Why did Mitt Romney really go to Israel?

Despite what you read, it probably had little to do with wooing undecided Jewish voters

With Mitt Romney in Israel last weekend, it seemed like the irresistible sidebar. So news organizations like The Washington Post and Politico gushed (or kvelled, in Yiddish) over the all-important Jewish vote.

The emblematic Politico article by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns was lengthy (three online takes), well-reported (interviews with everyone from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz) and brimming with political significance. As Martin and Burns summarized in their third paragraph, “Backers of Mitt Romney… are mounting what likely will be the most aggressive effort yet in dollars and cents to woo one of Ohio and Florida’s most pivotal constituencies.”

Let’s pause right there and parse in, of course, Talmudic fashion the concept of a “pivotal” constituency. In 2008, according to the exit polls, Barack Obama won 78 percent of the national Jewish vote. (The sample size was too small for specific breakdowns in Ohio and Florida.) In the Politico article, Cantor spoke optimistically about Romney whittling Obama’s margin among Jews to below 65 percent. That leads to the big question in Politico’s mind about whether “Romney can pull enough Jewish votes away from Obama to eke out a victory in mega-swing states Florida and Ohio.”

Now for the math portion of our exercise—and, not to worry, it won’t count towards your final grade. According to the exit polls, Jewish voters comprised just 4 percent of the 2008 electorate in Florida (about 334,000 voters) and 2 percent in Ohio (about 112,000 voters). Under the Republicans’ rosy scenario of trimming Obama’s share of the Jewish vote from 78 percent to, say, 65 percent, and assuming the distribution of votes was consistent nationwide, that would be a gain for Romney of roughly a whopping 45,000 votes in Florida and 15,000 in Ohio.

Okay, that’s not chopped liver if an election is as close as Florida was in 2000. But that kind of hairsbreadth margin transforms every sub-group in the state into a pivotal constituency. Find a way to appeal to their political identity, and vegans, bocce players, or Trekkies living in their parents’ basements could be the ones who put a presidential candidate over the top in a close race.

What about the voters who are (ssshhh!) atheists and agnostics? In 2008, 10 percent of Florida voters told exit poll workers that they had no religion. If Romney could cut Obama’s margin among these all-important non-believers from 71 percent (the figure in the 2008 exit polls) to 65 percent, he would gain about 50,000 votes. But when was the last time you read an article about a politician wooing the un-churched and un-synagogued?

So why the big megillah over the statistically negligible portion of the Jewish vote that is up for grabs?

The simple answer is that Romney was in Israel, and obviously a trip like that three months before the election had to be political. As many news stories pointed out, Romney was accompanied by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a super PAC spending king, and dozens of Jewish fund-raisers. Articles like this one in the Los Angeles Times also smartly noted that evangelical Christians, a far more numerous voting group, also feel a sense of identity with Israel.

But it is hard for the press to escape the overly simplistic equation that Israel equals Jewish votes. (In truth, a national poll by the American Jewish Committee found that only 6 percent of Jewish voters listed relations with Israel as their top electoral issue; the poll didn’t determine how many of those voters already favor Republicans.) So The Washington Post’s Jason Horowitz hung out near the smoked fish counter at Sage Bagel and Deli along the Florida condo belt from Miami to Fort Lauderdale. And, oy, did he get an earful. But mostly from Obama voters like Scott Margules, who accused Romney of trying to “pander to the Jewish vote.”

Horowitz—and to a lesser extent Politico—exuded doubt about Romney’s chances of making major inroads among Jewish voters. But that didn’t prevent him from making the schlep to the Sage Deli in the belief that the Jewish vote is important, even if it is politically immovable.

An Associated Press story by Philip Elliott was more skeptical, flatly stating, “The Jewish vote won’t make a difference in this election.” But the AP article also reported, “Romney himself is looking to reach into Jewish communities in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Nevada.” To put it bluntly, up to now no one has ever claimed that North Carolina was the buckle on the bagel belt. (The state is so overwhelmingly Protestant that the only religion question on its 2008 exit poll was about whether voters were evangelical).

A running motif in all these stories is that an organization known as the Republican Jewish Coalition plans to spend more than $6 million on an ad campaign to woo Jewish voters away from Obama. A well-reported Miami Herald story by Marc Caputo reveals that the group has reserved $1.6 million in television time in Florida in September. It all sounds impressive until you realize that well over $2 billion will be spent on the 2012 presidential race—mostly for television ads in battleground states like Florida. An explicit TV message aimed at Jewish voters invariably will be lost in the blur and will probably be seen mostly by Christians, for obvious demographic reasons.

The larger message here—and this transcends the clich├ęs that surround the Jewish vote—is that math matters on the political beat. Mitt Romney did not spend a weekend in Israel because he was obsessed with winning over 45,000 Jewish voters in Florida and 15,000 in Ohio. Instead, his motivation for the Israeli interlude was presumably fund-raising, evangelical voters, and foreign-policy posturing. That’s why irresistible story lines (as Sage Deli goes, so goes South Florida) need to be resisted—especially if the numbers add up to bupkes.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.