Editor’s Notes: Turn out

By David Horovitz October 24, 2008

If America’s Jews represent a relative ray of sunshine in the annals of voter participation, their Jerusalem non-haredi counterparts are a veritable eclipse

‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried from time to time.’ – Winston Churchill.

‘Vote early, and often.’
– Al Capone.

So now it’s crunch time. The campaigns for the US presidency are entering their fevered final days ahead of November 4. And here on this side of the pond, whether or not prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni is able to avoid facing the electorate by stitching together a coalition, voters around the country will go to the polls on November 11 to choose their local leadership.

The passions swirling around the US elections are understandably intense. America’s economic health, its security, its global status and essential well-being are widely deemed to be at issue, and there is real daylight between the two candidates on central issues – including, most relevantly for Israel, how to grapple with would-be nuclear Iran.

Here, while the municipal vote is manifestly a far less critical affair, the implications of the mayoral choice in Jerusalem could prove profound as regards the capital’s demographic constellation, and this election day could mark a turning point for Israel’s Arab sector, if more radical candidates succeed the current crop of mayors and local council leaders.

For months, years even, this newspaper’s opinion pages and letters columns have been overflowing with comment and analysis, argument and counter-argument, extolling the virtues of this candidate over that one, warning of the dangers – for Israel, for American Jewry, for global freedom – if this party is elected, if voters fall prey to that partisan political spin.

At this desk, I am constantly deluged with evidence of all this passion and its accompanying sensitivity, in the form of article pitches, pointers, suggestions, critiques and complaints – notably sometimes, in this hard-fought US election campaign, from the candidates’ own representatives. This last phenomenon is plainly a function of the perceived importance of the Jewish vote in potential swing states, and a testament to the extraordinary resonance of The Jerusalem Post’s Web site at www.jpost.com – the most read Jewish newspaper Web site in the world, with much of its readership located in the United States.

But what is most astonishing, for all the heated passions unleashed by these campaigns, is the likelihood, if recent precedent is any barometer, that they have left a massive number of the respective voters cold.

Stone cold.

For there is no greater indifference a voter can display to a political campaign than to stay at home on election day. And yet, for all the news articles and opeds, rallies and parlor meetings, TV ads and billboarding, video clips and mailouts – all the partisan effort expended on convincing the public that nothing could be more crucial than casting a vote for Candidate X, and heaven help us if Candidate Y prevails – staying home is precisely what a vast proportion of the should-be voters in next month’s polls will do.

The determined indifference is likely to be more of an ailment on this side of the pond. But the stakes in the US vote should make staying away unthinkable.

Yet in the last presidential election, in 2004, only 55.3 percent of the voting population bothered to turn up, and even that was quite an increase on 2000, when barely half (51.3%) of the 221 million Americans with the right to vote used it to make their choice between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

TO BE fair, American Jews are actually among the least indifferent of their countryfolk. Studies show a significantly high percentage of registered voters within the Jewish community, and voter turnout to stand with the highest of all ethnic groups and religious communities in America. Turnout in 2004 was an impressive 73% among American Jews aged 18-34, for instance, compared to 42% among non-Jews in the same age group.

While paying any real heed to the Jewish vote, at perhaps 3% of the US voting populace, might seem downright bizarre at superficial glance, the campaigns certainly have devoted serious attention to Jewish voters because pockets of them happen to be concentrated in such potentially significant states as Florida and Ohio.

A Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs study by Jeffrey Helmreich in 2001, based on the previous 50 years’ voting habits, posited that 55-60% of the Jewish electorate ‘picks Democrats almost automatically,’ while 10% ‘are similarly loyal Republicans.’ If so, that leaves only 30-35 to be won over, but even that small proportion, Helmreich noted, ‘adds up to a swing vote representing up to 2% of the electorate in states like Florida and Pennsylvania.’ In 2000, in both those states, he observed, ‘a shift of that amount (or less) would have changed the result in that state,’ with a determining impact on the entire election.

In 2008, it has been important to both campaigns to try to demonstrate an unshakeable commitment to Israel, given that this appears to be a genuine swing issue for Jewish voters, if not the swing issue.

