Jewish Voters Still Have Questions About Obama

Jewish voters still are unsure of the presidential candidate.

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A supporter of Barack Obama displays buttons with 'Barack Obama 08' written in Hebrew during a Jewish community meeting at a synagogue in Philadelphia, PA.

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Historically, about 80 percent of the Jewish vote goes to the Democrat in presidential elections. But some party leaders are fretting that McCain—with the support of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a former Democrat who as the party's vice presidential candidate in 2000 became the first Jew named to a national ticket—could make measurable inroads. President Bush captured 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000 and 24 percent in 2004. The high-water mark for Republicans was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan pulled close to 40 percent of Jewish votes.

"If McCain can begin to approach that magical percent of what Reagan got, that will be deeply significant," Sarna says. "Democrats who can't solidly get the Jewish vote just can't make it." (If McCain picks an evangelical Christian as a running mate, Sarna predicts, the Dems won't have nearly as much to worry about.) Though the McCain campaign isn't talking about top contenders for the VP spot, it has been making a push with Jewish voters nationwide with "Joe L" as their top weapon, says campaign manager Rick Davis. He predicted that McCain has a "real good shot" at bringing more Jewish voters into the GOP fold this fall and has already been targeting those voters in states including Florida, California, and New York.

In Florida, Alex Halberstein, who serves on AIPAC's executive board, is among those who predict that Democrats will lose Jewish votes in the Sunshine State if Obama is the nominee. "We just don't know very much about him," says Halberstein, who supported President Clinton and contributed to and voted for Bush in 2004. He said that Obama's lack of a long track record on Middle East issues, as well as Wright's anti-American comments and praise of Farrakhan, remain ongoing concerns among many Jewish voters. The concerns linger, he says, even with the senator's denunciation of his former pastor's comments. Obama's friendship in Chicago with Palestinian intellectual and Israel critic Rashid Khalidi, now a professor at Columbia University, also requires more explanation for hard-line voters, says Morton Klein, who heads the conservative Zionist Organization of America.

Obama, a longtime Christian who has Muslim relatives in Africa, enjoys deep support within other parts of the Jewish community and has prominent Jewish fundraisers and close ties to Chicago's Jewish community. One of Obama's top Middle East advisers said that the senator made a series of speeches and appearances last year before Jewish audiences "because we knew at the very beginning of this campaign that the newness factor—the reality that Senator Obama was not well known and didn't have as long a record working on these [Middle East] issues—would be one of our big challenges."

And he's performed well with Jewish voters in primary contests, despite having to battle a vicious E-mail campaign that, among many false claims, asserted that he is a Muslim and took his oath of office on a Koran. The pernicious E-mails, the adviser said, grew from a "low-level Internet nuisance to a concerted, organized campaign to discredit Senator Obama in the Jewish community." They undercut some of the successful groundwork the campaign had laid in 2007 and made it more difficult to get the candidate's message out to Jewish voters just tuning in during the primary season.

The rumors became so rampant—and potentially damaging—that Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, and eight other prominent Jewish leaders issued an open letter to the Jewish community earlier this year in an effort to quell what they called "despicable and false" E-mails.

Though campaign advisers say that they expect that in the general election the scurrilous Obama-is-a-Muslim narrative will be revived, for now it has quieted a bit. But Obama still has work to do, many Jewish leaders say. "Look, there are still questions," says Foxman. "The less you know about somebody, the shorter the record, the more the questions." But Foxman said he believes that on the issue of support for Israel, there is little difference among the three remaining presidential candidates. "And if you look at Obama's advisers, they look like what [Bill] Clinton had in 1992—left-of-the-spectrum, peace-now types," he says. "I don't think this really is an issue."