by Jacob Kamaras
JointMedia News Service
With Newt Gingrich gaining ground on frontrunner Mitt Romney, the stage is set for a crucial Jan. 31 Republican presidential primary in Florida. By playing a significant role in that day’s outcome, the state’s large Jewish population might set the tone for the rest of the GOP race.
About 638,000 Jews call Florida home, according to the December 2011 figures from the Jewish Virtual Library – in stark contrast to the relatively small Jewish communities in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, states that have held primaries and caucuses so far.
Up until 2004, Florida held its presidential primaries in March. Now, with an earlier contest – open only to Republican voters – an active Jewish electorate should wield significant influence, said Dr. Terri Susan Fine, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.
If a primary is early in the calendar, Fine explained in an interview with JointMedia News Service, that means voters still have a choice of candidates – which is the case in Florida despite the dropouts of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Herman Cain. Fine said voters in early primaries “end up impacting the choice for the rest of the nation, because if [a candidate] drops out because they don’t do well in your state, or if they do very well in your state … the media presents you as if you’re the winner.” With a later primary in previous election years, some names on the Florida ballot were those of candidates who had already dropped out, meaning “the whole tenor of the campaign changed by the time it got to Florida,” Fine said.
The fact that Florida’s primary is closed to voters outside the Republican party means a low voter turnout is likely, which Fine said magnifies the importance of the Jewish population.
“High-turnout groups within a low-turnout electoral environment are going to be very impactful, and Jews demonstrate not only the highest voter turnout compared with any other religion, but at the same time you’re also talking about the fact that the candidates’ recognize this,” Fine said. “So, we see some ways in which the candidates are differentiating themselves from one another, and also distinguishing themselves from President Obama in order to secure that vote from among Jewish voters, particularly in Florida.”
Herb Swarzman, a private citizen and chair of the Florida-Israel Institute, told JointMedia News Service that there is a “great deal” of local interest in Florida regarding the presidential election “because of a general feeling amongst those who do contribute to political campaigns that Israel has not been treated well by this administration.” Jews for whom Israel is an important issue “want to participate to whatever extent they can in the Republican primaries so that they can defeat Barack Obama.”
Swarzman added that “there also is great concern amongst those who are actively involved, for those who read about the issues every day, for those who really care about the possible terrorist threat both in Israel and America, that the United States government is not dealing properly with Iran … and they are looking for a candidate who will be much more aggressive towards the Iranian attempts to create nuclear power.”
However, besides for voters concerned with Obama’s Israel policies, Rabbi David Steinhardt – leader of B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton and Jewish Community Relations Council chair for the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County – told JointMedia News Service that he sees a “growing realization among many in the Jewish community that the early portrayal of President Obama not being a friend of Israel has been changing.”
Following Gingrich’s surprise 12-point victory over Romney in South Carolina, a new Rasmussen Report poll shows the former Speaker of the House garnering 41 percent support among likely Florida GOP primary voters, with 32 percent backing Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and winner of the New Hampshire primary. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who edged Romney in the Iowa caucus, and Texas congressman Ron Paul also remain in the race.
Swarzman said he is supporting Gingrich because he “was the most pro-Israel Speaker in the history of this country and I think that he will declare Jerusalem as the undivided capitol of Israel no matter what the State Department or the Arab countries say, if he becomes the president.”
Steinhardt said his “subjective reading” of the perception of the Republican primary in Florida “is one of disappointment.”
“By in large, I sense that the community feels that the Republican candidates don’t reflect the stature or the vision that they’re looking for in a president of the United States,” he said.
Steinhardt also believes “that the press has sold the Jewish community short, in that the Jewish community is not just a one-issue voting bloc anymore, and I don’t know if it ever was, but maybe we tend to think of it that way.”
“Jews are very concerned about healthcare, and very concerned about social policy, and very concerned about issues of war and peace and national defense and Israel,” he said. “Those are all on the agenda of engaged Jews who are politically aware and somewhat active in the process – certainly active in the conversation.”
With the highest percentage of elderly residents compared to any other state, issues such as Medicare, Social Security and healthcare are critical for Jewish voters in Florida, Swarzman and Steinhardt agreed.
The older nature of Florida’s Jewish voter base has another political impact, according to Fine. She said scholars have found that members of Congress born after 1950 take a different position on Israel than those born before 1950. This is attributed to memories of the Holocaust and World War II, and memories relating to the formation of the state of Israel, Fine explained.
“So, if you didn’t have that experience in your lifetime, or if you had the experience but don’t remember it, then that has an impact on your overall political socialization and that impacts how you function in Congress,” Fine said. “We found, for example, that older members of Congress had to be far more for one state of Israel, pro-Israel, but the other members of Congress are more likely to be more liberal when it comes to the notion of Palestinian rights and the right or return of Palestinians and those kinds of things.”
Looking ahead to the general election, one can easily remember 2000, when George W. Bush’s historically narrow victory over Al Gore in Florida – amid a recount of the vote and a Supreme Court ruling in his favor – essentially decided the presidency. Fine said Florida could have an even greater impact on the 2012 election because the state’s number of electoral votes has increased from 27 to 29, exceeding 10 percent of the total electoral votes a candidate needs to win.
With Florida’s “winner take all” system within the Electoral College, all a candidate needs is one more vote than the closest competitor to gain all 29 electoral votes – and that’s why the Jewish vote matters, said Dr. Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies at the University of Miami.
In close presidential elections, which are usually won by a margin of about 52 percent to 48 percent, candidates are fighting for small percentages and need to appeal to every vote they can get, Sheskin told JointMedia News Service. Although Florida’s Jews amount to 3.7 percent of the state’s total population, well over 90 percent of Jews are registered to vote – meaning they represent a more statistically significant 6-8 percent of Florida’s electorate, Sheskin said, adding that Jews are more likely to vote than other groups.
“[Florida is] very significant because the Jewish population is large here, and Florida is a significant state because of the Electoral College,” said Steinhardt, “so obviously there’s great importance to the Jewish vote here.”
With reporting from Masha Rifkin