Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his vice-presidential running mate was either a political game changer that will galvanize the Republican base and shift the focus of this year’s election to economic policy — or an act of desperation by a presumptive presidential nominee who has yet to connect with average voters.
In the wake of Saturday’s dramatic announcement, commentators have argued both positions. But it’s hard to find analysts who believe Ryan’s choice will be a plus for Romney’s aggressive and expensive Jewish outreach effort.
Current polls suggest the Nov. 6 election is too close to call, but the general outlines of the Jewish vote have never been in doubt, with President Barack Obama likely to get a sizable majority; the only question is just how sizable.
That doesn’t mean there is nothing at stake as the presidential candidates and their supporters expand their Jewish outreach with aggressive ads, hard-edged videos meant to go viral and boots-on-the ground efforts in key states.
Here are five points to consider as the Jewish campaigns ratchet up.
It’s not about Israel — but maybe it is.
Or, to put it another way, it’s about money, not votes.
Polls invariably confirm what close observers of Jewish politics have said for years: while the Republicans bludgeon the Democrats on the issue and the Democrats play tough defense, for most Jewish voters Israel is a peripheral issue, at best.
This year, with the economic recovery on the verge of stalling and foreign policy mostly off the political radar, there’s less reason than ever to believe that Jewish voters will make their decisions based on Obama’s record on Israel or Romney’s tough but unfocused criticisms.
So why are Jewish Republicans spending millions portraying Obama as a threat to the Jewish state?
The reason is money. While Jewish voting isn’t very Israel-focused, Jewish campaign giving is — and especially the mega-giving that is playing a bigger role than ever in Election 2012. Tarring Obama as anti-Israel, while not influencing many Jewish votes, galvanizes the growing base of wealthy pro-Israel givers and provides a platform for their generally hard-line views, one more front in the internal Jewish debate over Israel’s future.
Jewish Republicans aren’t indifferent to the possibility of picking up some extra Jewish votes, especially in critical states like Florida, but few are naive enough to believe there’s a chance of winning over enough to make a real difference in the final vote tally. Jewish votes — a drop in the huge electoral bucket — are much less important than Israel-focused campaign cash.
Democrats scoff at Republican claims that the GOP is gaining traction in the Jewish community. But the claim is correct — if all-important campaign funding is the benchmark.
It’s the economy, stupid — again.
Which brings us to the one issue that could help the Republicans make modest Jewish gains: a shaky economic recovery that has yet to improve the lives of countless Americans battered by the Great Recession.
On Election Day, Jewish swing voters — maybe 5-10 percent of the total — are more likely to feel a tug toward the Republican side if today’s weak economic recovery shows signs of faltering.
Obama argues that he inherited a wreck of an economy and has succeeded in preventing a complete meltdown, and there is merit to the claim. But that was then; many Americans, including many Jews, haven’t seen their own economic prospects improve.
Yes, it’s not the president’s fault alone that the economy is stuck. Congressional Republicans haven’t given his legislative proposals much of a chance, and in some cases have engaged in blatant partisan obstructionism. But it’s an axiom of American politics that the party that holds the White House tends to get the lion’s share of the economic blame.
A Romney campaign that offers detailed, realistic proposals beyond the usual GOP mantra of tax cuts and deregulation will likely have more of an impact on Jewish swing voters than the battering-ram attacks on Obama’s Israel policies.
A more thoroughly articulated economic platform by Obama might just as easily keep Jewish defections to a minimum. And a Romney campaign that shifts toward Tea Party economics — something that became more likely with the selection of Ryan as Romney’s vice presidential running mate — could drive the Republican’s Jewish take down below the 2008 level.
The Paul Ryan factor
Most political scientists who study the Jewish community believe Sen. John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin in 2008 was a significant factor in boosting Obama to a 73-plus percent showing among Jewish voters (the latest polls have the president in the 68-69 percent range with Jews).
Ryan is no Palin; he is a serious, seven-term legislator and the chair of the House Budget Committee. But he’ll hardly be a plus for the Republican ticket among Jewish voters, and the Democrats will do their best to turn him into a big minus.
Polls show that Jews remain strongly committed to Medicare and a host of other government programs serving the elderly and the needy. Social Security is close to sacred to an aging Jewish population.
Ryan, a vehement fiscal conservative cheered on by the Tea Party faction, will be tarred as a dire threat to those programs. The Democrats are already unveiling ads claiming the Romney-Ryan ticket will “end Medicare as we know it,” and you can bet they will be aired frequently in the big Jewish markets like New York and Florida.
The conventional political wisdom holds that Ryan was selected to shore up Romney’s tepid support from the party’s right flank. The better he does that job, the worse the ticket is likely to fare with centrist Jewish voters.
Orthodox Jews have been edging into the Republican camp in recent years, with Israel policy and some “values” issues being the engine behind that change. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues in 2012 in the face of Democratic charges that a Romney-Ryan victory would destroy health and social services that many in that community depend on.
Ryan’s lack of foreign policy experience, matching Romney’s, is unlikely to be much of an issue in a year when international issues are political afterthoughts, if that.
Obama’s real Jewish problem?
No, it’s not Israel and it’s not an Orthodox electorate that is turning increasingly Republican — a shift that could spell long-term trouble for the Democrats but which has yet to really impact national elections. It might just be Jewish progressives unhappy with what many see as the president’s timid approach to dealing with the root causes of the 2008 financial crisis, his cautious environmental policies and his stewardship of an Afghanistan war that he pursued at great cost but with little indication of success.
This year’s election, even more than most, will hinge on the ability of both major parties to energize their bases and get them to the polls in huge numbers.
Romney took a major step in that direction last week when he named Ryan as his running mate.
A big part of Obama’s base consists of liberal Democrats, a group that draws disproportionately from the Jewish electorate. Polling data is scant, but away from the bubble of New York’s Jewish activist community it’s not hard to find Jewish liberals who are talking about Green Party nominee Jill Stein — who is Jewish — or thinking about registering their displeasure by simply staying home on Nov. 6.
Will fear of the GOP’s budget priorities and views on the role of government scare those frustrated liberals back to the Democratic fold? You can bet the Obama campaign will do its best to stoke that fear.
Jewish women could be key to the Democrats’ Jewish outreach.
Romney continues to face a significant gender gap, with polls showing women far less enthusiastic about his candidacy than men, and Democratic strategists believe the gap will be particularly wide — and hard for the GOP to narrow — among Jewish women.
Because he needs the GOP Evangelical base to turn out in force in November, Romney has little wiggle room when it comes to issues such as abortion and gay rights. The whole issue of equal opportunity is a political minefield for a GOP ticket that can’t afford to offend the conservative base.
Those are all issues that have a special resonance among Jewish women. Democratic strategists I’ve talked to in recent months say that will be a special focus of their on-the-ground efforts in the Jewish community.
The pitch will be this: do you want abortion rights curtailed, and do you want to empower religious conservatives in Congress who want to go even further? The Democrats have already started distributing video clips from the primaries, when Romney and his GOP rivals were playing to the party’s most conservative factions.
The bottom line: Jewish voting in the 2012 presidential contest is unlikely to be dramatically different from 2008. A sizable Romney win will undoubtedly be reflected in higher Jewish numbers, but still a strong majority will still vote Democratic. A big Obama win will almost certainly include an overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote. Ryan’s selection won’t help, and could possibly hurt, the GOP Jewish outreach effort.
But pro-Israel campaign money will be more important than ever in campaigns that will again shatter all spending records. Here the Republicans are making major inroads that will continue to bedevil the Democrats in elections to come.
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