Commentary Magazine

Jews, Money, and 2012

In the closing days of 2011, as Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s campaign was floundering in Iowa, a longtime supporter and friend came to the rescue. The billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, each donated $5 million to a pro-Gingrich super PAC (political action committee) that gave new life to the former speaker’s efforts and may have helped set the stage for his subsequent victory in the South Carolina primary.

Adelson’s intervention in the race was widely lambasted in the press as the direct result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision two years ago. That decision reaffirmed the right of groups and corporations to unlimited political speech. But for all the huffing and puffing about the businessman’s effrontery in seeking to back a candidate and the ideas he liked, the real story was the motivation for the donations. Adelson is a passionate supporter of the state of Israel and had come to like and admire Gingrich specifically because of the candidate’s record on the Jewish state. It mattered not at all that when it came to unstinting support for the alliance with Israel, there was little if any difference between Gingrich and Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum, the other major Republican candidates still standing. Adelson believed Gingrich’s ardent advocacy for Israel over the course of his political career, which appears to be the basis for the relationship between the two men, justified his generosity.

The Court’s defense of political speech has made it possible for advocacy groups to spend money promoting their views in a more unfettered manner than was permitted under the unconstitutional restrictions contained in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The liberal critique of the decision largely centered on the unsubstantiated fear that corporations would be able to exercise undue influence. Yet the more obvious result is that those who care about specific political issues will be able to use whatever financial clout they can amass to make their voices heard. That means it may turn out that those who care about Israel—and those politicians they seek to hold accountable—will be among the ones most affected by the ruling. For President Obama, whose record on Israel will be a matter of particular contention this year, the guaranteed right for individuals and organizations to spend dollars highlighting his efforts in the Middle East might greatly complicate his run for reelection.

Adelson was only one of many supporters of Israel to choose a presidential candidate at least in part on the basis of U.S.-Israel relations. But the size of his contribution and the strategic role it played in keeping Gingrich in the race as the primary season was heating up cast a spotlight not only on the controversial donor himself, but also on support for Israel as an important issue in the 2012 campaign. Expressing affection for the Jewish state has become a staple of American political culture, but the widespread perception of tension between the Obama administration and the government of Israel has raised the stakes for both political parties as they vie for Jewish votes, and for Jewish campaign contributions.

That Jewish money would enter into the presidential election is a delicate subject for many Jews. They fear that discussing the impact of pro-Israel contributions on the race will give unjustified credence to traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes and bolster the myth that the U.S.-Israel relationship is solely the product of a Jewish cabal’s manipulation of American foreign policy.

Yet any objective analysis of the presidential contest must take into account that both parties are already actively competing for Jewish votes and money. As the campaign unfolded, all the Republican candidates, save libertarian outlier Ron Paul, sought to claim the mantle of Israel’s defender against the threat of a second Obama administration. At the same time, Democrats tried furiously to counter the popular notion that Obama has a problem with Israel, arguing that he is, in fact, the most pro-Israel president in history. 

That either Jewish money or votes would be much in play in 2012 seems to contradict some basic facts about American Jewry. Although the Obama administration has determined to distance itself from Jerusalem and has quarreled with Israel’s government for three years, most American Jews remain devoted to the Democrats and are likely to reelect the most liberal president in more than a generation. They remain disproportionately liberal and are surpassed in their loyalty to the Democrats by only the African-American community. 

Even if liberal ardor will help Obama win the majority of Jewish votes, he might still face serious trouble. Polls indicate a decline in his Jewish backing, and events such as the special congressional election in September 2011, whereby a safe Democratic seat in a heavily Jewish district in New York fell to the Republicans, could mean that he is due for a precipitous drop from the estimated 78 percent of Jewish votes he received in 2008.

A shift in the votes of a group that amounts to less than 2 percent of the population may not seem to be of much moment, but the attention that Obama and his team paid to the Jewish community in the latter half of 2011—including a determined effort to spin his record on Israel and the possibility of a shift in strategy on Iran—demonstrates they believe it is important. And even if the Republicans don’t come near their modern record, when Ronald Reagan won 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980, or duplicate the 1988 tally in which George H.W. Bush won 35 percent, they still might receive enough votes to affect the outcome in the key swing states of New Jersey, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

Equally important, though harder to measure, is the possibility that Obama’s problems with Jewish voters will affect fundraising for other Democrats and lead to an increase in contributions to Republicans. 

