Condo wars: the fight for Florida

In 2000, Florida's 25 Electoral College votes were decided by a mere 537 votes out of over 6 million. The Florida election was close for one primary reason: what I will call the Lieberman love factor among Jewish voters in southeast Florida.  Jewish Floridians, who account for as much as 7% of the statewide turnout, voted in record numbers for the Gore Lieberman ticket in 2000.  This year, Lieberman is not on the Democratic ticket, and President Bush has a very strong record of support for Israel. 

Having just returned from three days of speaking to Jewish groups around the state of Florida, it is apparent that a fierce battle is being waged by Bush supporters to unlock the Democratic stranglehold in Southeast Florida. The Democrats, for their part, are not conceding an inch. And so we have the war of the condos.

In 1996, Bill Clinton won Florida by 302,000 votes, carrying Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties by 382,000 votes, and trailing Bob Dole by 80,000 in the remainder of the state. In 2000, George Bush opened up a 365,000 vote margin in the 64 counties other than the three strongly Democratic Southeast Florida counties.  Had these three counties moved in the same direction as the rest of the state, their margin for Gore would have been significantly reduced from 1996, and Bush would have carried the state by a small but comfortable (and not legally disputed) margin. But instead, Gore won the three counties by 365,000 votes, the same margin as Bush achieved in the rest of the state, and almost as large as Clinton's margin in the three counties in 1996.  This surge for Gore in Southeast Florida produced the virtual statewide tie.

These three counties contain about 80% of Florida's Jews, but also the largest concentration of Cuban Americans in Florida. The Cubans, incensed by the Clinton Administration's handling of the Elian Gonzalez affair, voted overwhelmingly for George Bush in 2000.  The Cuban impact was seen most decisively in Dade County, where Clinton's 108,000 vote margin over Dole in 1996, was cut to a 39,000 vote margin for Gore over Bush. But in the new heartland of Jewish South Florida —— Broward and Palm Beach Counties —— Gore won handily, and improved on Clinton's 275,00 vote margin, winning the two counties by 326,000 votes.

In the annals of Vice Presidential picks, Gore's selection of Lieberman was one of the best from a political perspective. The Connecticut Senator parked in Southeast Florida for most of the Fall campaign in 2000, and he did the job he was asked to do. He almost delivered the state and the election to Gore, despite the strong countertrend for Bush in the rest of Florida, much as Lyndon Johnson delivered Texas and a few other Southern states to JFK in the closely fought 1960 election win over Richard Nixon.

Given Gore's often irrational and intemperate behavior the past four years, we can be thankful for his defeat in 2000. Senator Lieberman, on the other hand has been a principled voice (and a lonely one) within his party, who has acknowledged that President Bush has been a great friend of Israel, and supported the President's effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power.  The current sickness within the Democratic Party is best evidenced by the fact that race—baiter Al Sharpton received many more Democratic primary votes this year than Senator Lieberman.

Jews are America's oldest demographic group, with a median age of 46, more than ten years beyond the national median age. Florida's Jews are older on average than Jews elsewhere in America. And the Jewish community in Southeast Florida is older on average than Jews elsewhere in the state. So the battle for the Jewish vote in Florida is largely a battle for the elderly.

The Democrats' advantage is that Jewish voting patterns in America are directly related to voters' age. Younger Jewish voters are far more receptive than elderly Jews to the Republican Party's message. In 2000, exit polls estimated that 79% of Jewish voters supported Gore, and 19% supported Bush. But the elderly Jewish vote for Gore was well over 80%.

Lieberman is one of the surrogates that the Kerry campaign has dispatched to Florida to hold the Jewish vote for the Democrats. On the Republican side, the Bush team has countered with former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, and talk show host Dennis Prager. Lieberman was in Palm Beach this weekend, and revealingly expressed his concern that Jewish support for the Democratic ticket was eroding. He encouraged the national party candidates to come down and make their case in person, and acknowledged again, as he has on several previous occasions, the President's solid support for Israel.

The GOP's most effective weapon seems to be Ed Koch. Like Zell Miller, Koch is a Democrat, who has crossed over this election cycle to support President Bush. Koch, approaching his 80th birthday, tells his audience that he disagrees with the GOP on most of its social agenda,  and some of its economic policies, but he also tells then that at this time and in this election, all of  these other items are very secondary to national security, and the defense of America. Koch, also echoes Lieberman in his enthusiastic endorsement of the President's support for Israel.  Koch says "they (the Muslim fanatics) are out to kill us," and this President is fighting back and trying to protect us. Koch, argues the same themes Sen. Miller highlighted in his keynote address at the GOP convention,  that the Democrats are not nearly as committed to doing what is necessary with regard to defense, and making the sacrifices to protect America.

