GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Every four years, each presidential nominee works to outdo the other when it comes to his credentials on Israel. It's no different this time. Today, Mitt Romney is in Israel, where he tried to draw a distinction with President Obama by saying he would respect an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
MITT ROMNEY: And it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel's right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you.
RAZ: Just two days ago, President Obama, apparently feeling some heat over a perception among some that he isn't sufficiently pro-Israel, decided to hold a televised signing ceremony at the White House - a rare event usually granted for major pieces of legislation. But this was for a relatively minor bill, the annual bill that provides U.S. military aid to Israel.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And in many ways, what this legislation does is bring together all the outstanding cooperation that we have seen - really, at an unprecedented level - between our two countries, to underscore our unshakable commitment to Israel's security.
RAZ: In previous weeks on this program, we've been taking a look at different groups of voters - for example, women and Latinos - and how the two campaigns are going after their votes. In a few weeks, we'll explore outreach to Asian-American voters. But today, we're going to focus on the so-called pro-Israel voter - Jews and evangelicals - and most importantly, how much of that vote really matters. Our cover story today: why Republicans and Democrats are spending lots of time - and money - trying to win over the pro-Israel vote.
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RAZ: Jewish Americans make up about 4 percent of the electorate, a small number. And ever since Al Smith ran for president in 1928, Democrats have, on average, won 75 percent of the Jewish vote. In 2008, nearly 80 percent of them backed Obama. So why the competition to get their votes? Well, because of a few key battleground states, where some of those votes could make the difference - places like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida.
And that's why so many groups, including the Republican Jewish Coalition, are spending millions for those few votes. Here's Matthew Brooks, the director of the RJC.
MATTHEW BROOKS: Well, I will tell you the difference between 19 percent of the Jewish vote, which is what George W. Bush got in 2000, and 24 or 25 percent, which is what he got in 2004, was - you know, he won Florida by 537 votes in 2000. So a shift of the Jewish vote when there's 600,000 Jews, in a place like Florida, could have a very significant impact in a close election.
RAZ: This week, the group launched the first in a series of ads that feature Jewish voters who claim to have backed President Obama in 2008, but now say they're switching primarily because, they argue, President Obama hasn't been supportive of Israel.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I think in the second term, we're going to see the real Barack Obama. The real Barack Obama is not going to have any politics to deal with, any voters to deal with. I think he's going to change the game, when it comes to Israel. He's going to place Israel in a position where they're in danger.
RAZ: The RJC plans to spend $6.5 million this campaign season to unseat President Obama, a campaign financed largely by the billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate who's pledged $100 million to anti-Obama superPACs. But is the RJC campaign going to make a difference? Here's Matthew Brooks again.
BROOKS: I concede that a majority of the Jewish voters will support Obama in 2012. But what I won't concede is the fact that the Republicans have consistently, and unmistakably, increased their market share among Jewish voters in four out of the last five national elections. If you go back to 1992, we got 11 percent of the Jewish vote. In 1996, we got 16 percent of the Jewish vote. In 2000 with George W. Bush, we got 19 percent of the Jewish vote. And in 2004, we got 24 or 25 percent of the Jewish vote, depending on what exit poll you use.
Now, granted, in 2008 when Republicans were washed out across the board, we lost a couple points. But we only went down to 22 percent of the Jewish vote. So Republicans have been making clear inroads in the Jewish community. And I fully expect not only will we do so in 2012, but we'll do so in a real serious way.
RAZ: A Gallup poll of Jewish voters, released on Friday, could be encouraging for Romney, Twenty-five percent say they'll back him. Now, in its annual survey, the American Jewish Committee found that just a fifth of Jewish voters cited U.S.-Israel relations as a top priority, when it comes to picking a candidate.
PETER BEINART: To read the media, you would often think that Israel is the defining political issue for American Jews. It's really not.
RAZ: That's Peter Beinart, the editor of Open Zion, a blog about Israel and Palestine featured on The Daily Beast.