Estimates of the amount of money Jews have donated to American politicians, parties, and causes are even less accurate than the loose estimates of Jewish votes, but there is little question that the figure is staggering. It is impossible to determine precisely the grand total contributed to only presidential candidates by individual Jewish donors, but it may well be as much or more than one third of all Democratic money and a lesser though still impressive percentage of the funds raised by Republicans.

Anti-Semites and “Israel Lobby” conspiracy-mongers believe money is the only reason American politicians care about Israel, but that is a misleading and potentially libelous explanation. If pro-Israel policies were not enormously popular with all Americans, as every survey of opinion on the issue has always shown, then no amount of Jewish money would be enough to secure the alliance. Affection for Israel is based on the common values of the two countries, and on the passionate support for Zionism that is part of the American political DNA and rooted in the religious and political beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Americans.

The Adelson-Gingrich connection is an example of how the role of pro-Israel money is often misinterpreted. In the immediate aftermath of the Adelsons’ $10 million donations, some on the political left asserted that the casino owner had, in effect, purchased Gingrich’s position on the Middle East and was the reason that the former speaker had spoken of Palestinian nationalism as a late-20th century invention—a statement so provocative Gingrich was required to defend it during a nationally televised debate. Yet Gingrich’s ardent backing of Israel and disdain for Palestinian efforts to destroy it long predated his relationship with Adelson, let alone his presidential run. He held those views throughout his tenure in Congress, even when, in the 1980s, it was perfectly respectable for conservative Republicans to view Israel with suspicion (as Jesse Helms did, for example, until he experienced a change of heart later in his career). Indeed, Gingrich’s affection for Benjamin Netanyahu had been a major irritant to the Israeli politician’s relationship with President Clinton in the 1990s. If Adelson sought to advance Gingrich’s fortunes, it was because Gingrich has supported the Jewish state for decades without even the hint of a thought of recompense.

Gingrich was rewarded for his record with the support of Adelson and others who liked his willingness to offend establishment sensibilities about the Middle East. His remark about the Palestinians being an “invented people” was a perfect illustration of that, even though he was quick to add that his beliefs about the origins of Palestinian nationalism did not mean he was inalterably opposed to a Palestinian state should it pledge to live in peace with Israel. 

Although some Jewish PACs actively support candidates friendly to Israel and oppose those who are not, there are few credible examples of “Jewish money” sinking anti-Israel politicians. Some dissenters from the pro-Israel consensus, such as the late Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois or former Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, were alleged to be crushed by Jewish donations that went instead to their opponents. Such accounts, however, tend to ignore that the candidates were already deeply unpopular and likely to lose, no matter their views on Israel. Like the myth of the Israel Lobby itself, the notion of the undue influence of pro-Israel donations is a convenient explanatory tool for those who cannot accept that most Americans back the alliance. What critics of the Jewish state usually misunderstand is that politicians who make a point of bashing Israel are, in most instances, contradicting the opinions of their constituents, not just a few big Jewish donors.

In the 2012 Republican race, several candidates with strikingly similar positions on the Middle East have competed, with mixed success, for the affection of the Jewish community. If by the beginning of 2012 much of that support had coalesced behind Mitt Romney, it was not so much due to his positions on the Middle East. He was indistinguishable from Gingrich in his willingness to prioritize the alliance with Israel and to oppose threats to its existence. Romney enjoyed greater support because he was seen as the most viable candidate to run against Obama. Democrats have often argued successfully to keep the issue of Israel off the table in order to preserve a bipartisan consensus, but Obama’s record has made that cynical ploy untenable. This leaves open the possibility that a Republican candidate might win significant Jewish support.

