For Biden, Jewish voter turnout is key in Florida as race with Trump tightens

Michael Wilner, David Smiley, Karina Elwood
·12 min read

Signs that Jewish voters in Florida are turning out to vote in large numbers are raising hopes in Joe Biden’s campaign that the former vice president can effectively end the 2020 race on election night with a decisive victory in the state.

Based on recent polling, mail-in ballot returns and early voting numbers in South Florida’s largest Jewish communities, Biden campaign officials are increasingly optimistic they will outperform 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton with this voting bloc. Florida’s Jewish voters, largely an older population, are primarily motivated to vote this year by concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

Even a marginal shift among Jewish voters, who make up roughly 5% of Florida’s electorate, could tip the balance in a state where election margins are historically tight and Biden and President Donald Trump are just about tied in the polls.

Biden has said in recent days that a decisive victory in Florida would all but end the national race, closing off most viable paths for Trump to reach the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency.

“There has been a big fight for the Jewish vote in Florida — there’s been a real battle, and nobody could say for certain how that battle’s going to turn out,” said Mark Mellman, president of the Democratic Majority for Israel, a lobbying group running ads for Biden targeting Florida voters. “When you have a significant Jewish community in the state, the difference between doing well and poorly in the Jewish vote could be the difference between winning and losing.”

One Biden campaign official noted that return rates for mail-in ballots have been high so far in Broward, one of the state’s most populous counties, and in Palm Beach County — “the two largest communities in Florida for Jewish voters.”

Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said that their data confirms that Jewish Floridians are already voting in large numbers.

“Forty percent of eligible Jewish voters in Florida have already voted as of today,” said Soifer, whose group has been running digital ads in Florida. “We have files for about 2 million Jewish voters that start with, of course, the voter file, but then we’ve created files for Jewish voters, and so when we cross-check it, we know who is voting in our 14 key states, and of course that includes Florida.”

Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat representing much of Palm Beach and West Palm Beach, said that turnout was already “through the roof” in her district, which is over 15% Jewish. “We’ve had over 156,000 already voted, and 90,000 of them are Democrats, 32,000-plus are Republican and the rest are no party. So that is a very large number of people who’ve already voted, probably more than half that we expect to show up,” she said.

Through Wednesday evening, 4.25 million Floridians had voted, according to state data. About 45% of votes were cast by Democrats, 34% by Republicans and 19% by independents.

In Broward County, Florida’s bluest, 225,000 Democrats have voted already, compared with 72,000 Republicans and 78,000 independents. In Miami-Dade County, 197,000 Democrats, 123,000 Republicans and 102,000 independent voters have cast ballots in person and by mail.

A poll released this week found Biden performing better among Florida Jews than Clinton did in the same poll four years ago, with 73% favoring Biden compared with 67% supporting Clinton at this point in 2016. Trump’s support appeared statistically stable at 22%.

Over 30% of participants in that poll had already voted, and it concluded over a week ago, said Jim Gerstein, a veteran pollster of Jewish voters who conducted the survey released Wednesday.

“One of the striking results in this survey is that there are only 1% who are undecided. Jews have made up their mind about Donald Trump and how they feel about him, and they’ve made up their mind about whether they like and support Joe Biden,” Gerstein said. “It’s all about turning people out, because three in four Jewish voters are voting for Biden — so the more Jewish voters there are, the better off he is.”

Early voting and mail ballot returns have been high across the board for Democrats, giving the Biden campaign a measure of confidence that they have fended off a multimillion-dollar messaging campaign by Republicans to win over more of Florida’s Jewish voters.

Still, the fight for this small, influential constituency is not over. Trump’s campaign is pushing back, insisting the president will perform better with this group than any Republican since Ronald Reagan.

“I do believe that there’s a hidden Trump vote in there among Jewish Americans,” Boris Epshteyn, strategic advisor to the Trump campaign and co-chair of Jewish Voices for Trump, told McClatchy, predicting the president would clinch 35% or more of the Jewish vote, “just like there’s a hidden Trump vote nationally and more generally among Americans.”

PANDEMIC CONCERNS

In Aventura, a heavily Jewish community in northeast Miami-Dade County, Brian Schoenberger, a Republican who moved to Florida from New York three months ago, said he’s been impressed with Trump’s handling of the economy.

“He’s not perfect,” the 53-year-old Schoenberger said outside an early voting center at the Northeast Dade-Aventura Branch Library. “But it’s about his policies toward the economy. He’s pro-business and pro-economy.”

Across Biscayne Bay, in Miami Beach, Donald Goldberg said while waiting to vote that the coronavirus pandemic has weighed heavily on his mind and convinced him to vote for Biden. He said he lost his job as the director of operations for a catering business this year as a result of COVID-19. He’s still out of work and driving an Amazon truck part time to make ends meet.

“I’m out of a job. There’s a pandemic going on. It’s time for a change,” said Goldberg, 46. “I’d love a plan. Maybe if they had more of a plan I’d consider voting Republican.”

Officials with both campaigns recognize that Jewish voters are concerned above all this year with COVID-19.

While other constituencies are also concerned with the pandemic, the coronavirus is especially a focus for the Jewish community in Florida because it is, on average, an older demographic, which places that population at higher risk for more serious reaction to contracting COVID-19.

“Florida is an older population in general, and Jews are an older population too — so you have those two factors working at once, and as a result you have 44% of the Jewish electorate in Florida is over 64,” said Gerstein. “Older voters are moving against Trump nationally, and that would make sense that that would carry over across constituencies.”

Jewish Democrats say that Trump’s handling of the coronavirus has exacerbated concerns within the community over health care policy, which has consistently motivated Jewish voters to the polls in recent election cycles.

