The stakes are huge. The battle for the hearts and minds of Jewish voters in Broward and Palm Beach counties could affect the outcome of next year’s presidential election. Beyond 2012, any erosion of Jewish voters’ loyalty to the Democratic Party could change the region’s political landscape.
Experts said Obama could lose as much as a quarter of the Jewish vote in South Florida. That could prove critical in a closely contested state like Florida, which will award 29 of the 270 votes needed to win the presidency. Political party leaders and political scientists said it’s impossible for Obama to win the state if he doesn’t do well with Jewish voters in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Ring said he can see Republican inroads at the Reform synagogue where he worships, Congregation Kol Tikvah, in Parkland. Home to many young families, it’s not monolithically Democratic. Ring said freshman U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Plantation, has many fans in the congregation.
Jews aren’t fleeing the Democratic Party en masse and embracing the Republicans. Activists in both parties and academics who’ve studied Jewish life and politics said the shift is more subtle. Some are registering as Republicans, some are becoming independent, no party affiliation voters, and others are remaining Democrats and flirting with the idea of voting for Republicans.
Jewish politicians, activists and political scientists said age and spiritual alignment are factors.
The generation of Jewish voters whose political views were shaped in the middle of the last century and defined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt is dying. And younger people no longer have the same allegiance to the Democratic Party as their parents, and especially their grandparents.
“They’re not going to be the kind of people who, by the time they turn 80 years old, will be able to tell their children and grandchildren that they’ve voted for the same party their entire lives,” Ring said.
Chayim Dimont, 39, came from a Democratic household and was one himself for a while. He said he’s now a Republican, but said he votes based on specific candidates and issues rather than party. And Eli Rothschild, 22, of Boca Raton, is starting at Nova Southeastern University law school in the fall. He’s registered as an independent, no party affiliation voter – and said he could see himself becoming a Republican some day.
Voter registrations don’t show religious affiliation, but Ira Sheskin, of Cooper City, a University of Miami geography professor who specializes in Jewish demographics, said younger people are somewhat more likely to register as Republicans or no party affiliation voters. Sheskin has conducted extensive surveys of Jewish population centers across the country and studied overall demographic trends.
Sheskin, Martin Sweet, a former Florida Atlantic University Honors College political scientist who now teaches American politics at Northwestern University, and Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue, said religiously conservative Jews are more inclined to vote Republican. Conservative and Reform Jews still lean Democratic, they said, but the Orthodox – the small but fastest growing branch – is much more Republican.
Hoping to capitalize on the trends, Republicans are aggressively courting the Jewish vote. In Palm Beach County, Edith Klein regularly attends meetings of the local chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition. In the overwhelmingly Jewish Wynmoor Village condominium community in Coconut Creek, Sidney Feldman founded a Republican Club. And last month, the Broward Republican Party launched a Jewish Outreach Committee.
Dinerstein said more people are feeling free to declare their Republicanism. “In the communities that are heavily Jewish, the people are less afraid to speak.”
As the Democratic allegiance softens, local and national Republicans are attempting to sow discontent about Obama’s stand on Israel, especially since the president’s May 19 speech in which he said talks with Palestinians should begin with Israel's borders as they stood before the 1967 war, with land swaps to reflect population changes since then.
“He uttered a few words – ‘67 borders, land swaps – and fireworks went off,” stoking a feeling among some Jews that Obama isn’t as supportive of Israel as they’d like, Goldberg said. “While there is no specific, incident, issue or policy that is cause of panic, the trend and the messaging coming from the administration have been troubling for many.”
Sweet and Sheskin said Israel isn’t the most critical issue for Jewish voters. As long as people are satisfied a candidate supports Israel, Jews will vote based on the same issues as everyone else. The No. 1 issue today: the economy.
Sheskin and Sweet, along with Democrats and Republicans, said Obama received an estimated 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. His overall percentage of the vote was 54 percent.
Analysts across the political spectrum said Obama won’t capture that much of the Jewish vote in 2012.
Dinerstein predicted a major falloff, though he concedes Obama will get more than 50 percent of the Jewish vote. Palm Beach county Democratic activist Joe Blumenthal said Obama could still get 65 percent.
Blumenthal said the presidential re-election effort will have to redouble its efforts in the Jewish community in 2012. “There are 600,000 Jews in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. If you want to win the election, wake up and take us seriously.”