The transformation of the Republicans from a party indifferent to the Jewish vote and lukewarm about Israel into a pro-Israel force is almost complete. All but one contender for the GOP presidential nomination has campaigned as a friend of Israel and a critic of the Obama administration’s stance on the Middle East. But Republicans’ efforts to capitalize on their party’s strong record on Israel have earned them little or zero electoral success.

Since Ronald Reagan earned a record 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980, no Republican has done as well. Indeed, Reagan received only 31 percent of Jewish votes in 1984 despite winning a 49-state landslide that year. After the elder George Bush garnered a respectable 35 percent in 1988, he dropped to 11 percent in 1992, and Robert Dole got 16 percent in 1996. George W. Bush did little better in 2000 with 19 percent, even though he climbed to 24 percent in 2004—still a disappointing showing for Jewish Republicans who believed Bush had established himself as the most pro-Israel president since the state’s founding.

In 2008, with John McCain, a moderate pro-Israel Republican opposing Obama (a candidate with little record of support for the Jewish state and troubling associations with anti-Zionist radicals), the GOP was disappointed even more sorely. Obama secured 78 percent of the Jewish vote. That more than three-quarters of Jews were unmoved by the GOP’s appeals asserting that left-wing Democrats had moved outside the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus left Republicans without much hope of making progress among Jewish voters.

Contrary to the myth about the power of the pro-Israel Lobby, Jews are not single-issue voters. As many writers, including former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, have explained at length, Jews are disproportionately liberal. Liberals see the Democrat “social justice” agenda not only as appropriate policy but also as, in part, a mandate from their faith tradition. Just as important as the identification of many Jews with liberal policies is Jewish antipathy for a great constituency of the Republican Party: Christian conservatives. The divide between Jews and Christian conservatives runs deep and must now be acknowledged as being as much about culture and prejudice as it is about politics. Liberal Jews view the Christian right as a threat to their rights as a religious minority. If that means backing a half-hearted friend of the Jewish state instead of a GOP candidate who may be pro-Israel but is also a pro-life, anti-gay evangelical, then there is little question that is what most will do.

Some liberal Democrats believed Obama’s 2008 success demonstrated more than the obvious truth that American Jews did not hold Israel as their only priority. The president’s victory was seen as heralding a new age in which Jewish Democrats would consciously embrace a less supportive stance toward the Jewish state. This formulation was the conceit behind the formation of J Street, the left-wing group that sought to replace the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as the pro-Israel community’s voice in Washington, D.C. Conceived as a force that would serve as the Jewish cheerleader for U.S. pressure on Israel, J Street was supposed to put an end to the belief that American politicians would have to bow to the dictates of what some on the left labeled the Israel Lobby, after the fashion of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s 2007 scurrilous book of the same name.

But J Street’s inability to generate much support or to demonstrate any influence with Congress in the three years since Obama’s victory illustrates how far off the mark this idea was. Democrats and liberals most Jews may be, but the majority remains concerned about Israel’s security. Despite their lack of affection for Israel’s current government, most Democrats take a dim view of positions that undermine Israeli security or policies that seek to overturn the will of a majority of that country’s voters. Indeed, the administration’s behavior after every dispute with Prime Minister Netanyahu demonstrates that it, too, is aware of the potential for political harm.

It is in this light that the first three years of Obama’s presidency must be assessed. The Democrats will have difficulty coping with the record of animus this administration has demonstrated toward the government of Israel. There was no doubting in January 2009 that the president and his foreign-policy team were determined to draw a sharp distinction between their new policies and those of the Bush administration. Obama clearly viewed American foreign policy as handicapped by the U.S. friendship with Israel. What followed was Obama’s treatment of 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem as if they were far-flung West Bank hilltop outposts as well as disputes about American demands for a settlement freeze. The spats over Jerusalem were unprecedented and bitter. So, too, was the dispute over the president’s May 2011 speech in which he declared that the borderlines in place before the outset of the 1967 Six Day War should be the starting point for future peace talks.

After Netanyahu publicly lectured the president about the dangers of the 1967 lines, the administration embarked on a full-scale charm offensive aimed at convincing American Jews that the nasty fights Obama had picked with Israel should not influence their opinion of him. The president and his surrogates lost no opportunity to highlight the administration’s efforts to strengthen the existing security cooperation between the United States and Israel. The Obama team trumpeted every minor act of friendship between the two allies as a major foreign-policy accomplishment.

