(My featured piece on Romney and the Orthodox Jewish vote, as published in the Jewish Voice) --
Despite garnering 30 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney lost Florida – the supposedly Jewish Turnaround – by over 100 thousand votes. Hence, it looks like Romney could feel some comfort from the numbers coming out from Brooklyn.
Mr. Romney enjoyed one of his strongest showings of support in the entire country, from a range of neighborhoods in the Blue New York City with large populations of Orthodox Jews, regardless of income level, according to a precinct-by-precinct examination by the New York Times.
Mitt Romney won more than 90 percent of the votes in many precincts in Borough Park, Sheepshead Bay and the Chasidic neighborhood in Williamsburg. One example of what the Times calls “the deepest single bloc of Republican support in all five boroughs,” was the precinct in Gravesend, where Romney got 97 percent of the vote. Other Romney strongholds according to the Times were: Manhattan Beach, Belle Harbor in the Rockaways; and Howard Beach, Queens.
In comparison, in 2008, McCain drew more than five times as many votes as Obama in Willamsburg, McCain gave Obama an 84-percent-to-16-percent thrashing, according to the Brooklyn Paper.
McCain’s strongest showing four years ago in terms of Districts, was in the 48th Assembly district, encompassing parts of Dyker Heights and Borough Park and represented by Democrat Assemblyman Dov Hikind.
Interestingly enough, the Republicans’ bragging about their solid support of Israel may have had an opposite effect in Kiryas Joel, Satmar’s strong hold.
As reported two weeks ago, one KJ resident, speaking to the New York Post, said that they “were unofficially told to vote for Obama because Romney is pro-Israel.”
Another resident was quoted by the New York Post as saying that “some people voted for Obama to make a statement that they disagree with what they believe are unfair attacks against the president by Zionist interests.”
Since the numbers are so impressive, at least for number crunchers, why are the Orthodox Jewish voters, who vote for Democrats on the local level, so supportive of the Republican presidential nominee, yet do not continue to vote Republican all down the ballot, I asked Michael Fragin, a Republican political consultant from the Five Towns.
“When you refer to Orthodox voters voting for the GOP in federal elections and for Democrats in local elections the question is really focused on NYC,” said Fragin. “That is because the relative weakness of the Republicans in New York City leads to races where there is no competitive Republican candidate. In those local races the Orthodox community is faced with candidates who may be seen as a lesser of evils,” Fragin tried to explain to me.
As an example, Fragin points to places like Long Island’s Five Towns, Rockland County, and Lakewood, NJ, where the Republican candidates are more competitive and therefore get the Orthodox vote in large numbers. In Lawrence, Long Island, Republican candidates up and down the ticket won in excess of 70% of the vote with Mitt Romney getting 85%. In the earlier Turner/Weprin and Storobin/Fidler races, and the recent Addabbo/Ulrich race, the decisive majority of the Orthodox vote went to the Republican. Generally, Republican themes of lower taxes, less government intrusion, and a strong and forceful foreign policy resonate strongly with Orthodox Jewish voters, particularly at a time when Israel is vulnerable. Additionally, “Orthodox voters are not “turned off” by the social conservative views of the GOP as are other Jews. In fact, the Orthodox will generally favor the more conservative candidate,” Fragin argued.
While Congressman Bob Turner’s win in the 2011 special election in Brooklyn and Queens against all odds was in large part attributed to what Mayor Koch referred to as a message to President Obama on Israel, the Israel issue didn’t seem to gain so much traction in the general 2012 elections, even in the Orthodox community. In most State districts, both the Democratic and the Republican candidate backed Romney for President, something that was essential for incumbents to hold their seats, or else rely on a mandate for the Democratic Party’s policies.
Ben Akselrod, a Democrat who ran as a third party candidate, admits that the crisscrossing voting method helped incumbents and candidates with name recognition. “Southern Brooklyn is definitely more conservative and it’s not a trend any longer- it’s a fact,” Akselrod told the Jewish Voice. “The Democratic candidate in SD17 fought long and hard to win the Conservative party nomination. The incumbent Democratic candidate for 45AD declared himself a conservative Democrat, and publicly stated he is not supporting President Obama’s reelection. Southern Brooklyn is conservative.”
