Florida: A Jewish Battleground State?

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This is Part One of an ongoing series covering the status and importance of the Jewish vote in Florida. Read Part Two, “Florida & the Jews: Eye of the November Hurricane,” here

For Donald Trump, the road to reelection—his only viable path, experts say—runs through Florida, with its crucial 29 electoral votes. That’s why, between Labor Day and Election Day, the Republican campaign plans to spend $32 million of the $95 million TV campaign budget in Florida. As the GOP ad buy acknowledges, without the Sunshine State, Trump is a one-term president. 

For the past two decades, most of Florida’s statewide electoral contests have been decided by one to three percentage points. In the last two presidential cycles, the margin of victory has hovered around one point. In 2012, Obama carried the state by 70,000 votes, out of more than nine million cast. In 2016, Trump carried Florida by 112,911. With elections that close, it is always difficult to parse the source of the margin of victory. So the battle for the state in November is expected to be fierce—and costly—with the state and national Democratic and Republican parties scrapping for every winnable vote.

And, incongruously, a tiny number of the state’s 470,000 Jewish voters could make the difference.

Florida’s Ethnic Stew

The political calculus is complicated by Florida’s complex ethnic and demographic amalgam. Sixty percent of Florida’s 15 million registered voters are white; 23 percent Latinx; 15 percent African American; and five percent Jewish. Twenty-four percent of all ethnicities are seniors. Twenty-five percent of the electorate self identify as white evangelicals. Democratic registration outnumbers Republican by about 300,000 voters.

So, by conventional inside-the-Beltway wisdom, the primary task for both parties in winning Florida’s electoral votes is energizing, mobilizing and turning out the components of each party’s respective base.

For Democrats, that means their traditional coalition of African Americans; Latinos (mostly of Puerto Rican heritage in Central Florida); the LGBTQ community; liberal seniors; the small labor movement (mostly in the service and hospitality sector); and Jews, many clustered in condos in South Florida counties.

For Republicans, that means motivating white evangelicals; older, Cuban Americans in South Florida; and affluent, conservative white seniors, like those in huge retirement communities in Central Florida, like The Villages, where a Trump supporter infamously shouted from his golf cart, “White power!” 

But, for both parties, the more subtle and finely tuned part of any Florida campaign—and where victory often lies—is poaching and peeling away a small percentage of the opponent’s base.

So, Democrats may try to woo more moderate white evangelicals (from the 80 percent who vote Republican), especially suburban women. These religious voters may oppose the Democrats on issues such as abortion and marriage equality, but share their views on climate change, and racial and income equality. They may also be increasingly offended by Trump’s attitudes toward race and women. 

A sliver of swing voters are thought to be up for grabs: suburban, Republican-leaning and independent, college-educated women. So, strategists say, find a way to win them over.

Another Democratic target of opportunity: younger Cuban Americans, like the 30,000 who signed a petition asking Trump to cancel a June executive order suspending immigration from the island, a decree that included family reunifications.

For Republicans, this effort means reaching out to more conservative unions, like police and firefighters, to middle-of-the-road, non-Cuban Latinos, including evangelicals, a third of whom voted for Trump in 2016.

And, most tantalizing, courting Jews concerned, more than any other issue, about Israel and its security.

However, this won’t be an easy sell, as Florida’s Jewish community, the third-largest in the country, after New York and California, is a disparate mosaic. Together, they are 3.5 percent of the state’s population, yet they are about five percent by registration or just under 500,000 voters. According to Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami about 95 percent of Jews in South Florida are registered to vote and more than 95 percent actually did vote in the 2016 election. 

Polling of Jewish voters in Florida is “statistically imprecise,” says Sheskin, but it is thought that Democratic support ranges from two-thirds to three-fourths, depending on who is on the ballot, and what year.

Many of those concentrated in South Florida—Modern Orthodox, Hasids and Israeli and Russian immigrants—may be receptive to the Republican outreach. But the overwhelming majority of Jews throughout the state who identify as Reform or secular, including many suburbanites and retirees from the North and Midwest, may be more resistant. 

The Trump Pitch

So here is the issue facing undecided Jewish voters in November, and one which may determine Donald Trump’s fate: 

Should they support a president who has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and who is likely to endorse annexation of portions of the West Bank, which would, in the eyes of many, effectively doom any two-state solution?

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) thinks they will. The organization is determined to make Trump’s support for Israel, bolstered by the fact that he has an Orthodox Jewish daughter and son-in-law in the White House, a wedge issue to peel away normally liberal Jewish voters. 

The group says it has allocated $10 million to get American Jews to support Trump.

Their pitch to Jewish voters still on the fence who support Israel but usually vote Democratic is fairly simple, according to Neil Boylan Strauss, the group’s communications director. “Today’s Democratic Party is far different from the one that you grew up with, and your parents grew with, and maybe even your children up with,” he says. “The Democratic Party is not united in its support for Israel anymore.”