The administration and its apologists have also toughened their rhetoric about the most important security threat facing Israel: the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Obama has been consistent in saying he would not let Iran build a nuclear weapon, but his policies have not matched his rhetoric. Needing to stress to Jews and other pro-Israel voters that he cared about the issue, the president stepped up his verbal onslaught and even caused some of his top aides to drop hints that the United States might consider the use of force against Iran. Nevertheless, many Jewish voters—and monetary contributors—did not fail to observe that the administration entered this year equally worried about an Israeli attack on Iran and the prospect of an Iranian nuke. The president’s fears of the economic impact of an oil embargo on Iran also served to stoke concerns that his main goal was to get through 2012 without a confrontation with Tehran coming to a head.

The mere fact that the administration finds it necessary to conduct outreach with one of its core constituency groups is proof that it understands there is a problem. But by the end of 2011, it was clear that this new determination to demonstrate closeness with Israel did not overcome the impression on the part of most American friends of the Jewish state that Obama was the least friendly president to Israel in a generation. The 2011 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion conducted by the American Jewish Committee in September indicated a majority disapproved of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations by 53 to 40 percent. These figures, along with others, confirmed that most American Jews believe the Palestinians seek the destruction of Israel and reaffirmed that groups such as J Street represent only a small minority of American Jewish opinion. The Democrats’ September loss of New York’s 9th congressional district seat in Brooklyn and Queens (previously held by the disgraced Anthony Weiner) was rightly seen as a referendum on the administration’s hostility to Israel.

Even more troubling for Democrats was a Pew Research study released in February 2012 that measured identification with the two major parties between 2008 and 2011. In 2008, Democrats led among Jews by a hefty 72 to 20 percent. By the end of 2011, the margin was down to 65 to 29 percent. The net gain of 9 percent for the GOP was the biggest shift in affiliation of any religious group, except the Mormons, who were moved by Mitt Romney’s candidacy to become even more Republican. While a sour economy and general dissatisfaction with the incumbent gave the GOP a net 4 percent gain for the entire population, the much larger shift to the right among Jews cannot be explained by any factor other than concern for the president’s policy toward Israel. 

In reply, Democrats can argue that despite the problems that have plagued U.S.-Israel relations in the past three years, the basics of the alliance have been unchanged. As far as American Jews who worry about Israel are concerned, however, the damage is already done. No matter what Obama says or does in 2012, there is no disguising that his disputes with Netanyahu betray an attitude toward Israel lacking the emotional fervor that characterized the friendship of presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush. Obama’s approach to Israel is based neither on shared values nor on deeply held faith. 

Rather it appears to be rooted in a neutral view of the Middle East in which Israel and its antagonists are morally equivalent. Given Obama’s history of friction with Israel, the fear among Jews and the hope among Arabs is that a reelected Obama will be even more hostile to the Jewish state than he has been in the past. More than policy differences, these visceral evaluations of the president’s sentiments constitute the biggest obstacle Obama will face in looking to match his 2008 Jewish-vote totals and prevent any drop in contributions.

Despite the president’s seemingly unshakeable grip on the votes of most liberals, there is still a significant percentage of the Jewish vote up for grabs. Even if one assumes the ceiling for any Republican to be Ronald Reagan’s 39 percent and that nothing could happen between Israel and the United States to cause Obama’s share of the Jewish vote to drop below 50 percent, it still leaves anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of American Jews as potential swing voters.

Some analysts dispute the notion that a slight percentage of a small minority group can have any impact on an election in which more than 130 million Americans are expected to participate. But given that it is still the Electoral College and not the popular vote that determines the outcome of the presidential election, Jewish votes in a few large states will be crucial. 

