I watched the Obama victory last night from the perspective of someone who follows Jewish voting patterns. His success at winning over the Jewish community – exit polls report that as many as 77% of all Jews voted for him – says much about what made his victory possible.
For months, large numbers of Jews felt ambivalent about Obama. He had defeated one of the Jewish community’s favorite politicians, Hillary Clinton, in a bruising primary. His experience was limited. His Middle East policies were a question mark. He had associated himself with individuals, like Rev. Wright, whom the Jewish community distrusted. And he had a racial background — African-American, the product of a mixed family, a Muslim middle name — that some Jews found troubling.
At one time, upwards of 40 percent of American Jews leaned Republican in this election. That was a problem for Senator Obama. Historically, for Democratic candidates, a Jewish vote of 75% or more is necessary – not sufficient, but necessary – to win the Presidency. Democrats who could not cross that 75% threshold, such as Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Jimmy Carter in 1980, lost their presidential bids. In key swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida, strong Jewish support can make all the difference for a Democratic candidate.
Senator Obama worked hard to turn Jewish voters around. He courted them, he reassured them, and he recruited people whom the Jewish community trusted and loved to campaign on his behalf. Over the last two months, as Senator McCain stumbled, the economy tumbled, and Gov Palin bungled, Obama’s perseverance paid off. Many Jews swung back to his side, attracted to his message of change.
Of course, the Jewish community did not speak with one voice in this election. American Jews living in Israel voted overwhelmingly for McCain, and an unscientific poll of students at the Orthodox-leaning Yeshiva University found that two-thirds of the students there supported McCain too. But elsewhere, even in places like Florida where pundits predicted that older Jews would be unable to bring themselves to vote for Black man with the middle name “Hussein,” the pundits proved wrong. Counties with big Jewish populations in Florida went for Obama in a big way.
Ultimately, most Jews voted for Obama, quite simply, because they found him to be the better candidate. Tallying up the qualities of the two sides, they searched their consciences, and picked the person whom they thought best qualified for the job. Discounting race, religion, color, and scarifying rumors, they voted according to the only standard that really matters in the end: merit.
Obama, they concluded, is smarter, more articulate, and better equipped to handle the difficult challenges of our time.