Friday, February 23, 2018
Politics

As Mitt Romney pursues must-win Florida, Jewish vote is key target

As sure as the TV ads start blitzing the I-4 corridor every presidential election, so does the chatter that Democrats have a Jewish voter problem that could deliver Florida to the GOP.

"The Jewish vote definitely is moving toward Mitt Romney," said St. Petersburg developer Mel Sembler, a top Republican fundraiser whom Romney invited to join him in Israel on Sunday. "I've had so many people tell me that they've always voted Democrat and they just can't bring themselves to vote for (Barack) Obama."

These predictions are nothing new. Republicans aggressively targeted Jewish voters in 2004, when exit polls found John Kerry won 75 percent of that vote. Same in 2008, when Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote. A Republican nominee hasn't cracked 25 percent in Florida since 1988.

"Obama got 78 percent last time, and the chance of him equaling that number is simply nonexistent," said Palm Beach County Republican chairman Sid Dinerstein, predicting Obama will win slightly more than 60 percent in November. "And if he gets in the low 60s, then I will tell you Florida is not really in play."

Jewish voters have long had an outsized influence in Florida politics through fundraising and activism relative to their sheer number of votes. Exit polls found that Jewish voters accounted for 4 percent of the Florida electorate in 2008, though some experts believe it could be as much as 7 percent.

Florida is a state renowned for close elections — Obama won by less than 3 percentage points four years ago — and in a tight race, simply slicing into Obama's margin of victory among Jewish voters could be enough to tilt the state to Romney. That's crucial, given it's close to impossible for Romney to win the presidency without Florida.

And if Obama receives only 68 percent of Florida's Jewish vote, which is what a recent Gallup poll showed him earning nationally, it could mean 20,000 fewer Florida votes than he received in 2008.

"Every vote that we move away from the Democrats makes it more and more challenging ultimately for them to win," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is mounting an unprecedented $6.5 million campaign targeting Jewish voters in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The group's board includes Sembler and Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has pledged to spend up to $100 million helping Romney

Disenchantment over the economy, as well as suggestions that Obama has not been a strong enough ally of Israel, are the main attack points.

"A couple months ago, there seemed to be an opportunity for Romney to peel away Jewish voters,'' said Diane Glasser, a Jewish Democratic activist in Broward County, noting that many voters in South Florida were receiving emails noting that Obama had visited Cairo but not Israel and that he was bad for Israel.

Democrats have pushed back hard. In recent months, Democratic National Committee chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, White House chief of staff Jack Lew and Vice President Joe Biden have visited South Florida and highlighted the administration's strong relationship with Israel.

Romney softened his tone while abroad, but he previously said Obama "threw Israel under the bus" for saying Israel should return to its 1967 borders as a starting point for peace talks, a long held, but rarely stated, position by the United States. He has accused Obama of expecting too many concessions by Israel to the Palestinians and being too weak on the nuclear threat from Iran.

"There is no credible way to attack Barack Obama on the security of Israel or the security of America. This is the guy who went in and took out Osama bin Laden, and this is the guy who in three years took out two-thirds of the leadership of al-Qaida," said former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Palm Beach County.

"On all aspects of security, military and intelligence, President Obama has been the strongest president for Israel since Harry Truman — and that's an objective fact,'' said Wexler, a beloved figure to many Jewish voters, noting that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday told CNN the Obama administration had done "more than anything that I can remember in the past" in terms of Israeli security.

Still, fueling disenchantment with Obama among Jewish voters is easier than persuading large numbers to vote Republican.

"A lot of people are upset with the president, but I'll still vote for him," said Bernard Witkin, a 63-year-old Jewish voter with no party affiliation who lives in Century Village in Pembroke Pines.

"I just don't trust the right-wing agenda. And we definitely don't agree with the Republicans on social issues."

Jews have long been an overwhelmingly Democratic voting bloc. A study released this month by the Solomon Project noted that since 1984, Jewish support for Democratic candidates has been 21 percent to 34 percent higher than support from the overall national electorate.

That's why Romney's high-profile visit to Israel over the weekend may have been less about courting Jewish voters than about reassuring evangelicals, who tend to be passionate about Israel and were skeptical about Romney in the GOP primaries, said Kenneth Wald, a University of Florida political scientist and author of Religion and Politics in the United States.

Nor does Wald see Romney making deep inroads by questioning Obama's commitment to Israel: "The disproportionate share of those who tell pollsters that Israel is their core issue tend to be the most religious and conservative elements, and frankly they didn't support Barack Obama four years ago."

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]

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