Some of the states with the largest Jewish populations—New York with 8.3 percent, Massachusetts with 4.3 percent, Maryland with 4.2 percent, and California with 3.3 percent—will not be in play in 2012. Obama will win them. But there are at least three states with large concentrations of Jewish voters that could decide the election: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

Obama won New Jersey in a landslide in 2008. But John Kerry carried it by less than a quarter of a million votes in 2004. If the 2012 race reverts to the models of 2000 and 2004, in which the outcome was narrowly decided, then any shift in the Jewish vote, which amounts to at least 6 percent of the total, could be decisive. This could also be true in Pennsylvania, where polls at the end of 2011 showed Obama to be in serious danger of losing a state he won easily in 2008. In 2004, Kerry carried the Keystone state by a slender margin of fewer than 150,000 votes. A repeat of the 2004 toss-up would mean that a shift of only 10 to 25 percent of the Jewish vote could make the difference between victory and defeat for Obama.

Such a possibility may be even more likely in Florida, a state that has been closely contested by the parties and swung both ways in recent elections. It goes without saying that if the 2012 election is as close as the 2000 “hanging chad” election, any shift in the Jewish vote could be decisive. But even if it is no closer than the elections of 2004 or 2008 (when Bush and Obama won by narrow margins), it will be important.

Like many non-Jewish moderates, Jews in these states are most concerned with the condition of the economy. But the number of those who will actually vote for the GOP standard-bearer may turn on whether the nominee is someone closely identified with the Christian right. Candidates such as Gingrich or Rick Santorum have little chance of equaling, much less beating John McCain’s paltry 22 percent—even if Obama is perceived as unsatisfactory on Israel—because their image, at least as far as Jewish moderates are concerned, is defined more by their stands on social issues such as abortion and gay rights than by their positions on the Middle East. But a candidate who is not seen in this light, such as Mitt Romney, might be in position to garner Jewish swing votes.

Nevertheless, even though Jewish votes are important, Americans should expect far more media attention paid to Jewish fundraising. Thus, the true audience for the Democrats’ massive effort to convince Jews that Obama has stayed true to Israel may well not be the Jewish electorate but the Democrats’ base of Jewish donors. Reports about how his stance on Israel may affect his ability to raise money for his reelection are mixed so far. Anecdotal evidence and quotes from fundraisers about declining enthusiasm for the president are everywhere. But the vast majority of Jewish bundlers for both parties are not typical swing voters. They are in fact the most intense partisans. Given the proven willingness of many liberal Jews to grade any Democrat’s performance on Israel on a steep curve, it may be that Obama’s fundraising will not be substantially affected. 

By the start of 2012, it was clear that even if reports of the Obama campaign’s ambition to raise a billion dollars were unrealistic, the amount of donated money would be enormous, if not record-setting. The same might be true of his Republican rival. Neither party nor the vast array of independent committees assisting the candidates’ efforts will lack funds in 2012.

Given the new freedom to spend money on advocacy as a result of Citizens United, one can expect that during the course of the 2012 campaign the question of the untoward influence of Jewish money will be raised repeatedly by Israel’s critics. This will make many Jews cringe, no matter where their political loyalties lie, but they should not shrink from defending the right of groups to highlight issues of importance. Although many were embarrassed by the idea of a single contributor keeping a candidate in the race purely out of concern for Israel, as was the case with Adelson and Gingrich, the only differences between the former’s contributions and those of other Jews to Obama or other candidates was scale and publicity. (Indeed, George Soros and Peter Lewis, the two largest givers to liberal groups loosely affiliated with the Democratic Party and Obama, are Jewish—and their key roles in the 2004 and 2008 election cycles will probably dwarf anything Adelson or other Jews aligned with the GOP this year will do.)

Considering the importance of the 2012 outcome to Israel, why should Americans who care about the issue abstain from supporting candidates who take positions that are consonant with the maintenance of the alliance? And why should candidates who are already on record as longstanding backers of Israel be unwilling to accept such support?

What makes Obama’s record on the Middle East such a critical matter in the coming election is that an overwhelming majority of Americans, only a sliver of them Jewish, feel genuine affection for Israel. Obama has only himself to blame, and he will now have to court assiduously a vote, and a donor base, that was his in 2008.

About the Author

Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY.

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