The skirmishing of marquee speaker against marquee speaker is also working to pit residents of the South Florida condo communities against each other. In my travels through the state, a constant refrain was how this election is separating former friends.  Many in the audience talked about the anger that spews forth when they announce that they are supporting the President. I have seen this same vein—popping hostility at events at which I have spoken.  American Jews are beginning to leave the Democratic Party plantation, and there is incomprehension and intense anger among those left behind.

For over half a century, most Jewish voters in South Florida, and for that matter, in much of America, have voted as if Franklin D. Roosevelt were still on the ticket. In fact, the shocking news is that Roosevelt has not been on the national ticket the last 15 Presidential elections, not since 1944. Many of the Democrats who cling tenaciously to their Democratic Party roots express fear of right wing Christians, as if somehow, the posting of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse represented the same or greater threat to the country as Islamic terrorists setting off a dirty bomb in an American city, or poisoning a city's water supply, or crashing airplanes into skyscrapers or nuclear power plants. 

But many elderly Jews are still trapped in a mindset of anger over quotas and restrictions from a half century back, which of course no longer exist today, and have not for decades. The liberal Jews also seem unconcerned that Muslim Americans in one recent poll indicated that they planned to vote for John Kerry by a 10—1 margin. Do these liberal Jews see common ground with the Muslim voters for their economic views, their social issue agenda, or their hatred of Israel?  It is hard to see why the two groups vote the same way, except for the fact that many Jews seem hard—wired  to vote Democratic, and Muslims will vote against Bush precisely because he is seen as too friendly to Israel, and not friendly enough to rotten Islamic dictatorships abroad.

It would be odd, indeed, if the three strongest voting groups for Kerry on November 2nd, are African Americans, Jews and Muslims.

Jews have flourished in America more than they have in any other country in the world in their several thousand year history. But that is also true of every other immigrant group that has come to our shores. That is the strength of America, and its lure even today —— and explains why millions try to come here every year, regardless of how the elites in some Western countries slander America.  But for those Jews with a ghetto mentality, who still fear their Christian neighbors as they might have in Czarist Russia, the reality of America seems lost. It is not Christian conservatives who will convert their Jewish grandchildren. No Christian missionaries will have any success converting any Jews in any Chabad House.

But intermarriage will drain the Jewish future in America. And so will secular humanism, and a greater attachment to the New York Times editorial pages than to Judaism's own laws and traditions. It is liberal Christian churches which are divesting from Israel, and leading the assault on Israel's legitimacy and Bush's pro—Israel policies. The Christian conservatives, the bogeymen for the elderly liberal Jews, are Israel's most ardent defenders, and do so for both theological and political reasons. But for those who still fear pogroms by the Cossacks (or Christians who go to see The Passion of the Christ), there is still one more election to pull the Democratic lever for FDR, or JFK, or John F.
Kerry (what a coincidence).

My sense is that Lieberman is right, and that there will be a shift in the voting pattern this election. More and more Jews understand that the survival of Israel is at stake, and that important decisions will have to be made about dealing with Iran's looming nuclear weapons capability, in particular.  These voters also understand that Israel's war with Palestinian terror is the same fight as our war with al Qaeda and the nations that harbor and support its murderous activities. A growing percentage of Jews seem to get it that President Bush will work more closely with Israel to prevent Iran from successfully reaching its goal to join the nuclear club than would a President Kerry, who might wait for Israel to meet the global test before acting .

If the Jewish vote for Bush is 10% higher statewide than it was in 2000, that would be a difference of 100,000 net votes in Florida for Bush, almost 2% of the statewide vote total.  That would overcome a lot of votes by newly registered voters in the state, whether they are dead, underage,  or not yet a citizen, voters who also vote in New York State.

This year, 27 Electoral College votes are at stake in Florida. All signs are that the national election and the Florida race will again be close, as they were in 2000. But where Republicans had a very steep hill to climb in 2000 in Southeast Florida, they are finding some traction this year. These inroads in Southeast Florida could help deliver the state and the election to the President.