Florida will be the first state where a Jewish voter base could make a significant dent in a primary election, but the only candidate with Jewish heritage isn't leveraging his roots.
Bernie Sanders is the first Jew in American history to win a presidential primary, and he has a remote chance of being the first Jewish nominee and president. But in the days leading up to the Florida primary on Tuesday, there's no sign that the Democratic socialist is promoting his heritage to win over Jewish voters in the Sunshine State—a group that makes up 12 percent of all American Jews and is the third biggest population of Jews in the country.
Unlike President Obama, who ran on an understated platform as the first African American presidential nominee, and Hillary Clinton, who actively campaigns on her status as the first woman with a serious shot at the White House, Sanders has shied away from labeling himself in such a fashion.
“That would be a two-edged sword,” said Mac Stipanovich, Florida executive director for Reagan-Bush 1984. “Bernie’s not playing that card—I think it’s who he is as a person—but I don’t know if it’s a good strategy [to play it up]. If you were running for governor, you may want to do that—but ‘vote for me I’m a Jew’—that doesn’t hang everywhere.”
Polls show Clinton way up in Florida. Her narrow win against Barack Obama there in 2008 coupled with her husband’s popularity in the region has helped her gain solid support. A recent poll in the state puts her at 68 percent of the vote.
It’s clear that Sanders has not given up on the state completely, though. He spent this past week holding rallies in Gainesville, Kissimmee and Tampa—all central and northern Florida regions.
But in the areas where his Jewish background might give him an advantage—southern Florida’s Miami, Palm Beach and Boca Raton counties—Sanders has been absent. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment as to why he has not played up his heritage or visited there.
The Democratic hopeful has commented on his religious roots in the past. He said at a recent CNN Democratic Debate that although he doesn’t talk about Judaism frequently, he isn’t disowning that part of his identity.
“I am very proud to be Jewish. Being Jewish is so much of what I am,” he said.
Nevertheless, it’s notable that Sanders has only talked on the campaign trail about his Judaism when asked about it.
“He doesn’t talk about it very much and until recently he seemed a little apologetic that he was Jewish at all,” said Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue, a Reform Orthodox temple. “Unlike when Sen. Joe Lieberman was on the ticket [with Al Gore] as a vice president, it made Jewish pride swell. When it comes to Bernie Sanders, you don’t see that whatsoever; he doesn’t talk about Jewishness or God.”
If there were ever a time for Sanders to play up his heritage, right now in Florida might be the time. Yet some strategists say it might not end up being a successful approach.
Ashley Walker, the former state director for Obama’s 2012 campaign in Florida, says that liberal-leaning Jewish voters in the state aren’t easily won over by a single issue—such as support of Israel. Instead, she said they vote on a variety of topics and that it’s likely a candidate’s policies overall will be the focus, not just his or her background.
“I think that if he were to get more support in the Jewish community it may help him, but he needs to broaden his support base beyond one community in order to make a difference here in Florida,” she said of Sanders. “I think that Secretary Clinton has a strong record on Israel and issues that the Jewish community cares most about. … I think it’s a testament to the policies that she has pushed over the years.”
While, Jews typically vote Democrat – 64 percent compared with 26 percent of Republicans nationally, many Republican candidates also are vying for Jewish voter support in the Sunshine State.
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has held multiple press conferences at establishments he owns, including Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach and the Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter. Unlike his competitors, Trump has taken what many consider to be a more moderate, and even liberal, approach to the Israeli/Palestinian issue—saying that he would like to “make a deal” between the two entities.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, on the other hand, held a press conference Friday in West Palm Beach at a conservative synagogue and emphasized his steadfast support for a single-state solution and the Israel militarily.
He told a crowd of reporters Friday, “Let me be abundantly clear, when I am president, we are going to take a side, and we are going to be on Israel's side.”
Rubio, who trails Trump by 6 percentage points in a recent Florida poll, has resonated with many of the Republican-leaning conservative and orthodox Jews in Southern Florida.
“Our synagogue is tremendously pro-Israel and Israel focused. The top three things that I say our congregants care about when they vote is Israel, Israel, Israel. And then the economy,” said Rabbi Goldberg, who says his temple is about 75 percent Republican. “Bernie Sander’s views do not speak to me at all, but I’d like to be proud that a Jew is running for president, and unfortunately I don’t feel that way because of the way he’s running his campaign.”