Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets Israel's… (Muammar Awad / MCT )
Have you heard the one about the Westside Jewish Republican Club? Its members take turns hosting the gatherings, and they meet each month in the host's car.
The Democrats' advantage among Jewish voters might not be quite that extreme, but there's no question that the Jewish community in this country has always leaned strongly toward the Democratic Party and its candidates. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush achieved a high-water mark for the GOP by winning more than 30% of the Jewish vote during their elections in the 1980s. But in the last 20 years, no Republican presidential nominee has won even a quarter of the Jewish vote. Four years ago, Barack Obama won among Jewish voters over John McCain by a margin of 78% to 22% (a bigger margin, by 10 points, than his advantage among Latinos).
But even in the face of this vast historical imbalance, Republicans see an opportunity this year to make inroads for Jewish votes. They believe that President Obama's record on issues relating to Israel and the Middle East has created an opportunity. Recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that Jewish voters still lean strongly leftward, favoring abortion rights and same-sex marriage at almost unanimous levels, and strongly supporting Obama on most economic issues as well. But the Jewish community is much more equivocal on questions regarding the Middle East conflict, with barely one-third supporting Obama's approach on this front.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012
Many U.S. Jews were troubled by Obama's early insistence on a settlement freeze. They also took umbrage at his use of the emotionally charged term "occupation" in reference to the Israeli military presence in Palestinian territory in a seminal speech in Cairo during his first months in office. The ongoing coolness between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not helped matters, nor has the administration's emphasis on diplomacy over military engagement when it comes to Iran's nuclear facilities. It was these issues that Mitt Romney felt opened a small but important window of opportunity that made it worth his going to Israel at the end of July.
Though the media coverage of Romney's trip was dominated by his ill-chosen observations about the London Olympic Games, his stop in Jerusalem allowed him to reinforce the contrast he hopes to draw between Obama's approach to the Middle East and his own. Even Romney's comments about the link between the Palestinians' economic and cultural challenges, which drew widespread criticism from international quarters, probably did him more good than harm with Jewish voters who are dissatisfied with Obama's approach to the Middle East.
The challenges for Romney are steep, as Jewish voters remain deeply supportive of Obama's reelection. Most have decided that the president's goals on economic, environmental and social policy outweigh their reservations on Middle Eastern matters. Some also doubt that the full-throated support that Republican leaders have demonstrated for Netanyahu's Likud government represents the best path to peace. But a statistically relevant segment of the Jewish community — between 10% and 15% — has indicated a willingness to consider shifting from the Democratic to the GOP candidate this year. Even such a sizable shift would not allow Romney to win anything close to a majority of Jewish voters, but it could provide his campaign with opportunities in key swing states such as Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
Take Florida. Although the state's Jewish community represents only about 4% the population, Jewish voters make up more than 8% of the electorate. In a state still known for hanging chads and butterfly ballots, and where most polls show this year's race within the margin of error, an increase in Romney's support to the levels that Reagan attracted could determine the outcome there.
Romney's campaign team also understands that Israel is a matter of critical importance to evangelical voters, many of whom are still lukewarm in their support for a Mormon candidate. Romney also hopes he'll be helped by the rapid growth in this country's Orthodox Jewish community, whose members tend to place a higher priority on the Middle East than on domestic policy.
Still, the vast majority of Jewish voters will not give Romney even a moment's consideration before casting their ballots this fall. The question is whether enough of them are sufficiently concerned by the incumbent's relationship with Israel for the challenger's trip there to make a difference.
Dan Schnur is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.