If It’s Obama vs. Romney, the Battle for the Jews Is On

Jews might sympathize more than others with the Mormon candidate’s need to put on a mask in the company of Christian conservatives.

Rick Santorum’s departure from the Republican presidential race means that America probably won’t witness the kind of now or never, black-or-white, life or death campaign that is par for the course in Israeli elections. And in a race that now seems to be bound for the heart of the American center, Barack Obama and the presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney will be waging fierce battle for the support of American Jews as well.

During those few fleeting moments in the past few months when it appeared that a Santorum candidacy was a realistic scenario – before the Michigan or Ohio primaries, for example – the prospects for an all out “kulturkampf” between Christian conservatives and largely secular liberals loomed large indeed. American commentators described the potential match up between Santorum as Obama as the fiercest ideological confrontation since Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate in 1964.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

This is exactly the kind of polarizing battle of extremes between left and right, secular and religious, Arab and Jew that Israelis experience every time they go to the polls to vote on what the parties always describe as the very “future of the country." In some cases, such as Menachem Begin’s victory in 1977, Yitzhak Rabin’s in 1992 and Binyamin Netanyahu’s, arguably, in 2009, the sharp lurch in the country’s direction more than fulfills the electioneering hype.

In such an all or nothing showdown against Santorum, Obama’s overwhelming victory in the American Jewish community was a foregone conclusion. The no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners Christian-family-values culture war that Santorum insisted on fomenting would have driven all but the most religious of Jews straight into outstretched Democratic arms. Even those Jewish voters who detest Obama’s policies towards the Jewish state would have “held their noses inside the ballot box”, as the Israeli saying goes, and cast their votes for Obama.

Romney, on the other hand, stands a fighting chance of making inroads among the 78% or so of the Jews who voted for Obama in 2008. If he can allay Jewish concerns about the influence of Christian conservatives on his social agenda, Romney might convert enough Jewish votes in places where it could theoretically make a very big difference. If he keeps Obama at or around the 62% of the Jewish vote that a recent survey of the Public Religion Research Institute gave him, Romney will have come close to or even equaled the best results ever achieved by Republican presidential candidates.

Romney’s chances of doing so will increase as he succeeds in distancing himself from the rancorous Republican race that compelled him to constantly outflank his rivals from the right. As one astute American commentator noted today, Romney’s perceived disingenuousness, labeled a liability in the Republican race, could now be turned to his advantage as centrist independents wait to be convinced that at heart he remains the moderate Massachusetts governor he always was. Jews, perhaps, might even be more sympathetic than others to a Mormon candidate’s need to put on a mask and to pretend to be something that he isn’t in order to find favor with fundamentalist, conservative Christians. Until recently, at least, this was considered acceptable, sometimes even necessary, Jewish behavior.

All of this assumes, of course, that the Republican race is truly over: that Romney won’t trip over himself as he tends to do when he’s ahead, that Republicans in the southern and Midwest states slated to vote in May primaries won’t be swayed by Newt Gingrich’s new play as “the last conservative left standing” and that Sheldon Adelson, of course, won’t decide to give Newt another fighting chance after all.

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