The Jewish vote and the Electoral College

By Martin Gottlieb

In the spinfest after the 2012 presidential election, Republican professionals have claimed significant gains among Jewish voters. Specifically, the Republican Jewish Coalition has eagerly put out the word that President Barack Obama got only 69 percent of the Jewish vote this time, compared to 78 percent last time.

But the very fact that the RJC is talking about national vote percentages reveals the truth — the organization failed where it counts: the Electoral College. To talk about popular vote percentages is to change the subject.

When people contributed big money to the anti-Obama effort, it wasn’t to move a few poll numbers to win bragging rights. It was to win an election. That meant focusing on the Electoral College. To be worth the money, the effort must be all about specific states.

For the Jewish Republican effort, those states must, of course, be swing states with lots of Jews. In other words, we’re talking about Florida, Ohio and maybe one or two other states. But mainly Florida.

Florida officially has about 640,000 Jews, a figure not designed to count “snowbirds” who don’t vote in Florida. It’s such a big number that if the state had gone Republican very marginally, the Jewish Republican forces would certainly have found a way to claim credit. But things went exactly wrong for the RJC: Obama won by so narrow a margin that the Jewish vote clearly provided it.  The margin was about 93,000 votes.

The RJC exit poll has Obama winning Florida Jews 66-30 percent. But let’s deal in round figures. If you figure that Jews went 70-30 for Obama, and you figure that about 500,000 Jews voted, they went 350,000 to 150,000 for Obama. That’s the overall victory margin with plenty of room to spare.

The 640,000 population figure includes children. But most Florida Jews are beyond their child-raising years; half are older than 65. Meanwhile, Jewish voting rates are high. So 500,000 voters is a reasonable round figure.

No other state was decided by a margin that can be attributed to Jews. The only battleground state to go Republican was North Carolina. It has only about 31,000 Jews, but Mitt Romney’s margin was 93,000.

Ohio was the second closest state to go for Obama, after Florida. However, Obama’s 161,000 vote margin here can hardly be attributed to the state’s 148,000 Jews.

Other states in which Jews were perhaps worth targeting by the Republicans:

• Pennsylvania. Obama’s margin was 284,000, which is smaller than the Jewish population of 295,000; but that’s population, not voters. And, of course, some voters went for Romney.

• Virginia. Jews number 97,000, and the state was much in doubt. But the eventual Obama margin was 143,000.

At any rate, if you were one of the Ohioans who received multiple Republican mailings trumpeting Jews who had voted for Obama in ‘08 but were planning to go with Romney, you can see why.

Where’d the money come from? Not all contributors must be identified to the government. But the Huffington Post reports that the bulk of the RJC’s $6.5 million budget came from Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire who reportedly spent $150 million during the year. All eight of the candidates with whom his name has been associated lost.

Whether the money did any good – even with the popular vote – is debatable. The RJC claims progress not only since 2008, but in the long-term. But the claims are based on polls, and polls are particularly fallible when there are few of them (as in this case) and when the categories being generalized about are small (as with Jews).

But let’s say the 69-percent figure is right. It would apparently be the lowest since 1988. From 1992-2008, the Democratic range was 76-80 percent, according to The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.

But that range was up from the previous period. In the 1980s, the Democratic percentages were 45, 67 and 64, in order, having come down from as high as 90 in 1964.

At any rate, one might have expected Obama to have special problems with Jews this year. The challenging candidate tried hard to make Israel an issue, unlike in some elections.

And Obama didn’t rebut the criticism of his record on Israel, at least in the debates. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to many to be expressing a preference for Romney.

But all of that makes the failure of the money spenders — especially in Florida — all the more striking. They saw an opportunity and failed to capitalize on it in any meaningful way.

Martin Gottlieb is a retired columnist and editorial writer. He lives in Dayton.

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