The Zabar’s Vote

Fact: In decades, no New York Democrat has won a statewide election without corralling around two thirds of the Jewish vote

Fact: Most polls show Hillary Clinton at around 50 percent with Jews.

Question: Guess where she’s going this week?

Answer: It ain’t Grossinger’s.

She’ll start off her week in Israel, says her White House press secretary, Marsha Berry, where she’ll speak at a dinner of the Rabin Foundation, and then skip up to Jordan, where she’ll meet with Queen Rania (don’t worry, Queen Noor is still kicking; this is the son’s wife). Tête-à-têtes with political leaders are not yet scheduled, but you can be relatively certain they will not include Arafat. I got this from Marsha Berry and not the campaign people because this is one of those “nonpolitical” trips of official flotus, as the Secret Service calls her, business; yep, it’s cheesy, but it probably is costing New York taxpayers less than the bill Giuliani stuck us with in making us endure that whole charter lunacy.

Anyway. Hillary’s got a problem here. In fact, you could say that this is the problem, the central question of this campaign, at least from a mathematical point of view. The Times had a big poll last week, which it ran on the front page, about how voters’ perceptions of Mrs. Clinton have grown more negative in these past months that she’s been traversing the state, and mostly about how small the undecided vote is in this election that’s still a year off. Only about 8 percent of likely voters haven’t made up their minds.

What the Times story didn’t explore is, Who are they? According to other recent polls, they’re a little of this, a little of that. “Undecided” is supposedly higher upstate than down. A little higher among white Catholics than among Jews, although it should be noted that we’re dealing here with really small numerical subgroups – in a poll surveying 700 people, maybe 125 will be Jewish – that don’t mean a thing.

So to blazes with these polls. I’ve done this long enough now to have earned the right to go by hunch, and my hunch is this: The undecided, or the ones who really matter from HRC’s point of view, are downstaters. City people and suburbanites. Democrats, mostly, who vote Democratic but may well have voted for Giuliani in 1997, if they live in the city, and, if they’re in the ‘burbs, are impressed by the cleaner and safer theater district. And not wholly, but primarily, Jewish.

A couple of numbers. In 1996, in New York State, Bob Dole got about 16 percent of the Jewish vote. In 1997, running in the city, Ruth Messinger got 27 percent of Jewish voters. The state and city are different entities, of course, but basically, that’s your hard-shell right and left, 43 percent. The other 57 percent, says one Jewish community leader, “are in between, and they swing. They can vote for either party.”

Now, two more figures worth bearing in mind: In 1992, Bob Abrams, running for Senate against Al D’Amato, got about 60 percent of the Jewish vote and lost the election by 2 percent. Last year, against D’Amato, Chuck Schumer took about 75 percent of the Jewish vote and won by 10 percent. Do the math. Democrats need two thirds.

How does she get there?

One possible answer is that she doesn’t. “I think Giuliani has to make a mistake for her to get the two thirds,” says the Jewish leader. It’s not difficult to imagine Giuliani making any number of mistakes in this race, but one category of mistake he seems unlikely to make is with Jews – in his three races for mayor, he’s never won less than 63 percent of the Jewish vote.

Of course, this is not a mayoral election. It’s a Senate election, in a presidential year no less, when a vast majority of Jews will presumably be voting for Bill Bradley or Al Gore and falling into the traditional Democratic column. Even so, Giuliani is formidable, because a majority of Jews in New York City have pulled his lever three times now, which is not an accident but a habit. Including Jews from some unlikely places: In 1997, he actually beat Messinger on the Upper West Side. Which means Hillary’s going to have to fight for votes that at first blush would seem hers for the taking. It’s one of the signal changes in New York politics of the Giuliani era – that the local Democratic Party became so, you know, farblondjet that the swing vote is now liberal Jews. “The Zabar’s vote,” as one high-ranking elected Democrat said to me recently.

And how’s she doing with them so far? Assemblyman Scott Stringer, who represents the Upper West Side, says that while there’s enthusiasm for her among some of his constituents, “there are a lot of people who are certainly taking a wait-and-see attitude with respect to her.”

Stringer sees hope in the rotten egg the mayor laid last week on the charter vote. “It tells me that the liberal Jews who voted for Rudy have now transitioned into the post-Giuliani era,” he says. “We Democrats have to figure out how to exploit that. But she has a shot at those votes now.” That may be reading too much into an election in which the turnout was 11 percent; on the other hand, the shocking margin of defeat says that hyperinformed voters, which includes many Jews, were pretty angry about this plangent scam-ola, and he’s worse off with these voters because of it and because of his foray as an art critic, which a federal judge threw the book at just the day before the charter vote.

“It’ll come down to issues: first, Israel, on which Giuliani’s position of fealty is not in doubt and hers is, to some Jews very much so; second, domestic issues, on which more Jews agree with her than with the mayor.”

Experts say it’ll come down to issues: first, Israel, on which Giuliani’s position of fealty is not in doubt and hers is, to some Jews very much so; second, the usual raft of domestic issues, on which more Jews agree with her than with the mayor; third, the twists and turns no one can predict, such as, will she react adroitly if the peace process zigs off in an unexpected or surly direction?

All true. But I think her success among Jews will also come down to cultural questions, and questions of how she does it. So far, it’s looked pretty forced – the revelations about her distant Jewish relatives, the demand for a federal probe into the Ari Halberstam case, the letter calling Jerusalem Israel’s indivisible capital. She’ll need to be a little subtler than that. But she can’t be too subtle – she’s got a year to gain fifteen points, and a year may be a long time, but fifteen is a lot of points.

Tick, tock.


The Zabar’s Vote