BEINART: American Jews tend to vote like everybody else, on things like the economy. And American Jews are very liberal in general, especially non-orthodox American Jews, on cultural issues like abortion. If an American president were considered to be truly hostile to Israel, maybe that would be overriding. But I think most elections feature candidates who most American Jews consider to be good enough on Israel, and then they tend to vote on other issues.
RAZ: So if Israel is not that important, why, every four years, do the major-party candidates seem to pander to various constituencies - let's say Jews and evangelicals, and others - on this question of Israel?
BEINART: To be fair, presidential candidates pander to all kinds of different groups, on all kinds of different issues. It's just that Jews tend to notice the pandering to them more. Jews also are overrepresented in financing presidential campaigns, especially - political campaigns in general, especially in the Democratic Party. It's really no secret, the Democratic Party has relied very heavily, for many years, on the donations of American Jews. And so I think that Jews can wield disproportionate influence, given their role in funding presidential campaigns in addition to their vote.
And in a state like Florida, for instance, which is a swing state, even if you're only going to move a small number of American Jews on the Israel question, you still want to do everything you can given that as we saw in 2000, these elections can be decided by very small margins.
RAZ: And as Peter Beinart mentioned, Florida is one of those places where the two candidates are focusing much of their attention. And so we sent a local producer, Shannon Novak, to a popular lunch spot near Miami, to gauge some of those Jewish voters.
SHANNON NOVAK, BYLINE: OK. We're at Mo's Bagel and Deli in Aventura, Florida. What's the best thing to eat here, Mo?
MO: The best things to eat? The tuna salad.
NOVAK: Tuna salad?
MO: Tuna salad is the best.
RAZ: Everyone we heard from, at Mo's, is Jewish. And we asked whether Mitt Romney's visit to Israel this weekend, could be enough to get their votes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Nope.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Not at all.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It definitely makes me more interested.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Absolutely.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Absolutely not.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Well, Israel is the center of all their universe, I would say, especially in today's world.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: He's doing it basically because it's the - we're going to be voting, and it's going to look good on his - for his campaign, but it's not going to change my mind.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I would vote for anyone but Obama. And I'm not voting because he went to Israel. I'm voting for him because he's the right man for the job.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Romney has a longstanding relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I know that he will be, unequivocally, a pro-Israel president should he be elected.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Most presidential candidates try to make a trip to Israel, and I feel like it's not really out of the ordinary.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: More likely to vote for him? Of course. Why? Because I'm Jewish.
RAZ: By all accounts, President Obama has continued America's strong backing for Israel. He's increased military ties, even military aid. Yet some Jewish voters say he isn't supportive enough. At Mo's Deli, for example, they cited his tense relationship with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu; and his call, back in 2009, for Israel to halt settlement-building in the occupied West Bank.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: I was very disappointed in him when the prime minister of Israel came, and he - I never saw him at the White House. So I was very disappointed in the president.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: The announcement that he made a couple years ago, that Israel should return to its, you know, pre-1967 borders, did not sit well with me.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: The Palestinians say that they want to be able to send back an unlimited number of people into Israel. That eliminates Israel as a state. Obama is not raising the key issue.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: I would probably like our president to have more of a supportive position, as far as Israel goes, but what I value is more a candidate's positions on domestic policy.
RAZ: Now, there is another pro-Israel constituency that, if energized, could be a particular help to Mitt Romney - evangelicals. A Pew poll taken earlier this year found that 64 percent of self-identified evangelicals say protecting Israel should be a top priority. And what explains that view?
GARY BAUER: The theological basis for it is the biblical text that says: He who blesses Israel, I will bless; he who curses Israel, I will curse.
RAZ: That's Gary Bauer, chairman of American Values, a conservative public policy group. He's been a leading critic of President Obama on a variety of issues, including Israel.
Can you estimate how many Christian Zionists there are in the U.S.?
