Why the GOP Campaign To Court Florida Jews Is a Bust

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 24 2012 6:49 PM

The Battle for Florida’s Jews

It turns out it’s not much of a battle after all.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan greet supporters during a Victory Rally in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.— On the flight into Fort Lauderdale’s airport, if you look to the right of the plane, you see the first billboard: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Get Nuked. STOP OBAMA.” A cartoon map of Israel, colored white and blue and decorated with a Star of David, is being hit by an ICBM. On I-95, the route up to the heart of south Florida’s Jewish heartland, you see more signs in the same garish colors portraying the president bowing to a Saudi prince.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

The billboards are paid for by the American Principles super PAC. A photo of the one I saw led a spooky New York Times story this week as an example of the “strident messages” arriving in swing states. It’s also an example of how the noise of this campaign outmatches the signal. The PAC has reported only $126,000 in funds and handed most of it over to CBS Outdoor, the billboard company. Emails to its official address bounce back; phone calls to their offices ricochet off a full file of voice mail.

The campaign to turn nervous Jews against Barack Obama’s Democrats might turn out to be a bust. And after such high hopes! The president’s relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu has been one long Adam Sandler movie of pratfalls and accidental insults. In July, a Gallup poll gave Obama a meager 64-29 lead among Jewish voters. It was, as the Palm Beach-based Newsmax pointed out, the worst Democratic showing since Michael Dukakis. A result like that could’ve meant tens of thousands fewer votes for Obama in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Nevada.

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But it didn’t last. A mid-September Gallup poll, obtained by Buzzfeed, gave the president a 70-25 lead with Jewish voters. That’s about what he won in 2008. In the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney only mentioned Israel after the president brought it up and then said, “I think the tension that existed between Israel and the United States was very unfortunate.” In general, he went lighter on the issue than in past foreign policy speeches.

“I thought, “Wow, he must be confident about winning Florida,” says Ana Navarro, a Miami-based Republican strategist. “He left a lot of Israel on the table. He left Cuba on the table.” She mentions another billboard campaign, by the better-funded Republican Jewish Coalition, which has spent at least $4.5 million in the general election stretch on ads that show purportedly disappointed Obama voters on silly pun-filled billboards. “I don’t think those OBAMA? OY VEY! signs were swaying many people,” says Navarro.

Democrats—who, let’s be fair, have been spinning this for years—argue that Obama was already winning the argument and used the debate to spike the ball. Romney’s trump card on Israel was that Obama failed to visit Israel on his Middle East tour, and Israelis noticed. “I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” said the president. “And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas.”* He talked about the military exercise team-ups between the two countries and the Iron Dome defense system, and the round was over.

“Talking about Yad Vashem—that resonates with Jewish voters, especially when he pronounces it correctly,” says former Rep. Robert Wexler, the overtaxed Obama surrogate on Israel issues. “It resonates when he explains why he then was motivated to spend money on the Iron Dome.”