WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is on a mission to lure Jewish voters from their traditional home in the Democratic Party and into the loving arms of the GOP.
Trump is taking advantage of a vocal faction in the Democratic Party that has become increasingly critical of Israel. The liberal group Moveon.org recently called on Democratic presidential hopefuls to boycott a meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee because it employs “anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric.” Five top candidates have announced they will not attend the AIPAC confab, which begins Sunday.
Trump seized on the story to tell reporters Friday he believes Democrats are “anti-Jewish.” On Twitter, Trump has touted “Jexodus” — a term that melds Jewish and exodus — as a movement that can draw Jewish voters toward Republicans who “are waiting with open arms.”
A door opened, some Republicans maintain, with the election of freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a Muslim and a Somali immigrant. Omar has had to contend with a 2012 tweet in which she denounced “the evil doings of Israel,” a recent tweet in which she claimed congressional support for Israel was “all about the benjamins,” and remarks about “the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
Democrats counter that the ties between Jews and the Democratic Party are too strong to fray. In a statement, Jewish Democratic Council of America Executive Director Halie Soifer responded that to the contrary, “Republicans have lost support among Jewish voters since President Trump took office.”
According to exit polling, Trump garnered 24 percent of the Jewish vote in 2016, while Jewish support for GOP candidates fell to 17 percent in 2018.
Sam Nunberg, an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, argued that the lower number is more a function of the fact that midterm elections turn out base voters, and hence more left-leaning Jewish voters.
But Mark Mellman, a longtime pollster for Democrats who crunched numbers for the Jewish Electorate Institute, released a paper in October that cited “substantial antipathy” toward Trump and Republicans among American Jews. Mellman estimated 68 percent of Jewish voters identify as Democrats while 25 percent identify as Republicans, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
To be sure, there have been some testy moments between Democratic leaders — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will speak at AIPAC this week — and newer members who are critical of the Jewish state.
Omar apologized for early jibes at Israel, but not the latter statement about dual allegiances. The House responded with a draft resolution that condemned anti-Semitism. After sympathetic Democrats bristled, however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed a resolution to go forward that generally condemned hate speech, without singling out Omar or anti-Semitism.
Jewish Republicans saw the episode as proof the Democrats are drifting away from Israel.
Trump makes his case
“Terrified of offending their radical anti-Israel wing, Democrats are also watering down the resolution against anti-Semitism by turning it into a generalized condemnation of bigotry,” Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks said at the time.
To Trump, “Jexodus” should be a natural. He is after all, the president who made good on a campaign promise when he moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush made the same promise but did not deliver.
On Thursday, Trump made a similar move when he tweeted, “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!”
It is a move likely to appeal to Israeli voters and U.S. foreign policy hawks concerned about Iran, and with the potential to help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he runs for re-election on April 9.
The Republican Jewish Coaltion proclaimed Trump “the most pro-Israel president ever.” On Friday the RJC announced Trump will address the group on April 6 in Las Vegas.
Netanyahu will address AIPAC this week, and he will meet with Trump in the White House on Monday and Tuesday.
Nonethless, Mellman’s survey found 76 percent of Jewish voters held an unfavorable view of Trump. While 51 percent of Jewish voters surveyed approved of Trump’s handling of U.S.-Israeli relations, Mellman told the Review-Journal “very few are willing to support him on that basis alone.”
As for Trump’s decision to locate a U.S. Embassy inside Jerusalem, Mellman said, “That’s just not particularly important to them.”
“If he thinks the Jewish community is going to save his political bacon, he’s as wrong as wrong can be,” Mellman said of the 2020 race.
The Republican Jewish Coalition’s Brooks takes a longer view. In 1992, he noted, President George W. Bush attracted 11 percent of the Jewish vote.
In 1996, nominee Bob Dole got 16 percent of the Jewish vote. The percentage crept up to 19 percent for George W. Bush in 2000, and hit 30 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, before it dropped to 24 percent in 2016.
“It’s gone from 11 percent” to a neighborhood of “24, 25, 30 percent,” Brooks told the Review-Journal. “We’re making sustained and meaningful inroads.”
Small shift could make the difference
Nunberg said that he agreed with Mellman’s belief that Israel is not the “No. 1 issue” for Jewish voters, “but they’re not going to vote for an anti-Israel party, they’re not going to vote for a pro-Islamist party, and that goes to a world view where Israel is the aggressor and not its neighbors.”
Mellman argued that Jewish voters won’t be able to get past Trump’s 2017 remarks that there were some “very fine people on both sides” of a protest in Charlottesville, where white nationalists were protesting the decision to remove a statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and a young woman who was counter-protesting was murdered.
Soifer of the Jewish Democratic Council said that unlike Republicans, Democrats condemn anti-Semitic tropes wherever they originate, including Omar’s statement.
Brooks recalled top House Democrats who, before the new crew of freshmen Democrats took office, supported anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, as well as the burning of American and Israeli flags outside the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Trump doesn’t need to win the Jewish vote to win in 2020. A huge increase in states like California or New York likely would not stop those states from remaining blue, but a single-digit boost or drop in the Jewish vote could prove decisive for Trump in a hotly contested state like Florida, which Trump won by a margin of 1.2 percent.
Arnie Steinberg, a former GOP pollster and strategist, wondered if Trump was wise to crow about Jewish voters leaving the Democratic Party. “If you want to reach the Jews who generally vote Democratic, you have to understate and be subtle rather than this sledgehammer approach. It’s not credible to people in the middle who need to move slowly” and believe they decided to migrate on their own.
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates The Venetian and Palazzo. The Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in April is scheduled to take place at The Venetian and Palazzo, and Adelson is on the group’s board of directors.