By PHILIP ELLIOTT
On a trip to Israel, Mitt Romney is trying to win over a tiny sliver of a small but powerful section of the American electorate. President Barack Obama is doing the same at home.
But while Romney’s trip is unlikely to change the broader presidential campaign against Obama, he’s hoping to close the gap among Jewish voters.
Yet for all the wooing of American Jews in presidential campaigns, those who say Israel’s fate drives their vote make up less than 6 percent of a reliably Democratic bloc. The tiny numbers are overlaid with an outsize influence. Campaign donations from Jews or Jewish and pro-Israel groups account for as much as 60 percent of Democratic money, and groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee can bring strong pressure on candidates.
The notion of being an American Jew has changed over the years. Jews have married outside their faith and ethnic enclaves have given way to integrated cities. In the process, Israel has faded as a driving issue in their homes and seems to have faded as a flashpoint in politics.
In turn, Jewish voters look at the election through secular lenses. Although the campaign rhetoric skews toward them when the candidates talk about Israel, assuming that Jews vote based on U.S. policy toward Israel is a losing proposition.
Romney also needs to show his commitment to Israel because the reliably Republican evangelical Christian vote also holds candidates to account on that topic.
That hasn’t stopped Romney.
Obama has riled his critics, including Romney, by urging the Israelis and the Palestinians to make good on their promises to bring peace to the troubled Middle East. Specifically, Obama publicly has chastised Israel for continuing to build housing settlements in disputed areas and has pressured both sides to begin a new round of peace talks based on the land borders established after the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
That has raised the ire of groups such as AIPAC, which feel he’s been disloyal to Israel. Obama’s strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu _ a longtime Romney friend _ hasn’t helped that perception.
Previous presidents have sided with Israel on all points, at least in public.
Such language is designed to whittle away at the Democrats’ long-held advantages and nip away at the 78 percent support Obama enjoyed among Jews on Election Day 2008.
The Gallup polling organization reported in June that Obama’s standing slumped to 64 percent among Jews, while 29 percent favored Romney.
That approach fuels the on-the-ground effort to continue Jewish voters’ slide away from the Democratic fold. Romney allies at the Republican Jewish Coalition are planning a $6.5 million campaign to help GOP candidates, and Romney himself is looking to reach into Jewish communities in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Nevada.
But the Jewish vote won’t make a difference in this election. Exit polls show Jewish voters typically make up between 2 percent and 4 percent of the electorate nationwide. In 2008, they were 2 percent of voters nationwide and Republican Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) won just 21 percent of them.
In 2004, George W. Bush fared a bit better, winning 25 percent of the vote, the largest share of the Jewish vote any Republican has earned since 1988.
But that’s not to say they don’t have clout.
And it’s not as though Israel alone will even decide Jewish voters’ preference. A survey earlier this year by the American Jewish Committee found only 6 percent of American Jews listed U.S.-Israel relations as their top priority. The economy was the top concern, at 29 percent, followed by health care, at 20 percent.
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.