Obama’s Wright Problem Persists
UPDATE: When this piece was posted, we reported that McCain strategist Charlie Black said the North Carolina Republican party would not air the controversial Jeremiah Wright television advertisements. The North Carolina GOP confirmed the ads would not air. Since the story was posted, the North Carolina GOP said it will, in fact, run the ads Monday. Time magazine does a good job summing up the confusion here.
When the videos of Sen. Barack Obama’s longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., surfaced a few weeks ago, Rabbi Barry Gelman immediately heard feedback from his congregation, the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, Tex. As the clips of Wright proclaiming “America’s chickens are coming home to roost” following the 9/11 attacks and calling Israel a “dirty” word were repeatedly broadcast and analyzed by pundits on the cable news networks, the rabbi sensed an unease within the congregation, which Gelman describes as politically active and “very patriotic.”
The following week, when Obama made his speech on race in America, Gelman, who is undecided, thought Obama would allay these concerns. But, as far as Gelman is concerned, he didn’t.
“For lots of Jewish people,” Gelman said, “this whole thing has given them cause for pause. It is causing people to think twice.”
Obama’s relationship with Wright has raised questions about whether Obama can count on the Jewish vote should he become the Democratic nominee. A host of earlier issues had already raised doubts about the Illinois senator for many Jewish voters. They took note that Obama expressed a willingness to meet with leaders of Iran without preconditions — though these leaders have called for the destruction of Israel; that he expressed sympathy for Palestinians; that his foreign-policy advisers include former Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Clinton National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, as well as other experts perceived as pro-Palestinian. Obama’s long association with Wright seemed to validate all these earlier suspicions, and demonstrate to some Jews — and several leading political pundits — that Obama isn’t fully pro-Israel.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. While these conservative Jewish groups have relentlessly criticized Obama and pointed to his poll numbers leveling off after the Wright controversy as evidence of Obama’s electability problems with Jewish voters, there is little evidence that Jews have fled Obama in the Pennsylvania primary. These conservative groups could still play a significant role in the general election, influencing Jewish voters in swing states like Florida, Michigan and Ohio should Obama be the nominee. They undoubtedly will try to do this. But political experts agree that they represent a very small percentage of Jews. Most Jewish voters, they say, would remain a part of Obama’s well-educated, affluent and liberal base.
"From what I’ve seen, Jews have reacted to the Wright controversy similarly as other groups of white voters," said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. "The idea that Obama has a problem with support from Jews hasn’t been supported."
But Wright could well create more problems for Obama on the campaign trail. On Wednesday, the North Carolina Republic Party previewed a television advertisement that it planned to start airing next Monday, featuring a picture of Obama with his arm around Wright and playing the clip of Wright saying "God Damn America" in one of his speeches. Media coverage of the preview was intense. The North Carolina GOP has since said it won’t run the ad.
Wright is also scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the NAACP annual Fight For Freedom Fund dinner on Sunday, two days after PBS’ "Bill Moyers Journal" is running an hour-long segment about the preacher. On Monday, Wright is scheduled to address the National Press Club in Washington.
is so new to the national stage, that many Jewish voters were introduced to him when they learned these facts about him. He has also emerged just as the longtime Jewish-black coalition seems particularly frayed. And since the Wright controversy broke, Republican Jewish groups have criticized Obama relentlessly — keeping their concerns at the forefront of media coverage.
For lots of Jewish people, Gelman said, this whole thing has given them cause for pause. It is causing people to think twice. “It would seem like it’s a reasonable expectation that if he had disagreed with his pastor, he would have canceled his membership in the church,” said Suzanne Kurtz, spokeswoman for the Republican Jewish Coalition, or RJC. The group has issued more than a dozen press releases criticizing Obama since the beginning of his campaign.
Other conservative Jewish groups are more strident in their criticism. “Rev. Wright is an enemy of Jews and an enemy of the United States,” said Shelley Rubin, the head of the controversial Jewish Defense League, the extremist right organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. “It is clear that Wright is a far left-wing hate-monger. Obama’s 20-year relationship with Wright, as well as his failure to unequivocally repudiate Wright, should serve as sufficient proof to even the most incredulous individuals that Obama at least tacitly accepted his spiritual leader until they became an open liability.”
Obama’s stagnant poll numbers following the initial broadcast of Wright’s remarks led some political analysts to believe that the doubts raised by these Jewish groups had gained traction. In the beginning of March, leading up to when Wright’s comments received wide public attention, Obama was making large gains in Gallup’s national tracking poll. On Mar. 13, Obama was ahead, 50 percent to 44 percent.
