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Biden and Bernie Battle for Jewish Votes the Same Way They Frame Their Campaigns

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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaking in Wilmington, Delaware, March 12, 2020.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaking in Wilmington, Delaware, March 12, 2020. Credit: Matt Rourke / AP

WASHINGTON – It’s hard to remember, but until a few months ago the Democratic presidential primary had so many candidates that it was impossible to fit them all on one stage. More than 20 politicians angled for the party’s nomination over the past year; now, only former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders are left. On Sunday in Washington, they are scheduled to hold the primary season’s first one-on-one debate.

The Biden-Sanders competition, with Biden currently in the lead, is being fought on many fronts, one of them the battle for the support of the American Jewish community. American Jews make up only 2 percent of the U.S. population, but they tend to vote in higher numbers per capita, and more than 70 percent identify as Democrats. This makes them a valuable constituency for any Democrat seeking the presidency.

In the coming weeks, several states with large Jewish populations are set to vote. Next week, primaries will take place in Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Arizona. Florida is the largest prize of this group with 219 delegates. The state’s Jewish population is around 600,000 – only New York and California have a higher tally. Many of Florida’s Jews are retirees who moved to the state from other parts of the country.

Arizona is home to around 100,000 Jews including many seniors, but its demography is changing as young people move to the state for jobs. Jews are estimated at about 1.5 percent of Arizona’s population. Illinois has around 300,000 Jewish residents, Ohio just under 100,000.

Biden is considered the favorite in each of these four states, based on polling and the voting patterns in states that have already voted. Florida polls show him beating Sanders by a huge margin. Ohio and Illinois are two Midwestern states where Democratic voters preferred Hillary Clinton over Sanders in 2016, and both have large African American communities, a key constituency that has given Biden an advantage in the delegate count so far.

Arizona could be more competitive because of the young people moving in and the large share of Hispanic voters, but it’s also a state where Clinton defeated Sanders four years ago – by a healthy 15 percentage points. If Sanders loses all four states Tuesday, the pressure on him to suspend his campaign will grow. If he wins any of them, the competition will likely continue for several more weeks.

The state with the largest number of Jewish voters, New York, is set to hold its primary on April 28. Last month, after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, it seemed very likely that the nomination battle would continue well into the spring, and that New York might play a big role in determining the winner. But now it’s not at all clear if there will be any real competition by the time New Yorkers go to the polls.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaking in Burlington, Vermont, March 12, 2020. Credit: Caleb Kenna / Reuters

Sarah Silverman weighs in

Sanders and Biden are both courting Jewish voters, with one eye on the primaries next week and another on a potential still-important primary in New York. In their attempt to attract Jewish voters, however, the two candidates are using very different strategies and are appealing to different constituencies within the Jewish community.

This week, Sanders uploaded two campaign videos with a Jewish angle to his social media accounts. One included an endorsement by comedian Sarah Silverman, who opens her pro-Sanders pitch by stating that “Bernie is my kind of Jew.” Silverman also says that Sanders “lives his values, and to me that’s very Jewish.”

The second campaign video touts an endorsement from the left-wing group IfNotNow, which represents young Jewish Americans who want the U.S. government to pressure Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank. Sanders wrote on Twitter: “Peace means security not only for every Israeli, but also for every Palestinian. I’m proud to have the support of If Not Now.”

The video notes that IfNotNow is “the first Jewish organization” to endorse Sanders. The Vermont senator has stated that if elected president, he will use American military aid to Israel as leverage to ensure a change in Israeli policies. He also recently called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “reactionary racist” and refused to speak at the annual AIPAC conference because the organization, in his words, provides a platform to “leaders who spread bigotry.”

Both the Silverman endorsement and the IfNotNow ad show that Sanders’ strategy to entice Jewish voters is similar to his overall strategy in the primaries: He’s hoping to win historic levels of support among young voters and bring to the polls people who don’t usually vote.

Opinion polls from recent years show very clearly that young American Jews – except for the Orthodox – are more critical of Israel than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, in line with a broader decrease in support for Israel among Americans younger than 35. Sanders’ messaging on this issue tries to appeal to this demographic group.

Silverman’s endorsement of Sanders doesn’t mention Israel at all. The focus is on the senator’s “Jewish values.” That makes a lot of sense, because the vast majority of Jewish American voters don’t choose a candidate based solely, or even mainly, on Israel-related policies. Several polls in recent years have clearly shown that while most American Jews care about Israel, it is not even close to being their top priority when it comes to deciding how to vote.

Younger Americans, including young American Jews, tend to support Sanders first and foremost because of his economic and social policies. His stance on Israel, however, helps his broader message of distinguishing himself from other politicians and showing a willingness to take on powerful interests such as the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington.

Engaging with AIPAC

Biden is choosing a different strategy, and just like Sanders, his appeal to Jewish voters reflects his broader campaign. Biden has enjoyed strong support from voters over 60, who are seeking a moderate Democratic candidate they believe will be able to defeat Donald Trump in November. The former vice president has managed to beat more than 10 other candidates who tried to fit into that box, including most recently former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Polls conducted while Bloomberg was still in the race showed him in the lead in Florida, where he received a boost from ex-New Yorkers who had retired to that state. Until just a few weeks ago, many pundits assumed that the Democratic primary would eventually become a competition between Bloomberg and Sanders, setting a historical precedent of two Jewish candidates sparring for the nomination.

Biden’s strong results in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday pushed out Bloomberg, leaving the former Delaware senator as the only moderate alternative to Sanders. As he works to maintain his strong lead among older voters (who tend to vote in higher numbers), Biden is also making sure to attract Jewish supporters. Unlike Sanders, he sent a video message last week to the AIPAC conference, emphasizing his support for Israel and specifically for military aid, but he also criticized the Netanyahu government’s policy on settlements.

On Friday, ex-U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who served under Barack Obama and worked closely with Vice President Biden, published an article in The South Florida Sun Sentinel endorsing Biden. Shapiro wrote about Biden’s support for Israel over the years, but his main argument was Biden’s status as a “mature and tested leader” who could defeat Trump and “set the nation back on the right course.”

In any case, one thing seems clear. Regardless of who ends up the Democratic nominee, the Jewish vote will remain important in a close election against Trump, especially in states like Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania. A poll published in late February showed that both Biden and Sanders would win around two-thirds of Jewish voters against Trump, with the 45th president capturing under one-third.

Biden and Sanders will fight for the Jewish vote as long as the battle continues, and they will keep appealing to different constituencies within the Jewish community in order to maximize their turnout. But the eventual nominee will have to mobilize all sorts of American Jews – young and old, moderate and progressive – to stand a chance against Trump come November.

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