Jewish Swing State?

Behind Trump and Clinton’s Aggressive Campaigning for Overseas Votes in Israel

Trump’s people in particular are campaigning as if Israel were the secret swing state that could decide the election. Could it?

Campaigning for Republican candidate Donald Trump in Modi'in, Israel, August 15, 2016.
Moti Milrod

With the deadline for overseas voter registration in the United States election closing in, Democratic and Republican party activists in Israel are ramping up their lobbying efforts among American expatriates living in the country. And in their bid to counter aggressive tactics used by the Donald Trump team in Israel, local Democrats are now getting extra help from a major global operation. 

As part of its new grassroots campaign to “Stop Trump” by mobilizing American voters abroad, Avaaz – a huge online activist organization – this week unveiled a new digital tool to facilitate voter registration abroad as well as an advertising campaign targeting seven countries with a relatively large number of American citizens. One of those countries is Israel (the others, all of which have large numbers of American residents, are Mexico, Canada, Britain, Germany, France and the Philippines).

“Many Israelis don’t want a President Trump and now there is a way they can fight back – inspiring every American they know abroad to vote,” said Emma Ruby-Sach, deputy director of Avaaz, in an email to Haaretz. “Overseas voters are the secret swing state that could end Trump and our goal is to make sure they have a chance to do just that.”

Depending on the state, and in some cases the specific county, the voting registration deadline falls anytime between the last week of September and the first week of October.

Clinton at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Gala, September 15, 2016 in Washington.
Brendan Smialowski, AFP

Among the reasons American voters in Israel are of special interest to the campaigns is that a relatively large number come from swing states that could ultimately determine the election outcome. According to iVoteIsrael, a self-described non-partisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout in the country, among an estimated 200,000 eligible voters living in Israel, about 17,500 are from Florida, 11,000 from Pennsylvania and 7,500 from Ohio.

“There is a feeling that every little bit counts in this election, and a few votes could swing it,” said Chaim Waxman, a retired professor of sociology and Jewish studies from Rutgers University who has conducted extensive research on the American immigrant community in Israel.

Republican Party activists like to credit George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore in 2000 to the large number of former Floridians living in Israel who voted by absentee ballot. Bush became president after winning the state of Florida (following a recount) by a tiny margin of 537 votes.

Another factor behind what both parties describe as an “unprecedented” campaign to win over American voters in Israel is the much higher-than-average voting participation rate among this particular expatriate group. According to iVoteIsrael, about 50 percent of eligible voters in Israel cast their ballot in the 2012 presidential election – more than anywhere else in the world. In its statement, Avaaz noted that only 12 percent of Americans living abroad voted in the last election.

Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally at the Germain Arena, Estero, Florida, September 19, 2016.
Joe Raedle, AFP

Those banking on an even higher voter turnout in Israel in the upcoming election may be in for a disappointment, though. According to Eitan Charnoff, national director of iVoteIsrael, despite all the energy being invested by both parties in getting out the vote in Israel, his figures to date do not show any dramatic increase in voter registration rates compared with the last election. In fact, he said: “I think it’s realistic to say there will be a smaller voter turnout than in 2012.”

Although iVoteIsrael has organized many events around the country designed to help American citizens register, not all voters use its services. Therefore, its figures are not necessarily indicative of overall trends.

Charnoff was not prepared to share his data, but said, “We’re in the field a lot, and it just seems that a lot of people are not very enthusiastic about either candidate.”

The Trump campaign in Israel is planning numerous events over the next few weeks, some of which will include “special guests from the U.S.,” promised its spokeswoman Dana Mizrahi. The local campaign team was hired by Republicans Overseas Israel, which is not officially tied to the Republican National Committee but operates in close coordination with it.

Since setting up its base in Israel this summer, the local Trump campaign has opened five offices, including one in the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron. The campaign has put particular focus on the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox – two communities it sees as naturally aligned with the Republican Party. Both among the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, there are a disproportionately large number of dual citizens.

