Even in the face of the most pessimistic (for Obama) reading of NY-9, Democrats will comfort themselves with two facts. The first is that, for all the outsize attention they command—and the earsplitting volume of the collective megaphone they wield—Jews make up about 2 percent of the national electorate. Too small a proportion, that is to say, to matter much to the overall popular vote.
Yet presidencies are not won nationally, but state by state (hello, Electoral College!). And there are at least two critical swing states in which the Jewish vote is large enough to be pivotal. The most obvious is Florida, where Jews make up about 5 percent of the electorate. But they also account for 4 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania, which Kerry won in 2004 by fewer than 200,000 votes. Without both of these states in his column, Obama will find it punishingly hard to be reelected.
The second ostensibly comforting fact for Democrats has to do with the trend lines of recent presidential-election history: Obama’s 78 percent of the Jewish vote, Kerry’s 74 percent, Al Gore’s 79 percent, Clinton’s 78 and 80 percent in 1996 and 1992, respectively. The implication here is that, in the end, the Jews will come home to Obama—mainly because they are overwhelmingly liberal and have nowhere else to go. And chances are this will prove true. But it’s worth pointing out that the last presidential incumbent who was thoroughly stigmatized, fairly or not, as being anti-Israel was Jimmy Carter—who in 1980 claimed just 45 percent of Jewish votes, with 15 percent going to John Anderson and the rest, 39 percent, to Ronald Reagan.
The trouble for Republicans is that, in the extant crop of candidates, there is no one who bears even a passing resemblance to Dutch. Though Rick Perry is as avidly pro-Israel as any politician alive—“If you’re our friend, we are with you,” he says. “I’m talking about Israel. Come hell or high water, we will be standing with you!”—his positions on almost every other issue are anathema to virtually every Jew to the left of Eric Cantor. And Perry’s theocratish tendencies have been criticized even by some who are pretty far right; the Christian rally he held in Houston not long before jumping into the race, “The Response,” was derided by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League as a “conscious disregard of law and authority” because of the way it traversed the spheres of church and state.
Mitt Romney is an entirely different case. Within the Republican donor class, Romney is the strong favorite. He has actively courted the AIPAC crowd, staking out hawkish positions on Iran and pillorying Obama on Israel. The day before he opened his Florida headquarters earlier this month, Romney dropped in on a local AIPAC meeting in Tampa and was greeted with a standing O. But when it comes to winning over independent Jews or queasy Democratic ones, Romney may have done too effective a job in transforming himself from a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights moderate into a more conventionally conservative candidate. “He’s a phony,” a cheeky Democratic operative notes. “But for a lot of Jews, he may turn out to be just a little too convincing.”
Regardless of how Romney or Perry would play among Jewish donors and voters, both would likely make Obama’s approach to Israel a big part of a general-election campaign. “Israel,” writes Marc Tracy on the Jewish-life website Tablet, “is the easiest way to come from the right and cast Obama as a dove; as out-of-step with American values; as otherwise untrustworthy on foreign and national-security affairs. Obama can’t, after all, be soft on Al Qaeda—he killed Osama bin Laden. He can’t be soft on dictators—the Arab Spring happened on his watch. He can’t be lacking in experience—he has been commander-in-chief these past years. He wasn’t coddling Pakistan or China or Russia, and he didn’t normalize relations with Cuba. But on Israel (and, by extension, Iran), Obama can be effectively painted … as having not stood up for democratic friends against evil foes.”
This argument may or may not prove effective, but either way, it’s perfect bullshit—as the administration’s hell-bent efforts to head off the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. amply demonstrates. The evil foe in this case, to be clear, isn’t Abbas and the Palestinians. It is anything that poisons the prospects for peace, which the White House justifiably believes granting full statehood or even observer-state status in this way would likely do: by emboldening the Palestinians and making the Israelis feel cornered; by pushing both parties into the positions, in other words, in which they tend to behave worst. Israel would impose punitive measures in the West Bank. Congress would cut off funding for the Palestinian Authority, possibly causing it to collapse. Violence would escalate. Talks would be impossible. Total nightmare.