The question remains, what motivated Orthodox voters to express their anger at President Obama and support the Republican nominee, without taking into account the President’s Israel policy, that some described as hostile to Israel.
“The Ultra-Orthodox community (including Satmar JK) who are not pro-Zionist per se, is very supportive of Israel [from a secular point of view] , but the issue is not their highest priority,” said Yossi Gestetner, Chasidic political consultant and blogger, in a phone interview. “Hence, like most Americans, economics and in general domestic issues are their main concern. As far as the Orthodox community is concerned, the Democratic Party has failed their parents, thus they, the Ultra-Orthodox/Chasidim favor the GOP, when it comes to shaping policy,” Gestetner asserted.
Brooklyn GOP chairman Craig Eaton had a similar message about Orthodox voters favoring his candidates in the past two election cycles. “Our candidates are more in line with voters of the district in general and the Jewish community in particular, when it comes to fiscal policies and moral values,” Eaton told the Jewish Voice.
Eaton, who was instrumental in getting Bob Turner into the race for Congress and winning the seat and also helping David Storobin in his successful run for NYS Senate, said he welcomes Jewish operatives and members of the Orthodox community to join the Brooklyn GOP, since it can be stronger and more successful if it broadens its base and works together with the community to achieve the two groups’ common goals.
“In just a short period, Congressman Bob Turner and Senator David Storobin proved to be effective players and strong advocates for the Orthodox community, and this is only the beginning of our relationship. We need to build on these recent victories and strengthen and grow the bond between the Brooklyn GOP and the Orthodox community since together we can continue to elect representatives in all levels of government,” Eaton added.
If the trend continues, the Orthodox community might turn out to be one of the most loyal voting blocs in the Republican party, which brings many to ask ‘Ma Nishtana’ – what is different between our existence and the few thousand voters in Iowa, who get to see the candidates beginning two years before Election Day on a regular basis? Why is the Republican Party not recognizing and appreciating our support, many young and enthusiastic voters have pressed me time and again.
“It’s not personal,” said Michael Fragin. “The party on a national basis generally ignores urban areas to a fault. The Republican Party courts the Orthodox vote on an inconsistent basis, tending to come around when there is a specific election to be won. However, the NY State Senate Republicans have put a significant emphasis on courting the Orthodox vote; such a strategy would likely have paid more dividends had Hurricane Sandy not upset the state senate race in Queens,” Fragin noted.
“The Orthodox community is a small minority within a minority that is primarily located in Democrat leaning areas of Democrat leaning states,” he added.
Yossi Gestetner, who is very opinionated in his blog ‘Gestetner Updates’ and on Twitter, placed the blame on the Jewish outreach team within the Republican Party – the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is funded by Jewish mogul Sheldon Adelson.
“The RJC does zero to non-work in the above communities. Instead they focus mostly on other Jewish groups who care even less about Israel,” Gestetner pointed to their recent 6 million dollar investment in swing states like Ohio and Florida.
“They [RJC] spent millions yelling “Israel... Israel” to a group of voters, who don’t even care much about Israel, since it has never been a deciding factor for them according to public opinion polls, and then they try telling us and deceiving Adelson that Obama getting ‘only’ 69% of the Jewish vote is an achievement.”
“Well, come to us - Orthodox voters, Mr. Adelson,” Gestetner continued to argue. “We are the current and future of giving key votes for the GOP if the outreach is done right.”
There’s also another argument from the other side of the aisle. “There is very little honest debate of political issues anymore in the Orthodox Jewish world,” wrote one Orthodox Liberal blogger . “The mindset of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, et al & etc., dominates most all “frum” newspapers, websites and blogs. Opposing views rarely get aired or examined.”
According to a New York Times study released in June, 40 percent of Jews in New York City identify themselves as Orthodox, an increase from 33 percent in 2002; 74 percent of all Jewish children in the city are Orthodox.
Regardless of the views of both sides, the fact that President Obama got less than 15% of the vote is telling, and may serve as a wakeup call to Democrats across the country - just as ethnic minorities remain loyal to the Democratic Party, a fast growing population in NYC can determine the outcome of competitive statewide and congressional races and ultimately balance the power in Washington, as an important swing vote that cannot be ignored. At the same time, local and national races gave the indication that it remains incumbent upon the Republican Party to invest and adopt a more compelling feeling and message towards the Jewish community.