American Jews traditionally are Democrats. In the last presidential election, 79 percent of Jewish voters supported Al Gore, compared with 19 percent for George W. Bush.
But some politics watchers believe Bush's consistently strong support for Israel might significantly boost his showing among Jews in November.
“The Jewish vote is more in play in this election than it was in the last,” said Josh Block, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which lobbies for Israel in Washington.
Time and again, President Bush has supported the Jewish state, most notably in 2002, when he distanced the United States from Yasser Arafat, arguing that the Palestinian leader's alleged involvement in terrorism disqualified him for a role in any future peace process. More recently, Bush endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's controversial plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip, a move that enraged many Muslims.
Moreover, Bush has repeatedly reminded Jewish groups of his support for Israel. At a recent AIPAC conference, the president told an enthusiastic crowd, “The United States is strongly committed, and I am strongly committed, to the security of Israel as a vibrant Jewish state.”
All of this effort might seem odd, given that the Jewish community makes up less than 1.5 percent of the nation's population. But a larger percentage of Jews — about 80 percent — go to the polls than most other ethnic groups, and they are big contributors to political causes and candidates.
In addition, several important states where neither candidate enjoys a clear advantage have sizable Jewish populations. “In some of these very close swing states — Florida, Pennsylvania, potentially Ohio, Nevada and Jersey — it could make a difference in a very close election,” Block said.
Traditionally, the Jewish piece of the electoral puzzle has been placed squarely in the Democratic camp. Even Ronald Reagan, a Republican who was unusually popular among Jews (due to his support for Israel and Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union), received only 40 percent of the Jewish vote.
President Bush's chief campaign strategist, Matthew Dowd, concedes that his candidate is unlikely to match Reagan's share. Still, he expects the president to do much better among Jewish voters than he did in 2000.
Besides his impressive pro-Israel credentials, the president won't be facing a Jewish candidate on the opposing ticket as he did in the first election, when Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., was Gore's running mate.
Bush's standing in the Jewish community may also have been helped by Kerry, who criticized Israel last fall for building a security fence in the West Bank to separate the Israelis from the Palestinians. Soon after, Kerry upset Jewish groups again when he said he would consider sending former President Jimmy Carter to the Middle East as a special envoy. Many pro-Israel advocates consider Carter too sympathetic to the Palestinians.
But many Democrats doubt that Bush could make more than marginal gains in the Jewish community, in part because he is out of step with most Jews on domestic issues, such as abortion.
“Bush enjoys an incredible perception as pro-Israel, but that's not the only issue Jews care about,” says Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic media strategist for several Jewish organizations. “Support for Israel is a litmus test, and a candidate must be very good on Israel even to be considered. Once they see that John Kerry is at least as good on Israel, and maybe has a longer and better record, then I think they pivot to domestic issues, and it's not even a close call.”
Recently Kerry has tried to reassure Jewish voters that he is “good” on Israel, backing off his earlier controversial statements. And when the president came out in favor of Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza, the Democratic candidate immediately issued a statement supporting the move.
Finally, in a May 3 speech to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization, Kerry touted his pro-Israel voting record and echoed Bush's promise to protect Israel. “I will never force Israel to make concessions that cost or compromise any of Israel's security,” he said. “The security of Israel is paramount.”