“The pandemic is the single biggest issue — the president’s failure to lead, the fact that he lied about it, the mismanagement that has led to so much disruption,” said Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, a Democrat representing much of Broward County and part of Palm Beach County. “Seniors feel that intensely, and in the Jewish community especially, where community events are so critical, it’s now eight months that families haven’t been able to be together for celebrations like bar mitzvahs and weddings, at funerals and shivas.”

But focus groups conducted by Democrats also indicate that Trump’s messaging on far-right and white nationalist groups has fueled anxiety among Jews after a rise in antisemitic hate crimes nationwide and in 2018 the deadliest attack on Jewish Americans in U.S. history at a synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11.

Gerstein, who has conducted some of the focus sessions, said that Trump’s response to a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 has become a recurrent theme. A Biden campaign official noted that the former vice president launched his bid for the presidency with a video condemning that event.

Epshteyn said that antisemitism and hostility toward Israel on the left has actually fueled a shift among Jewish voters away from Democrats that was not reflected in Gerstein’s poll. He pointed to another poll released by the Jewish Electorate Institute in September that found Biden at 67% and Trump at 30% nationwide among Jewish voters.

“Of course COVID is an issue, but antisemitism is also an issue. And as Jewish voters are looking at their choice, how is it not clear that President Trump fights against antisemitism?” Epshteyn said.

Trump’s landmark policy moves on Israel, including withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord, recognizing Jerusalem as its capital and relocating the U.S. embassy there, occurred before the 2018 midterm elections, in which Jewish voters nationwide trended even more Democratic than in 2016.

But his decision to accept Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights and his brokering of peace agreements between Israel and two Muslim nations, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, provide additional evidence of the president’s support for the Jewish state, Epshteyn said.

“This president has been the greatest champion and friend to the state of Israel in the history of this country, and I would include Harry Truman in that, who recognized Israel in 1948,” Epshteyn said. “You look across all those achievements, and I’m telling you with full confidence that the Jewish American voter is going to come out for this president.”

Nevertheless, polls over multiple election cycles have shown that Israel policy fails to move Jewish voter attitudes. The top concerns are always domestic matters.

“I appreciate his support for Israel, he’s done a great job with that,” said Goldberg, the Miami Beach voter. “But I’m an American first, and that doesn’t ultimately sway my decision. There are bigger issues to address.”

Frankel said she has at times felt more like a psychiatrist than a congresswoman, counseling constituents deeply concerned with the course of a pandemic that has killed over 16,000 Floridians.

“The biggest concern is COVID,” said Frankel. “I want everyone to be for the security of Israel, no question about it, but the No. 1 priority of my constituents — whether they are Jewish or not — is they want to live. They want their children to live, their grandchildren to live.”

FIGHT OVER THE MARGINS

Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor who specializes in Jewish demography, said Republican efforts to win over a larger share of the Jewish vote in Florida have shown little sign of success.

Sheskin’s analysis of national Jewish population surveys, data from the Pew Research Center, and local Jewish community surveys suggests that, if anything, the approximately 7 million Jews in the United States are becoming more moderate and less conservative.

“The Republican Jewish Coalition has been claiming for decades that more Jews are becoming Republicans. It just isn’t so,” said Sheskin, naming an organization that has spent at least $3.5 million on TV ads promoting Trump and attacking Biden.

Given Florida’s historically slim election margins, and its Jewish population of roughly 650,000, political candidates often focus on the large Jewish communities in South Florida during campaign season.

This year has been no different. Last week, Epshteyn attended a pro-Trump rally with Israeli Americans — statistically far more likely to support the president — in Miami, and the campaign also sent Vice President Mike Pence to visit with Orthodox rabbis representing a network of hundreds of congregations and day schools.

The Republican Jewish Coalition is spending millions in the Miami and Palm Beach TV markets on behalf of Trump, and the Trump campaign has hosted targeted events to shore up their voter margins.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he expects Trump to improve over 2016, when he secured 27% of Jewish voters in Florida, according to exit polls.

He said that Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis set the new bar in 2018 by winning 35% of the vote.

“Republicans can poll well among Jewish voters [in Florida], and when we do so, especially in close races, it’s a critical component to getting to a margin of victory,” Brooks said. “We think we’re going to do better among Jewish voters, and we think Florida is going to be tight.”

Epshteyn offered a similar assessment. “Ron DeSantis got 35% in 2018,” he said. “I firmly believe that President Trump is going to perform at that clip or better with the Jewish vote.”

Democrats concede that a similar breakdown in the Jewish vote to 2018, which put DeSantis over the top, would result in a Trump victory statewide. But they are dismissive of DeSantis’ margin from that year, noting that he ran a race against a Democrat, Andrew Gillum, who was attacked aggressively by DeSantis over his association with a progressive group that backed the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, known as BDS, to undercut Israel through financial protest.

By contrast, Biden’s campaign argues that their candidate is a known quantity from his 47 years in Washington, and his record of support for Israel through his tenure as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Biden campaign has two aides dedicated solely to securing the Jewish vote in Florida, working under senior staff focused on the Jewish vote nationwide.

Their team has scheduled several campaign stops for surrogates and produced weekly newsletters for the community, organized multiple phone banks with Jewish volunteers calling Jewish voters every week, and held weekly surrogate events on Zoom for Jewish voters that the campaign says have drawn hundreds of attendees each.

“We’re especially proud of our outreach to Jewish communities in Florida and across the country. Jewish Americans, like all Americans, are living in a world defined by President Trump’s failures to protect the nation,” said Jackie McGuinness, a Biden campaign spokeswoman. “We’ll be spending the next two weeks mobilizing our Jewish supporters to get involved and ask their friends, family and neighbors to join our movement to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”

Updates with data from the Jewish Democratic Council of America.