Joe Biden’s Strategy for Attracting Jewish Voters – and Its Biggest Weak Spot

With his centrist take on U.S.-Israel relations and strong anti-Semitism message, the presumptive Democratic nominee looks like a shoo-in with older Jewish voters. But how will he win over younger voters whose hearts belong to Bernie?

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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden arriving for a rally at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi, March 8, 2020.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden arriving for a rally at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi, March 8, 2020.Credit: AFP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – The election campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden held two events last week aimed specifically at shoring up his support within the American Jewish community.

The events, both of which took place online due to the coronavirus crisis, offered a glimpse into the type of messaging Biden is planning to use in his appeals to the Jewish community, and also the surrogates from within the community whom he will rely upon ahead of November’s presidential election.

The first event was presented as a “fireside chat” with Biden himself, but was essentially a fundraising event for Jewish supporters from all over the United States. The price tag to join the online conversation began at $1,000, and donors were encouraged to give Biden’s campaign as much as $28,000 in exchange for being honored as co-sponsors of the virtual “gathering.”

The second event focused on the Jewish community in one specific state – Florida, arguably the most important swing state in any presidential election, and certainly the swing state with the largest Jewish population. There are some 600,000 Jews in Florida, and recent elections there have been decided by margins of only tens of thousands of votes in either direction. For this event, Biden was represented by Antony Blinken, his chief foreign policy adviser.

At both events, Biden’s campaign offered several key messages that he hopes will help him retain the high level of support Democratic candidates typically enjoy within the Jewish community – and perhaps even expand it and gain higher numbers. When Biden first ran alongside Barack Obama in 2008, they received 78 percent of the Jewish vote, according to exit polls – about eight percentage points more than Hillary Clinton received on Election Night in 2016.

One message the Democratic presidential nominee presented was a domestic one, focusing on what Biden describes as a “fight for the soul of this nation.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaking with Dr. Anthony Fauci at a House Government Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill, Washington, March 12, 2020.Credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

He spoke about the need to combat anti-Semitism and, as he did on the day he launched his campaign in August 2019, attacked President Donald Trump for his “very fine people” comment in the aftermath of the August 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville. Biden said that politicians in the United States need to do more against anti-Semitism, starting with the president.

Biden’s second message related to Israel. He emphasized his strong support for the Jewish state, and his opposition to the idea offered over the past year by other prominent Democratic politicians – most notably Sen. Bernie Sanders – to withhold military aid from the country in order to pressure it into ending its occupation of the West Bank. Biden committed to not adopting this proposal and to continue providing aid to Israel as president. At the same time, though, he also reiterated his opposition to Israeli settlements and to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stated intention to annex settlements in the near future.

Biden lamented that Netanyahu has adopted positions that are “so far to the right.” He told his Jewish supporters that he “knows Bibi very well,” and will maintain a close relationship with Israel. But he called on the newly formed Israeli government to refrain from any “unilateral moves” that would “choke off the chance for peace.”

These positions on Israel correspond well with the views of most American Jews, at least according to opinion polls that measure the sentiment of the community. In recent years, polls show that most American Jews support Israel and consider themselves pro-Israel, but at the same time oppose settlement annexation and want Israel to make progress toward a two-state solution. This is what Biden promised his Jewish supporters last week.

Biden’s message regarding anti-Semitism is a direct attack on his Republican rival, Trump, whom Biden accused in the fundraiser event of being “soft” on the issue. He claimed that Trump failed to denounce anti-Semitic incidents, particularly the Charlottesville march, and promised to speak about anti-Semitism from the White House if elected president.

A problem with youth

For the fireside fundraiser, Biden’s campaign brought in two key surrogates to offer support for the former VP: Daniel Shapiro, who was the U.S. ambassador to Israel under Obama’s administration from 2011 to 2016 (and is also a columnist for Haaretz); and Deborah Lipstadt, the renowned Holocaust historian and leading voice on the issue of anti-Semitism (or, as she would write it, antisemitism).

Rep. Ted Deutch (Democrat of Florida) standing next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a congressional visit to Israel, July 2018.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

For the Florida event, the campaign recruited three Democratic members of Congress from different parts of the state who are all Jewish and have strong ties to the local Jewish community: Rep. Ted Deutch; Rep. Lois Frankel; and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The messages they brought were similar to those Biden offered at the fundraiser.

Deutch, who is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and leads a subcommittee on the Middle East, stressed that Biden is a supporter of Israel but, unlike Trump, “doesn’t turn it into a political issue.” Deutch said that Biden would strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship and be committed to ensuring bipartisan support for that relationship.

In 2018, exit polls showed that 79 percent of Jewish voters cast a ballot for Democratic candidates in the midterm elections. For the Biden campaign, getting that kind of number rather than Clinton’s 70 percent in 2016 would be a great achievement, enhancing his standing in swing states with large Jewish populations – particularly Florida and Pennsylvania.

Biden’s focus on Florida’s Jewish community also complements one of the surprising strengths of his campaign so far: his support among voters over 65. The Jewish community in the Sunshine State includes many retirees who moved there from other parts of the country; this could turn out to be an advantage for Biden if he is able to maintain his support among this key demographic – which, historically, always shows up on Election Day – in November.

Biden’s emphasis on his support of Israel, and his objection to Sanders’ idea of limiting military aid, will no doubt play well with older Jewish voters – who tend to be more supportive of Israel, even if they are critical of certain policies taken by the Jewish state.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders greeting one another before they participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate at CNN Studios in Washington, March 15, 2020.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

A separate challenge for Biden, though, is to also win the support of younger voters, including in the Jewish community, who are more progressive in their approach and less supportive of his centrist position on many issues, Israel included.

The surrogates Biden has relied on so far – such as Shapiro and the three Jewish lawmakers from Florida – probably won’t be very helpful in that regard. All of them represent the same centrist, moderate wing of the party that Biden belongs to, and are more popular with the same segment of older voters that already seems to prefer Biden.

The main Jewish surrogate who could help Biden win over younger voters is Sanders. While the Jewish senator from Vermont is set to lose to Biden in the Democratic primary, he did manage to win the battle for voters under 35 in many of the states.

Biden and Sanders made a step toward achieving that goal two weeks ago when their campaigns formed a “unity task force,” which will work to reach policy agreements on key issues such as health care and global warming. But foreign policy issues, including Israel, are not included within the task force’s remit. On that front, it seems, both Biden and Sanders understand that their positions are too far apart for any compromise.

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