November 8, 2012 6:31 pm

Democrats retain support of Jewish voters

As if the deluge on television were not enough, for the last month drivers in Florida’s Palm Beach county have also been inundated with roadside negative advertising. One billboard screamed: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Get Nuked – Stop Obama”. And in case there was any doubt about the target voters, beside the caption was a map of Israel.

One of the more interesting subplots of this week’s US election was the huge effort made by the Republican party to chip away at the Democrats’ hold on Jewish voters, who represent a small but significant slice of the electorate in crucial Florida and Ohio.

The billboard was part of a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz to persuade Jewish voters that President Barack Obama was unsympathetic to Israel. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, also appeared to get a helpful nudge from Israel. Over the summer, he made a much-publicised visit to Jerusalem, where he was met warmly by Benjamin Netanyahu. An old friend, of Mr Romney, the Israeli prime minister has enjoyed a famously tense relationship with Mr Obama.

Yet the effort appears to have fallen flat. According to exit polls, Mr Obama won about 70 per cent of the Jewish vote, only just down from the 74 per cent he won in 2008. He also carried Ohio and looks likely to have won Florida.

The Republicans’ open use of Israel in the election and Mr Netanyahu’s apparent willingness to play along raises questions about the long-term support for Israel in the US and how Mr Obama will approach relations in his second term. By becoming a bitter election issue, Israel risks “slow-motion political suicide”, says Alon Pinkas, a former adviser to Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister.

Liberal bent helps Obama

President Barack Obama’s strong support from Jewish voters this week ends three decades of unsuccessful Republican efforts to make inroads into a voting bloc that plays an outsized role in Florida and Ohio, writes Geoff Dyer.

Jimmy Carter, the most pro-Palestinian of recent American politicians, was the only Democratic presidential candidate since the foundation of Israel not to secure a majority of the Jewish vote, winning only 45 per cent in 1980, compared with 39 per cent for Ronald Reagan.

Republican strategists speculated in the 1980s that as the Jewish community became more affluent and successful, it might start to drift away from its close attachment to the Democrats.

After President George H. W. Bush took a tough line with the Israeli government over settlements, his support among Jewish voters fell to a low of 11 per cent in 1992.

Like most other voters, polls show that economic issues rather than identity are the most important factors for Jewish voters. Moreover, the strong liberal bent among American Jews has kept them as reliable supporters of the Democrats.

Even the aggressive advertising about Mr Obama’s approach to Iran made little headway, according to exit polls on Tuesday.

The issue has already rebounded on Mr Netanyahu, who faces his own general election in January and is coming under attack for damaging ties with the US. Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister and one of Mr Netanyahu’s political opponents, said during a visit to the US this week: “This represents a significant breach of the basic rules governing ties between nations.” Thursday’s headline in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth blared: “Netanyahu Gambled, We Will Pay”.

Mr Netanyahu accused his critics on Thursday of “trying to stir things up between us and the US”. He added: “The alliance between Israel and the US is strong.”

Mr Obama’s victory will give him more flexibility in how he approaches talks with Iran over its nuclear programme, which has been one of the main bones of contention between the two leaders. It is also possible that he might decide to follow Bill Clinton, the former US president, and make the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians one of his central second-term goals, which would greatly frustrate Mr Netanyahu.

However, while he maintained strong support among Jewish voters, Mr Obama will think long and hard before putting heavy public pressure on the Israeli government over the peace process and over settlements. Israel remains extremely popular among members of Congress from both parties. Aipac, the largest pro-Israel lobby group, put out two statements on Wednesday: one congratulating Mr Obama and one welcoming the election of a “solidly pro-Israel Congress”.

As he considers his options over the peace process, Mr Obama is at least likely to wait until after Israel’s election, when he will have a stronger idea of the kind of partner he might expect.

Even if little will change quickly in the US-Israel relationship, this week’s results do indicate that future candidates will not try to pander so much to Jewish voters. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, another pro-Israel lobby group, tweeted on Wednesday: “After all the millions, all the fuss, Jewish vote didn’t move from Obama. Can myth of the Israel-centered Jewish voter be put to rest?”

In depth

US elections 2012

staff fixes the presidential seal before US President Barack Obama gives a press conference

President Barack Obama defeats Mitt Romney to win a second term in office

Despite the barrage of Israel-related advertising, the polls showed that Jewish voters were mostly concerned about economic and social issues, with Israel and Iran lesser concerns.

This was powerfully demonstrated in the Ohio senate race, where the Republican candidate, Josh Mandel, came from a well-known Cleveland Jewish family and made a big play over his strong support for Israel. A week before the election, a group of his in-laws took out an advertisement in the Cleveland Jewish News to criticise his opposition to gay marriage.

“Your cousins, Ellen Ratner and Cholene Espinoza, are among the many wonderful couples whose rights you do not recognise,” they wrote, in one of the most stinging personal attacks of the entire election season. “Your discriminatory stance violates these core values of our family.”

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