After Wright’s comments were broadcast, Obama saw his numbers drop to 42 percent in Gallup’s Mar. 18 poll. Then, after Obama delivered his Mar. 18 speech on race, his numbers again climbed. He was up to 52 percent on Mar. 29, only to see the numbers level off. He has not been able to open a larger lead than 10 points in the tracking poll since.
While Jews make up only 3 percent of the population, these outspoken conservative groups could be influential in the general election, said Alan Wolfe, a political science professor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. If Obama is the Democratic nominee, conservative Jews could seek to influence the Jewish population in Detroit, Cleveland and Miami — important cities in swing states. They could also target the conservative Jews who supported Ronald Reagan in 1980, when he earned 39 percent of the Jewish vote and, to a lesser extent, George W. Bush in 2004, when he earned 19 percent.
"I’m sure there are people out there would really like to see McCain get up to the same number of Jewish votes that Reagan did," Wolfe said. "If you’re a very conservative Jew and you want to see McCain elected, you might even support Obama in the primary because it would be easier to split the Jewish vote from him in the general election."
Obama has recognized this problem and his campaign has sought to allay these criticisms. On April 16, Obama took questions at a Jewish community meeting at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Philadelphia. He delivered prepared remarks from the synagogue’s bima, the raised lectern in front of the ark where the Torah is kept. He then fielded questions from the congregation. When asked about former President Jimmy Carter’s decision to meet with the Hamas leaders, Obama immediately responded, “Hamas is not a state. Hamas is a terrorist organization.”
He also explained his willingness to meet with the leaders of Iran. Obama said it is "a practical assessment in terms of how we can best achieve our ultimate goal — which is a an Iran that is not threatening its neighbors, is not threatening Israel, does not possess nuclear weapons, is not funding organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas." He later added, "I will do everything I can to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and what I’ve also said is that I will leave all military options on the table."
"Nobody has been able to identify any set of comments that I’ve made or set of positions that I’ve taken that’s contrary to the Jewish community or Israel," he said in his closing remarks.
Fortunately for Obama, most political scientists agree that this group of outspoken conservative Jews represents a very small percentage of the Jewish vote. There are two types of Jewish voters, said Kenneth Baer, a Democratic strategic who studies the Jewish vote, and is neutral in this campaign. For the first type, religion plays a large role in determining who they vote, so where a candidate stands on Israel is critical to these voters. This group, which includes Rubin and Kurz’s organizations, tend to more be observant, though not necessarily Orthodox, and attend synagogue more regularly. They are also often involved in Jewish community organizations.
Abramowitz estimated that while 20 to 25 percent of Jew vote Republican, this group, which tends to be the most politically active, is relatively small. Their fervor has been influential in shaping media coverage, though. “The media’s perceptions are often shaped by the most vocal members of the Jewish community, which tend to be the most conservative and are disproportionately concerned about Israel," he said.
The other group of Jewish voters, which tends to be far larger, is more in line with Obama ideologically on social issues and the Iraq War. There is no evidence to suggest that they have shifted their support away from him in light of Wright’s comments or that they will as Wright continues to be covered in the media.
"Jews tend to be much more liberal than the overall electorate," said Abramowitz, "particularly on social issues. Jews are also more opposed to the war in the Iraq than the American people."
These Jews make up part of the well-educated, affluent voters often dubbed "Chardonnay Democrats." As polling has shown, they are a significant part of Obama’s base. Obama, who was ranked the most liberal member of the Senate by National Journal, naturally appeals to these voters more than the smaller pool of conservative Jewish groups that have been criticizing him.
Recent polling among Jewish Democrats has shown these voters aren’t fleeing from Obama. A Gallup tracking poll conducted from Mar.1-22, the period when Wright’s remarks become public, revealed that Jewish Democratic voters preferred Clinton to Obama by only 5 percentage points, 48 to 43. This was less of a difference than among Catholics, who favored Clinton 56 percent to 37 percent. Among Christian non-Catholics, Obama edged Clinton, by 47 percent to 44 percent.
Moreover, past presidential elections have shown that these conservative groups are outside the mainstream Jewish voters, who have largely supported Democrats. Jewish voters backed Al Gore over George W. Bush 79 percent to 19 percent in 2000; in 2004, Jewish voters supported John Kerry over Bush 75 percent to 25 percent.
Abramowitz said he doubts McCain will make inroads into the Jewish vote if Obama is the nominee. Jews have been willing to vote for moderate to liberal Republicans but there aren’t very many of those left," Abramowitz said. "At times McCain has been considered a moderate but from looking at his positions on Iraq and the social issues he is pretty conservative."
*Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Jeremiah Wright was speaking before the NAACP and appearing on PBS’ "Bill Moyers Journal" on the same day. Wright spoke before the NAACP on Sunday. He appeared on PBS on Friday. We regret the error. *