinians. They also say that he has not made it sufficiently clear that Iran could face a military strike from Israel or the United States if it does not cooperate.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has suggested that he would not stand in the way of an Israeli strike, while Obama administration officials have spent recent months in intensive talks with Israelis hoping to head off such a strike.
Indeed, Wasserman Schultz, in making the case for Obama’s Iran policy, repeated a talking point that distinguishes the Democratic position, which counsels military force as a last resort: She praised Obama for “making sure that all options are on the table, but making sure that the military option is the last, not the first, one.”
Once the Israel argument is out of the way, Forman counseled volunteers to sway undecided voters by talking about domestic policy, where Democrats believe they have a sharp advantage.
David Simas, the Obama campaign’s director of opinion research, outlined for the session how to incorporate one’s own story into campaigning. Simas, a rising star in the party, spoke of his own background as the child of penniless Portuguese immigrants who may have foundered had it not been for worker protections he suggested that Republicans would remove.
Wasserman Schultz cited her own personal story, noting her struggle with breast cancer a few years ago. Discovering a lump in her breast while showering, she said, “I realized I was one job loss away from being uninsured and uninsurable.” Now, with the passage of Obama’s health care reforms, she said she need no longer fear the prospect of insurers turning her down because she has a preexisting condition.
Volunteers at the session agreed that the Israel component was critical to swaying the undecideds among their friends.
Cynthia Johnson, 56, a publicist from Portland, Ore., said she attended because she was finding that some of her Jewish friends were wavering, particularly over the Israel issue.
“That was the one concern I wanted to be able to address,” said Johnson, who is not Jewish.
Steve Leibowitz, 55, an information technology professional from Cape Cod, Mass., said the Israel talking points would assist him in his social media interactions with Jewish friends, where he said he was likelier to encounter questions about Obama’s Israel policy than outright hostility.
Ellen Blaine, 52, a public health professional from Charlotte, said she needed tools to counter misconceptions about Obama’s relations with Jews and Israel.
“That’s what’s on top of people’s minds,” she said.
Blaine noted one success so far: Four years ago her mother, then 80, believed a sister in New York who assured her that Obama was a secret Muslim and voted for a Republican for the first time. Blaine said her mother, now disabused of that notion, was ready to vote Obama this year — but marveled at how such rumors spread among Jewish voters.
“My aunt was a schoolteacher!” she said. “We’re supposed to be an educated and engaged people.”