Jewish American voters have leaned Democratic for decades, but Republicans are hoping the recent steps toward normalized relations between Gulf states and Israel — which Trump vigorously touted earlier this month — bolster his appeal to Jewish voters.
With battleground states like Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan decided in 2016 by fewer than a combined 200,000 votes, any loss of the Jewish support by Democratic nominee Joe Biden could be pivotal.
“Democrats like to say they have a majority of the Jewish vote,” said Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks, whose group is spending $10 million to boost Trump and other GOP candidates in battleground states. “They do — but that’s not what this game is about.”
Brooks’ group is aiming for 300,000 voter contacts in swing states, focusing the bulk of its spending on Trump while also aiding some GOP congressional hopefuls. Last week’s signing of the Israel-United Arab Emirates agreement, which Bahrain later joined, “proves that the president does have a vision” for working toward peace in the Middle East, Brooks said.
The Trump campaign is ramping up its own efforts as well, launching a “Jewish Voices for Trump” initiative in September centering on his support for Israel. Co-chairs include casino mogul and conservative donor Sheldon Adelson and former White House aide Boris Epshteyn.
“President Trump is a champion of the Jewish people and the greatest ally the State of Israel has ever had,” Epshteyn, who also advises Trump’s campaign, said in a statement.
But whether Trump can gain ground with Jewish voters on the strength of his foreign policy agenda remains an unanswered question. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last year, 42% of Jewish Americans said Trump’s policies favor the Israelis too much, while 47% said he strikes the right balance between Israelis and Palestinians.
And most Jewish voters broke for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. AP VoteCast found that 72% of Jews who voted nationwide backed Democratic House candidates, while 26% backed Republicans. Among those Jewish midterm voters in 2018, VoteCast shows that 74% disapproved of Trump and just 26% approved.
The majority of Jewish voters who view Trump unfavorably “are not going to put (that) out of their minds” because the president can trumpet new pacts between Gulf states and Israel, said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal-leaning Jewish American advocacy group J Street.
J Street’s political committee has raised more than $2 million for Biden and hosted a virtual reception with the Democratic nominee in September.
Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, predicted Biden could make up for Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in Michigan and Pennsylvania “with the Jewish vote alone.”
“When it comes to Israel, there’s a tendency among Republicans, including the president himself, to treat Jewish voters as if we are, A, monolithic and, B, one-issue voters,” said Soifer, who led Jewish voter outreach for former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida. “He’s wrong on both counts.”
Indeed, Trump sparked criticism last year by telling reporters that Jewish Americans who vote Democratic are “disloyal” to both their faith and Israel.
And this month, Trump ended a pre-Rosh Hashana call with Jewish leaders by telling them, “We really appreciate you. … We love your country also.”
The Washington Post also reported Wednesday that after calls with Jewish lawmakers, Trump allegedly has muttered that Jews “are only in it for themselves” and “stick together” in an ethnic allegiance.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment regarding the allegations, but a spokesperson told the Post that his “record as a private citizen and as president has been one of fighting for inclusion and advocating for the equal treatment of all.”
The Biden campaign condemned the remarks and sought to cast Trump as insensitive to Jews.
“We know that Donald Trump’s use of anti-Semitic tropes has emboldened all those who hate Jews. … This should serve as a wakeup call to the relatively few Jewish Americans who still insist on standing with and promoting the current occupant of the White House,” Aaron Keyak, Biden’s Jewish engagement director, said in a statement.
In a separate interview, Keyak touted Biden’s robust outreach to Jewish voters, such as phone-banking and hiring dedicated Jewish vote directors in Florida and Pennsylvania.
Biden’s team has held events in Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio with Douglas Emhoff, Kamala Harris’ husband, who is Jewish, and another for Democrats abroad in Israel with former Sen. Barbara Boxer and two ex-ambassadors.
“There’s no question that the Jewish vote can make a difference in Florida as well as states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan,” Keyak said.
Trump may be playing catch-up, but Republicans hope his record on Israel will speak louder to more moderate and conservative Jewish voters than his recent controversies. This includes Orthodox Jews, who comprise a minority of the Jewish American population but skew majority-Republican, according to a 2013 Pew study.
Orthodox Union Advocacy Center executive director Nathan Diament, who has advised both the Trump and Obama administrations, said Orthodox Jews are the most swing-voter-like element of the faith’s broader voting bloc.
Orthodox Jews view Biden more positively than they did Hillary Clinton in 2016, Diament said, but Trump can tout his move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the Israel-UAE deal as “motivating for segments of American Jews for whom Israel is a priority voting issue.”
Of course, Biden can make his own case. The former vice president has steered clear of the most liberal proposals on curtailing Israeli expansionism.
It’s “to the detriment of Israel that Donald Trump and some Republicans try to use Israel as a political football,” campaign surrogate and Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel said, “to make it appear as if Democrats are not for the security of Israel.”
Elana Schor reports for The Associated Press and Jack Jenkins reports for Religion News Service.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.