Over the past few days and weeks, much ink has been devoted to Barack Obama's potentially tricky relationship with the Jewish community.
Had his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor and sympathetic voice on Palestine, caused harm? Would his pledge to meet without preconditions with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turn off the pro-Israel crowd? Did the developed tensions between the Jewish and Black communities present a gap too wide to bridge?
But lost in the process is, perhaps, a broader question: Does the Jewish vote really matter all that much for the Illinois Democrat? The topic, perhaps surprisingly, carries no clear consensus among some academics and analysts.
There is wide agreement on three reasons why the Jewish vote matters. Despite lacking overall numbers, Jews participate in the political process in large percentages, representing some of the more high-profile activists. They also have, historically, been major fundraisers for both political parties. And they tend to reside -- for one reason or another -- in some of the country's most significant "swing states."
For Obama, two of those three may not be major political concerns. The senator's ability to drum up grassroots support provides him with a robust activist base, somewhat but not entirely irrespective of opinion makers. And his fundraising apparatus, which relies on more than 1.5 million donors -- many of them of the low-dollar variety -- means he doesn't have to lean on major financiers. As one prominent Jewish Democratic fundraiser told The Huffington Post, "Obama doesn't need me and that isn't necessarily a bad thing." Indeed, Obama's success in bringing in campaign cash, longtime political observers say, has fundamentally altered the relationship between candidate and constituency group.
"If you are raising $40 million and month, month after month, only some of it is coming from Jewish community," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "It does dilute the importance of one group of contributors. Hollywood is, in this regard, also less important... organized labor may be less important as well."
It is in the numbers and blocs of Jewish voters (not money and activism) where Obama, theoretically, has the most to lose or gain. According the 2007 American Jewish Community Yearbook, there are approximately 6.4 million Jews in the United States, roughly two percent of the country's population. And yet Jews are more-highly concentrated in important political locales such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
"The Jewish vote is most important as a vote," explained Mark Mellman, president of The Mellman Group, one of the nation's leading public opinion researchers. "And the truth is that in some of these swing states the difference between getting 55 and 65 percent of their votes can be the difference between winning a losing."
This synopsis is technically true. However, as other analysts note, the presidential race would ultimately have to be historically close for the Jewish vote to be numerically decisive. There are, for instance, approximately 145,000 Jews in Ohio. If 80 percent were eligible to vote and 80 percent of those eligible actually did go to the polls (both high estimates) that would mean that that roughly 93,000 votes were up for grabs in that state. If Obama won 74 percent of that vote -- the same percentage that John Kerry carried nationally in 2004 -- he would have approximately 68,000 Ohio Jewish votes. If he only received 61 percent of the vote -- which he is receiving in the most recent Gallup Poll -- that number drops to 56,700, a difference of 11,300 votes. In Ohio, such a loss could make a difference. But the state was decided by more than ten times that margin in 2004.
Jews do make up larger shares of the population in both Pennsylvania and Florida. However, in some of the "new" swing states -- Colorado, New Mexico, and Iowa, for example -- the Jewish population is only (roughly) 80,000, 11,000 and 6,000 respectively.
"While a relatively moderate Republican candidate with rock-solid Israel-supporter credentials like John McCain may well reach or even surpass the Jewish-vote record for a GOP presidential contender - especially if his opponent is Barack Obama - a few extra Jewish votes in states already pretty much guaranteed as either Democratic or Republican aren't going to make that much of a difference," The Jerusalem Post's Caley Ben-David opined this past week.
Population totals asides, Jews do, according to statistics, tend to be a much more reliable constituency than say, the young. In terms of a base, it is a solid one to have. More significant, perhaps, is that the group's issues are shared by others -- meaning appeals to Jewish voters brings support from more than just Jews.
"Remember that unlike primary season, when it comes to the real thing, it is winner take all format," said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. "And that means that every vote will be extremely important. And I don't think Obama wants to take any chances in a critical state. Moreover, there are others who clearly care about some of the same issues that lots of Jews care about, notably Israel."
As Sarna notes, Obama stands to gain the backing of some evangelicals and a firmer base among Democrats by demonstrating support for the state of Israel. Such a stance, moreover, brings with it an image benefit, mainly, the perception of strength within foreign policy circles. But perhaps the most compelling reason for Obama to pursue the Jewish vote is to counteract the inroads that his Republican opponents are trying to make. Indeed, as recent history shows and Democrats concede, a political turf war over the Jewish community is already on hand.
"I've always said that one of the things the Republicans were trying to do under Rove and [Tom] DeLay, and I never underestimated them, was to use Israel to turn the Jewish community against the Democratic Party. That means stopping money to Jewish Democrats but more importantly it means affecting opinion makers," said Ira Forman, head of the National Jewish Democratic Council. "This year there are some real numbers here. I think the McCain's folks are looking at these numbers and they are figuring out a micro-strategy - they are doing this with African Americans and other groups as well with the Jews. If they can drive the Jewish vote down 20 percent in these states it could make a difference. I don't know how good the McCain people are but the Rove and his minions e were doing this on every constituency out there."