Ronald Reagan’s strongly pro-Israel stance drew 39% of the Jewish vote in the 1980 election in which he defeated the Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, who was perceived, in Helmreich’s summation, ‘as favoring Arab interests.’ If Helmreich’s ‘almost automatic’ voting habit overview holds, that means Reagan garnered almost every remotely swayable Jewish vote. Eight years later, 27% stayed on with his Republican successor, George H. W. Bush. But after one term, the president who had complained about being alone on the hill facing off against the Israel lobby could muster only 10% of the Jewish vote.

Surveys of Jewish voters ahead of this year’s election show John McCain to be faring better than first term Bush Sr., but not as well as Reagan. A New York University poll this week, for instance, indicated 33% support for McCain and 67% for Barack Obama among respondents who said they’d made up their minds. A total of 58% of those who said Israel was very important were backing McCain, but the evidence clearly suggests that no Reagan-Carter factor is at play here.

Both the candidates, no matter how jammed their schedules, felt it necessary to visit Israel in this election year. And while McCain had a track record of support to call upon had he made any major faux pas during his March trip, Obama’s brief visit in July was more of a high stakes affair given his relative inexperience, with greater potential impact among the watching Jewish electorate.

In comments to this newspaper while here, Obama did not soft-pedal. ‘There are those who would argue that the more settlements there are, the more Israel has to invest in protecting those settlements and the more tensions arise that may undermine Israel’s long-term security,’ he said in our interview. And, ‘Israel may seek ’67-plus’ and justify it in terms of the buffer that they need [in the West Bank] for security purposes. They’ve got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party.’

But such remarks, anathema to the Israeli and the Jewish American right, plainly have not alienated the American Jewish consensus. ‘Jews always look at candidates in their own camp as more sympathetic to their positions as Jews, so liberal Jews will tend to feel Obama is more pro-Israel than conservative Jews do,’ the lead researcher on this week’s New York University poll, Steven Cohen, told the Post. ‘In fact, liberal Jews have an argument about why McCain is bad for Israel, just as conservative Jews have an argument for why Obama is bad for Israel.’

IF AMERICA’S Jews represent a relative ray of sunshine in the annals of voter participation, however, their Jerusalem non-haredi counterparts are a veritable eclipse.

Much wailing has accompanied the seemingly inexorable decline in participation in national elections here – from 86.9% (of 506,567 eligible electors) in the vote for first Knesset in 1949, down through the 80 percents, the 70s and now into the low 60s. But even these levels seem stellar when compared to our can’t-be-bothered capital.

A week after his 52-43% loss to Uri Lupolianski in the Jerusalem mayoral tussle of June 2003, the Post’s Eetta Prince Gibson reported finding Nir Barkat, in his somber Talpiot election headquarters, acknowledging that ‘I still don’t fully understand what happened’ to reverse his confident victory predictions. But he did pinpoint that ‘our biggest failure was that we weren’t able to get the people out to vote… Jerusalem has a tremendous voting potential, but Jerusalemites don’t vote.’

Indeed, the citywide turnout was a dismal 38%. A key factor in that low was the negligible Arab turnout – about 5%, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. But while haredi participation in the 2003 contest was 64%, the figure was 47% in the other Jewish neighborhoods. Barkat’s cause was further undermined by the fact that while pretty much all the haredim voted for Lupolianski, as many as one in six non-haredi Jerusalemites did, too.

Strikingly, that 38% overall turnout – coming to vote when, for the first time, a haredi mayoral candidate stood a good chance of taking control of the city, and it was clear the race was going to be close – actually represented a decline of about 4% on the previous municipal elections five years earlier, when incumbent Ehud Olmert was widely and rightly regarded as a shoo-in.

In an interview last month, Barkat predicted to our reporter Etgar Lefkovits that the secular, traditional and modern Orthodox turnout on November 11 would be the surprise of the election. If those sectors do stir themselves more than they did five years ago, it will indeed be a surprise – and possibly a pleasant one for Barkat.

The four Jerusalem mayor candidates – Barkat, Meir Porush, Arkadi Gaydamak and Dan Birron – are scheduled to set out their positions at a town hall-style gathering, organized jointly by the Post, AACI and our hosts, the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, on Saturday night. I invite our Jerusalem readers to join us. (Similar such events are being scheduled shortly for Tel Aviv and Netanya.)

And come the day, for your own sakes, and in defiance of those stay-at-home trends on both sides of the Atlantic, exercise your democratic right and privilege, and vote!

With reporting by Linda Amar

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