BAUER: You know, I've heard all kinds of numbers. But, for example, I've been associated with the fantastic group that was founded by Pastor John Hagee in Texas - Christians United for Israel. And in just a few years, that group has gone from a handful of people meeting in San Antonio, Texas; to having over a million people on their Facebook page. We just had an annual convention here in town. Somewhere between 5- and 6,000 people attended from all over the country. So it is an issue that resonates.
RAZ: How do you believe Mitt Romney's visit to Israel could change the equation for him? Is that a trip that is designed to appeal to multiple constituencies, including constituencies like your own?
BAUER: Gov. Romney certainly has made it clear that he has significant problems with the president's foreign policy; and not the least of those, how things have gone in the Middle East. Certainly, the governor's political advisers must be aware that by making it clear that he will, as president, restore the more traditional relationship between the two countries, is not only the right thing to do but also would pay political dividends.
RAZ: That's evangelical leader Gary Bauer, chairman of the conservative public policy group American Values.
Coming up, we're going to continue our conversation on the politics of pursuing the pro-Israel voter, with Stephen Walt. Stay with us. It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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RAZ: It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Before the break, we were talking about capturing the pro-Israel vote. Mitt Romney is in Israel this weekend, to do just that. We called Harvard professor Stephen Walt, author of the book "The Israel Lobby," to ask whether there's any political advantage to taking a tougher line on Israel during campaign season.
STEPHEN WALT: We've never seen anyone run for president saying that they're going to be strictly evenhanded; they're going to bring tough love to both sides. Rather, what you see in every election, is both candidates - Republicans and Democrats - pandering. And there's no constituency on the other side, that you would win by adopting the sort of more evenhanded position. The Arab-American community, or the Palestinian-American community, is simply not as politically potent. So you've got almost nothing to gain by adopting that as your public campaign position. And you've got - at least - something, potentially, to lose.
RAZ: So when you hear Mitt Romney say, for example - as he has said - that he will do precisely the opposite on Israel, that President Obama has done, he - of course - is trying to suggest that he would be more of an advocate, and ally, for Israel. You would argue that there is almost no daylight, in reality, between what either of these candidates stand for, when it comes to Israel.
WALT: There's an irony here, that some have pointed to; that if he did exactly the opposite of what President Obama has done, he would, of course, get rid of all American economic and military assistance to Israel - something President Obama has enthusiastically supported. If he did the opposite of President Obama, he wouldn't have the United States vetoing Security Council resolutions that are critical of Israel.
In fact, President Obama - like all of his predecessors - has been very, very supportive of Israel. There has clearly been a disagreement over what - say, the settlement package. And he has had some disputes with the Israeli government about that because Obama believes a two-state solution is in everyone's best interests, and doesn't think the Israeli government has been as willing to take steps in that direction. But I think the idea that a Romney would be substantially more supportive, is simply wrong.
RAZ: What do you make of this idea, Stephen Walt, that now, more Americans call themselves pro-Israel than at any other time since President Johnson's administration? Why do you think that is?
WALT: I think there's, first of all, been a longstanding effort, by pro-Israel groups in the United States, to portray a very favorable image of Israel to the American people. And this has been quite successful. Some Americans often don't have a particularly clear picture of everything that's going on there. There are many things to admire about Israeli society, but there's also some things that I think are deeply troubling; in particular, you know, harsh treatment meted out to the Palestinians.
I think the second part is that rightly or wrongly, Americans have tended to adopt a rather black-white view of the Middle East where Israel is seen as our friend, and the Arabs are seen as terrorists or sympathetic to terrorists, or not very pro-American; and that that has tended to solidify an image of Israel as being just like us. And finally, it's politically costly in the United States, because of the influence of groups like AIPAC and others, to say anything critical. Even when Israel does things we don't want them to do, we tend to use rather mild language.
You put that all together, and the average American has a somewhat sanitized view of the country, and probably a more favorable image than might be completely warranted.
RAZ: That's Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Stephen Walt, thank you so much.
WALT: A pleasure talking with you.
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