The RJC focuses on the quartet of progressive, Democratic U.S. House members, known as “the squad,” Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar (MN), Ayanna Pressley (MA), and Rashida Tlaib (MI). Several members of the squad have made intemperate and ill-informed remarks about the Jews and Israel, and for which they have apologized.

“They want to intervene with the democratic process in Israel,” says Strauss, pivoting to former Vice President Joe Biden, whose position on Israel is much more moderate. “The problem with Biden is that he is unwilling to push back against the growing anti-Semitism from” “the squad.” He notes that “President Trump has done things that Democrats and Republicans have promised for years, but haven’t come through on,” like recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the U.S. embassy there, and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The RJC has scheduled a virtual town hall, featuring former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and conservative radio personality Mark Levin for July 19. 

The RJC has boosted its Florida field staff from three to five, Strauss says, and recruited “literally hundreds of volunteers in Florida at this point. And we will eventually make hundreds of thousand voter contacts in Florida alone.

“We’re going to be full-throttle on Jewish outreach. We’ve made improvements this cycle. We’ve built and refined a Jewish data model, proprietary data that no one else has, which has allowed us to extremely accurately know who the Jewish voters are, where they are registered in Florida and who are in Florida and not registered.”

And the Republicans’ chances for providing Trump with his margin of victory?

“I think they’re really good,” Strauss says. “We will absolutely make the difference. We wouldn’t make that kind of investment if we didn’t think it would…We can guarantee you a higher percentage of Jewish voters in Florida will vote for President Trump than did in ’16.”

The Democrats’ Pitch

But will wavering Jewish voters make that bargain, supporting Trump for his hard-line, Likud positions on Israel? Not, Jewish Democrats say, if the cost is selling out hard-won, reproductive freedom, LGBTQ rights and marriage equality. All would be threatened by Trump’s promised appointment of more conservative Supreme Court justices committed to overturning Roe v. Wade and other liberal rulings. There is also the widespread revulsion for a president they consider a supporter of the alt-right’s white supremacy and—arguably and implicitly—anti-Semitism.

In 2019, a poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee found that almost three-quarters of Jewish voters disapproved of the way Trump has handled the threat of anti-Semitism.

The struggle for Florida’s Jewish vote in November is more than what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. It is, in essence, a battle for the soul of the American Diaspora. 

Despite the role Jewish voters may have played in the election of a Republican governor in 2018, Nikki Fried, Florida’s lone, statewide, Democratic officeholder, is not worried about the RJC’s chances to poach Jewish votes from Democrats in November.

“I’m not at all concerned about their attempt to peel away some of the Jewish votes,” says Fried, 42. “Jewish voters are not just one issue voters…They are concerned about moral and ethical obligations to support minority communities and to protect those who may not have a voice…We are not going to sell out our moral guideposts for Israeli foreign policy.” 

Despite her predictions about the outcome, Fried said she will “absolutely” take the lead in protecting her base, “showing the support of the Democratic Party and my support of Israel. Choosing one party over the other for Israeli policies should be a nonstarter.” 

And for the state’s Jewish voters, Fried’s credentials are impeccable and are likely to carry considerable weight. She attended a Jewish day school in Miami, was bat mitzvahed and confirmed in the same congregation, Temple Beth Am, where she was active in B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO). One of the three trips she made to Israel before her election was for a B’nai B’rith summer study program. She says that, as a young person, she seriously considered making aliyah

Which Way?

Experts are divided on the November outcome of the contest for the Jewish vote in Florida.

The Republicans’ effort, says the University of Miami’s Sheskin, is not likely to succeed in using Israel to draw Jewish voters to Trump.

“It’s not going to help them,” he predicts. “Jews will remain liberal. Jews grew up as Democrats and they’re going to stay Democrats.”

Aubrey Jewett, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, agrees. “I think it is unlikely that Trump will be very successful in attracting more Florida Jewish voters,” Jewett said. “American Jews are also divided on the best way forward for Israel. In addition, support for Israel is not usually ranked as a very important issue for Jewish voters as they are deciding for whom to vote.”

Jewett cited several 2012 polls, including one commissioned by J Street that found that “support for Israel among Jewish respondents ranked 9th on a list of issues at the national level and 8th on a list of issues for Florida.”

Others aren’t so sure.

“In a state like Florida, where the margins are so slim, and the Jewish population is so large, comparatively, I think any inroads that the GOP makes with Jewish voters could pose an existential threat to the Democratic Party in the state,” says Ben Friedman, former director of the Jewish community relations council of Orlando, and a political activist.

Party activists urge caution.

“The Florida Democratic party obviously should not take any voter for granted,” says Dick Batchelor, a Democratic political consultant in Central Florida. “You do have those for whom the State of Israel is the top priority. For Israel-centric voters, that is a leading if not the leading factor in any decision regarding who they support.”

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