Presumptive Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama wasted no time when he heard that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tooted his horn before a Jewish group in Boca Raton, Florida. Well, it wasn't exactly a real toot since all Bloomberg said was that Jewish voters should pay no heed to the relentless sneaky, viral email and rumor monger campaign that slams Obama as take your pick, a Muslim, an extremist, or a closet anti-Israel, Palestinian rights backer.
Obama profusely thanked Bloomberg for the vote of confidence. Bloomberg's vouch for Obama as a good Christian was timely for some worrisome reasons. Jewish voters make up a minuscule five percent of the American electorate. But the big majority is Democrats. A number are reliable donors and major fundraisers for the Democrats. But many have also been cautious if not downright cool toward Obama. Most backed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Obama's tough talk on Israel, terrorism, Middle East turmoil, and Iran at the AIPAC confab in May didn't totally melt the ice among many Jewish voters. And John McCain knows that.
The instant Clinton threw in the towel, he, and his point man, Senator Joseph Lieberman, furiously courted top Jewish Hillary Democrats, and especially the campaign donors and fundraisers. McCain managed to coax a handful of leading Jewish Democratic fundraisers to defect to his campaign. Democratic strategists sloughed off the defections and confidently beamed that with Clinton on board the Obama wagon and a bevy of Jewish Democratic elected officials and leaders solidly backing him that will be more than enough to beat down any reservations Jewish voters may have about Obama and beat back any McCain overtures to Jewish Democrats. But will it?
Another reason for worry is former Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. He has played absolutely no role in Obama's campaign and Obama has on several occasions lambasted Farrakhan for his past anti-Semitic utterances. But Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright did speak favorably of Farrakhan and even honored Farrakhan at a church event. This could stir doubt among some Jewish voters about Obama. Any other time, Obama's denunciation of Farrakhan might be more than enough to settle the matter with most Jewish voters and make their jitters evaporate. But this is not any other time. Many Jewish voters are increasingly anxious about new dangers Iran, the Iraq quagmire, and the oil crisis pose to Israel's security. This renewed concern among many Jews about Israel was plainly evident in a March poll by the Israel Project. It showed record support for Israel. 71% of those surveyed said America should support Israel in contrast to only 8% that backed the Palestinians. That was a huge jump from 2002 when far fewer said that America should support Israel.
The question for many Jewish voters is not whether Obama is wobbly on Israel's defense. He isn't, and even the slightest hint that he is would make his candidacy DOA with many Jewish voters. The question though is he too inexperienced, prone to compromise on foreign policy issues, and too liberal politically to be as firm, preferably firmer, than McCain on Israel's security. This is the X Factor for many Jewish voters. This by no means translates out to any mass stampede of Jewish Democrats, even many fundraisers, away from Obama to McCain. The majority of Jewish Democrats will still vote for him.
However, it's not the percentage of Jewish voters that will vote for him. It's how many Jewish voters show up to vote for him, or worse how many will cross over and vote for McCain. A lackluster turnout of Jewish Democrats would hurt Obama badly. And even a low double digit defection of Jewish Democrats to McCain in the absolute must win swing states of Florida and Pennsylvania would spell disaster or worse for Obama. The weakness and danger is real. A May Gallup Poll found that while Obama got the majority of Jewish votes he still did far worse poll wise than John Kerry did in the 2004 presidential election among Jewish voters. And, of course, he got far fewer Jewish votes than Clinton in the primaries.
Bush got only 25 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2004 election. But that was just enough in Florida and other states to help secure his win over Kerry.
Bloomberg's timely intervention to help squelch false and malicious rumors about Obama's faith will undoubtedly carry some weight with many Jewish voters. But they are the ones who would likely vote for Obama anyway. Democrats worry that there may be many Jewish voters who won't go along. That possibility is just enough to cause Obama jitters.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).