Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Barack Obama arrives at a rally at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla., on Thursday. Florida is a swing state, where both candidates have been courting the large population of Jewish voters.
Sen. Barack Obama arrives at a rally at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla., on Thursday. Florida is a swing state, where both candidates have been courting the large population of Jewish voters. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck/Getty Images
Sen. John McCain speaks at a campaign rally at Everglades Lumber in Miami on Wednesday.
Sen. John McCain speaks at a campaign rally at Everglades Lumber in Miami on Wednesday. Robyn Beck/Getty Images
There's almost no voter group in America that, by now, has not been courted by Barack Obama or John McCain, including a group that has traditionally voted overwhelmingly for Democrats — Jewish voters.
Particularly in the up-for-grabs state of Florida, Jews are receiving careful attention. Other than African-Americans, Jewish voters have been among the most reliable parts of the Democratic electoral coalition.
"For Jews, the 11th commandment is, 'Thou shall vote Democratic,' and that has not changed significantly since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the president of the United States," says Democratic strategist Hank Scheinkopf.
That may be true, but in the past two elections the Republicans have rattled the Democrats' lock on Jewish votes. In 2000, George W. Bush got only 19 percent of the Jewish vote. In 2004, he got 24 percent, and in a tight election little margins like that can make a big difference — especially in battleground states like Florida, where Jews are 5 percent of the electorate and turn out in high numbers.
Perceived Problems With Obama
Matt Brooks is the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. He says the Obama campaign realized early on that they had a problem with Jewish voters.
"They have put together the most expensive, the most extensive outreach effort I have ever seen a presidential campaign undertake — with full-time staff people on the ground and spending campaign money to advertise in the Jewish community because they realize they can't take that constituency for granted anymore," he says.
Obama had special problems with Jewish voters, who were hearing a lot about his church's affiliation with Louis Farrakhan; the false claim that he was a Muslim; and his reliance on pro-Palestinian advisers — an under-the-radar message that somehow Obama was bad for the Jews.
Mark Mellman is a Democratic pollster who has been observing Jewish voters. "On the Internet and on the tom-toms and in the discussions in synagogue pews, there's been this tremendous effort really to publicize these doubts and fan the flames of these doubts," he says.
The Republican Jewish Coalition is focusing its efforts on Obama's own now-famous promise to talk — without preconditions — with the leaders of Iran, a country that has promised to wipe Israel off the map. The group is running an ad that alleges that Obama is "naive" about foreign policy.
Obama has been working hard to get the Jewish vote, and not just at the grass roots. He made a high-profile trip to Israel, and he and his surrogates have held countless events with Jewish leaders.
In September, national polls showed Obama lagging behind past Democratic presidential candidates among Jews, but now the latest Gallup Poll shows Obama winning Jews nationally and in Florida by about 74-22. This is exactly what John Kerry got in 2004, but Kerry did not win Florida or the election, and Obama still has work to do.
Torn Between Obama And McCain
In Mo's Deli in suburban Miami, the huge warm pastrami sandwiches sail out of the kitchen adorned with pickles as long as the plates.
One of the diners there is David Mermelstein, a Holocaust survivor and McCain supporter.
"I know I could trust him with our security. We want to make sure that we wouldn't have another 9/11," he says.
Mermelstein does not trust Obama, and he has heard things that he does not like about Obama's friends.
"The preacher — we know what he said about America — and the guy from Chicago that I think is either going to jail or is in jail. There's a lot of others," he says.
For Jews in Florida who say that Israel is their No. 1 priority, McCain has a lot of appeal. But Paul Glassman shares the feelings of many Jewish voters, who were going to vote Republican until one thing changed their mind.
"I don't care for his vice presidential pick," he says. "I probably would have voted for McCain if he hadn't picked Palin as his running mate."
Sandy Puder is also voting for Obama, despite everything she has heard.
"I thought about him being a Muslim in the beginning," she says. "But I think I'd still rather have him. I'd rather take my chances. I think that McCain is a warmonger. I think we should be getting out of Iraq. The whole thing is horrible."
The actual number of voters, who, like Puder, are willing to take their chances with Obama may well determine the outcome of the race in swing states like Florida.