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Obama’s vital Jewish backing slips in Florida

Rabbi Barry Silver, who leads a reform synagogue in Lake Worth, Fla., says he has noticed less support for the president.

jason nuttle for the boston globe

Rabbi Barry Silver, who leads a reform synagogue in Lake Worth, Fla., says he has noticed less support for the president.

Facing a stagnant economy and Republican attacks on his Middle East policy, President Obama appears to be losing some support among Jewish voters in the critical swing state of Florida, according to Jewish political activists and demographers.

Most estimates range from 3 percent to low double digits, but any slippage for Obama will be magnified by the traditionally outsized turnout of this core Democratic constituency. Jews constitute only 3 percent of the state’s population but cast their ballots in such large numbers that they can account for 7 or 8 percent of the total vote.

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“A small shift in the Jewish vote can make a difference,” said Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor who is director of the Jewish Demography Project there. In recent polls, Obama led Mitt Romney in Florida overall by an average of only 1.4 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics.

The economy remains the top concern of Jewish voters, according to surveys, but Obama’s opposition to Israeli settlements, his contentious relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his reluctance to rattle the saber against Iran are worrying some Jewish supporters. A new wild card is the effect in Florida that Romney’s vice presidential choice, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, will have. He has been a leading proponent of privatizing Medicare.

A Gallup poll released last month showed 68 percent support for Obama among Jewish voters nationwide, a sharp drop from his 78 percent showing against Senator John S. McCain four years ago. In March, a poll by the American Jewish Committee pegged the president’s support in a race against Romney at 61 percent.

“There are some people who are concerned about whether Obama really has his heart in Israel,” Sheskin said. “There are people who are afraid that Obama will put undue pressure on Israel in his second term.”

Romney spoke to those concerns when he visited Israel last month.

“We cannot stand silent as those who seek to undermine Israel voice their criticisms,” Romney said in a speech in Jerusalem. “And we certainly should not join in that criticism. Diplomatic distance in public between our nations emboldens Israel’s adversaries.”

A Romney television ad released earlier this month is more direct.

“As president, Barack Obama has never visited Israel and refuses to recognize Jerusalem as its capital,” the ad says. “Mitt Romney will be a different kind of president — a strong leader who stands by our allies.”

Democrats counter that no presidents except Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter visited Israel in their first terms. In addition, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN recently that Obama’s support for Israeli security has been “more than anything that I can remember in the past.”

A spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party said the criticism will not be effective.

“We’ve seen these types of attacks before, and they’re not breaking through,” said David Bergstein, the party spokesman. “As a Jew myself, when I see these partisan attacks coming, they’re clearly misleading.”

Bergstein said the party has launched a grass-roots counterattack, often through Jews talking to Jews. “We’re aggressively making sure that voters in Florida know the truth,” he said.

Republicans, however, said they are winning many converts.

“The 78 percent that Barack Obama got in the Jewish community four years ago is off the table,” said Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party. “Barack Obama will get a majority of the Jewish vote, but he won’t get two-thirds.”

Dinerstein, the first Jew to lead the county GOP, predicted that Obama would win 60 to 65 percent of that vote. As a result, he said, “when you take 10, 15 points of the Jewish vote and flip them, the state’s gone, believe me.”

Alan Bergstein, 79, who performs Republican outreach to the Jewish community in Boca Raton, Fla., said that “little by little, the Jews are moving into Romney’s camp.”

However, he added, many of them will not publicly discuss their shift. If they did, Bergstein said, “they’d get thrown out of the card game and into the pool.”

Any significant erosion of Obama’s support among the 639,000 Jews who live in Florida would have an outsize impact because their turnout could be near or more than 90 percent, Sheskin said. And any shift in Florida, as political analysts quickly point out, can be golden. In 2000, the state — and the presidency — were decided by a bitterly disputed margin of 537 votes that propelled George W. Bush to victory over Al Gore.

Sheskin, who stressed that polling numbers in the summer do not provide an apple-to-apple comparison with the final 2008 result, predicted that the Jewish drop-off would be only 3 or 4 percentage points.

But even if a shift is fairly small, the reliability of the Jewish vote seems less ironclad. For example, the cofounder of a pro-Obama super-PAC estimated that 15 percent of Jewish voters who backed Obama in 2008 are reconsidering their support.

“We have had to spend much more time than we did in ’08, talking to people whom I would call the base of the Democratic Party, to get them reengaged,” said Mik Moore, cofounder of the super PAC Jewish Council for Education and Research.

Romney and his Republican supporters “are pouring a lot of money into advertising, and that advertising has the potential to be effective,” Moore said. “They have been so narrow in their pitch, so focused on issues such as Israel.”

To counter that drumbeat, Democrats have countered with push-back from Jewish officials such as Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a South Florida congresswoman and chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee; and a visit from Jack Lew, the White House chief of staff. Vice President Joe Biden also has visited South Florida to defend the administration’s stance on Israel.

However, even leaders of liberal Jewish congregations are sensing a shift.

“In my congregation, there’s still lots of support for Obama,” said Rabbi Barry Silver, who leads a reform synagogue in Lake Worth, Fla., just south of West Palm Beach. “However, since the last election, I have noticed Obama’s support slipping across all denominational lines.”

Part of that erosion is because of the economy, Silver said, but part is also because of Israel. In the rabbi’s view, that concern has been exploited and inflamed by Romney and the Republicans.

“Obama’s position on Israel has been misrepresented by conservatives who are trying to distort the truth,” said Silver, who organized a debate titled “Obama and Israel: Friend or Foe” that turned raucous at his synagogue in May.

“I was disappointed with the behavior of some of the people on both sides,” Silver said. However, he added, “the right-wingers were more vocal and intolerant of anyone that they perceived as not sufficiently pro-Israel.”

Despite uneasiness about Obama’s relations with Israel, Silver and other observers predicted, Jews will back Obama in overwhelming numbers because of his positions on social issues such as health care.

“There’s just a huge cultural disconnect between the base of the Republican Party and the typical Jewish voter,” Moore said. “There is some receptiveness to what they’re pushing, but they can’t close the deal.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.
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