The Trump campaign said it has more than 100 full-time volunteers, in addition to “many others” who have contributed on an ad-hoc basis, primarily by lobbying friends and acquaintances to register to vote. According to unofficial sources, “hundreds of thousands” of dollars have been invested in the local campaign. Although the campaign has not revealed the identity of its donors, according to knowledgeable sources, they are largely Republicans based in Israel.

This week, the local Trump campaign launched a first-ever drive to recruit non-American Israeli supporters to the Republican Party ranks, offering them “honorary” membership in exchange for a small registration fee.

According to Tally Zingher, a leading Democratic Party activist in Israel, almost 200 volunteers have joined the local campaign to elect Clinton “and more are signing up every day.”

Unlike the local Republican campaign, the Democratic campaign has not opened any offices in Israel or spent large amounts money. “This is a grass-roots campaign focused on voter contact,” said Zingher, adding that most of the events have been organized and run by volunteers, with only a “miniscule amount” of spending involved.

The local campaign has thus far held three meetings with Democratic Party supporters in Israel, one fundraiser and four voter registration events. This coming weekend alone, it is planning four registration events in major Israeli cities. (Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have not held any events in the West Bank. “We don’t target the settlements specifically,” said Zingher.)

The Trump campaign team in Israel has estimated that at least 70 percent of eligible voters in the country will choose the Republican candidate in the upcoming election. Clinton supporters pooh-pooh this claim. “Just as we have seen the American Jewish community strongly back Clinton in the context of this remarkable campaign,” said Zingher, “we expect that the expat community here in Israel will vote Democrat to an even greater extent than they did in 2012. The best proof is the number of volunteers coming to us these days who voted Republican in the past but now say they can’t bear the thought of voting for Donald Trump.”

According to a contested exit poll conducted by iVoteIsrael in 2012 (based on 1,700 voters), 84 percent of those questioned said they had voted for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney, whereas only 14 percent said they voted for the Democratic candidate and presidential incumbent Barack Obama. Democratic Party activists in Israel insist it was not a scientific poll.

Still, Waxman, who currently serves as chair of the department of behavioral sciences at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, says he would “not be surprised” if a majority of U.S. citizens in the country ended up voting for Trump in the November election.

“In the past, Americans in Israel have leaned toward the Democrats, and they’re not too different from Jews in America in that way,” he says. “Perhaps you could say there was a somewhat higher percentage voting for the Republicans here, but still not a majority. If I had to go out on a limb, I would say, without making any predictions, that the outcome in this race could be different.”

Waxman attributed the growing rightward shift among American voters in Israel to the predominance among them of Orthodox Jews who have immigrated to the country in recent decades. “The surveys in the U.S. show that Trump does well among the Orthodox, and it’s no different here,” he said. “Many of them see him as a stronger candidate for Israel.”

Laura Wharton, an American-born political scientist who represents the left-wing Meretz party in the Jerusalem city council, has been living in Israel for more than 30 years but never voted in a U.S. election before. This election, she said, is different.

“Not only have I registered, but so has my daughter who will be voting for the first time, and so have many of my friends,” said Wharton. “I know there’s nothing scientific about this particular reference group, but we are all deeply concerned about the possibility of a Trump victory.”

Fear of the alternative is not limited to voters on the left. A case in point is Rabbi Chaim Spring, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron, who has only voted once in an American election during his three decades of living outside the country. So worried is Spring of the possibility of a Democratic victory that he offered his home as a base for the Trump campaign’s telemarketing activities in the Jewish settlements.

Dov Lipman, an American-born politician who represented the centrist Yesh Atid party in the last Knesset, does not believe either of the candidates will win a landslide among Israeli voters. “This is based entirely on my conversations with people,” he says, “but it seems to me that American voters in Israel are pretty much split 50-50 between the candidates. It also seems that most of them made up their minds way before the campaigns got involved.”