An open race for the Jewish vote

Published in the Jewish Chronicle

Lots of big decisions loom for 2008 ? Ken or Boris; who to back in the European Championships ? but no choice looms larger than the one Americans will start making next week. By November we will have a new President of the US (and unlike many a JC headline of old, I am not using that phrase to refer to the head of the United Synagogue).

The time-honoured tradition when faced with such momentous decisions is to ask the question immortalised by my good friend Jonny Geller in his ground-breaking study, out last year, Yes, But Is It Good For The Jews?. Geller?s joking, but proof that the habit is all too real is to be found on the Ha?aretz website, which has been running an ?Israel Factor? contest, rating the presidential candidates on how good they are likely to be for the Jewish state.

It?s a fun exercise, but one open to multiple misinterpretations. First, some might conclude that this is the sole basis on which American-Jewish voters make their choice. Yet the evidence suggests otherwise. If support for Israel was all that American Jews cared about, then you?d think George W Bush, staunch backer of Israel, would have bagged Jewish votes by the million. But he didn?t. In 2004, close to 80 per cent of US Jews voted for John Kerry. That?s not about the Middle East, but rather a reflection of the fact that American Jews remain overwhelmingly liberal, in US terms, on the big domestic questions.

This, in turn, explodes another myth, namely that the Jewish vote is somehow crucial in US elections and explains why American politicians don?t dare act against Israel. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The Jewish vote is so reliably Democratic, it?s not even up for grabs.

Moreover, it tends to be concentrated in two states that have voted consistently Democratic in recent years: New York and California. (It can make a small difference in marginal, ?swing? states like Illinois or Pennsylvania, but not much.)

As a result, Republican presidential candidates can ignore it without fear ? a fact famously, and robustly, expressed by former secretary of state James Baker when stiffening Bush Snr?s resolve in a stand-off with Jerusalem: ?F**k the Jews,? he said. ?They don?t vote for us anyway.? (The pro-Israel voters American politicians fear are those of the Christian evangelical right).

That said, American Jews will have their preferences like anyone else: who will they choose? Among the small numbers of Jewish Republicans, those for whom Israel matters centrally will be torn between Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, both of whom are solid friends of Israel and muscular warriors in the ?war on terror?. Giuliani will have more instinctive appeal, as a former mayor of New York at home with urban Jews (hence his strong poll numbers in Florida). But McCain?s recent pick-up of an endorsement from the Senate?s sole Orthodox Jewish member, Joe Lieberman, suggests hawks are beginning to have their doubts about Giuliani?s chances of winning.

As for the rest of the Republican field, I guess many Jews are feeling decidedly lukewarm. Current media darling Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist preacher from Arkansas, is the kind of guy who brings many American Jews out in a rash: he doesn?t believe in evolution, once said that those with Aids should be quarantined, and has run TV ads describing himself as a ?Christian leader?. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is a devout Mormon. That faith is officially super-friendly to Jews, but its habit of ferreting out the names of the Jewish dead, including of Holocaust survivors, so that they might be retroactively baptised, gives many Jews the creeps.

Which brings us to where most of the Jewish action will be: among the Democrats. Hillary Clinton has a massive advantage here, in the form of a husband who is still a beloved figure among Jews. Indeed, plenty have speculated that President Hillary might appoint Bill as a Middle East envoy, the one person who could actually have a chance of bringing peace.

Yet, I suspect more than a few Jews are drawn to Barack Obama. Saddled with an unfortunate middle name ? ?Hussein? ? he won?t win the backing of those for whom Israel is the prime concern, but those US Jews who remain proud of American Jewish involvement in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s may well be stirred by the notion of electing America?s first black president. Finally, John Edwards (like Republican Fred Thompson) lacks a unique selling point for Jews, but having run as the most leftwing of the three Democrats, Edwards won?t be lacking Jewish support.

All told, US Jews are spoilt for choice. I?ll make only one prediction: if next November pits Hillary against Huckabee, the Democrats will win the largest share of the Jewish vote in recorded history. You see if they don?t.