WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – In March, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat side by side in the White House. It was an important meeting between the two, having discussed the prospect of Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons. The two were seemingly on the same page.
“The bond between our two countries is unbreakable,” Obama said at the time. He added later: “The United States will always have Israel’s back.”
Later in the conference, Netanyahu would turn to his left and thank the president.
“My supreme responsibility as Prime Minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate,” he said.
The meeting was considered one of the warmer moments during Israel’s relationship with the Obama Administration, which has been described in the past four years by political insiders as cool and strained. Deep concerns from some American Jews and Israelis concerning the likelihood of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon have been laced with doubts about the Obama Administration taking enough initiative to keep Israel and Iran from engaging in military action.
Skepticism from some American Jewish voters has provided an underlying question of what role the Obama Administration’s evolving relationship with Netanyahu could ultimately play in flipping Jewish voters to Mitt Romney for the general election. For now, that remains a large challenge for Romney. Romney may be unable to capitalize enough on the cool nature of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship to make a dent in any swing states where Jewish voters make a difference, such as Florida, said Kenneth Wald, a political science professor who focuses on Jewish voting patterns at the University of Florida.
“While there may be some shifting and decline in voting for the Democrats, I don’t think Israel will have a lot to do with that,” Wald told CBSDC. “The reason they don’t vote because of Israel is that they don’t see a substantial difference between the two parties on America’s Israel policy. The kinds of things that Romney and the Republican right has been talking about has involved moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Frankly, that’s an issue that U.S. Jews don’t care about it.”
A study of American Jewish voters indicates the opposite of initial fears with Obama at least maintaining his 2008 Jewish voter numbers, signaling a similar run at the Jewish electorate that he had in his win against Sen. John McCain. Though recent polling numbers from the Public Religion Research Institute found that Obama was on pace to receive 62 percent of the Jewish vote in November, a considerable drop from the 78 percent he garnered in 2008, Wald told CBSDC that new numbers he analyzed suggest that Obama should expect the votes of almost 75 percent of Jewish voters in the general election.
For Romney, there’s just one swing state where the Jewish vote could help ascend him to the Oval Office: Florida. The Sunshine State has helped decide the last four presidential elections, as the candidate who has won the state has gone on to win the White House.
“The estimate in Florida is that Jews may be 4 percent of the Florida electorate,” Wald said. “It may be the only swing-state where Jews represent a large number of the vote.”
If recent history is any indication, Romney, like other Republican presidential nominees not named Ronald Reagan, will have an uphill climb against past Jewish voting trends if he hopes to make any dent in the Democrats’ hold on the population. Since Ronald Reagan earned 39 percent of the Jewish vote in his 1980 win against Jimmy Carter, the GOP’s Jewish numbers for the general election have been a roller-coaster – from George H.W. Bush going from 35 percent in 1988 to 11 percent in 1992 and George W. Bush bringing the number back up to 24 percent in 2004 to John McCain plateauing at 22 percent four years later. In fact, the only GOP presidential candidate to score 40 percent of the vote since 1920 is Dwight Eisenhower during his reelection bid in 1956.
While playing off the strained U.S.-Israel relations during the Obama Administration, Romney could very well need to bring the conversation back to the economy if he envisions bringing in more Jewish voters. A recent American Jewish Committee survey found that 80 percent of American Jews polled ranked the economy as the most important factor in their voting trends. If that’s the case, the economy’s rebound must turn flat before the general election, thus strengthening the presumptive GOP nominee’s view on the economy’s future.
“If Romney is to do that, the economy has to go down deeply because, fundamentally, that’s what’s going to drive Jewish votes,” Wald said. “And he would kind of have to soft-peddle on some of his economic policies. If [Romney’s] Jewish vote goes up appreciably and say Obama’s vote goes down from 74 [percent] to 64 [percent], I think the state of economy has to go bad.”