Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Debate-O-Rama, A Curious Case of Jewish Politics

All Debates, All the Time
The first caucuses and primaries are still almost five months away, but the full-time debate circuit is in full swing.  It started with an early May debate that was sparsely attended and almost as sparsely watched on Fox News (Mitt Romney didn't even bother to show up.)  The first "real" debate happened in Mid-June on CNN and included all of the present field minus Rick Perry but plus Tim Pawlenty.  Then the August debate in Iowa that featured largely the same field on Fox News.  Then...things really got rolling.  With Perry now in the race, we had the MSNBC debate on September 7th.  Now, we've had the CNN / Tea Party Express debate this week in Tampa.  Everyone is back in Florida next week for a Fox News debate in Orlando.  Then at least 2 more debates in November on CNN and Fox News.

Suffice it to say, we should all have had the chance to become very informed by the time the actual voting begins.

This week's debate was a fascinating affair.  Commentary from much of the media painted the debate as contentious but without a lot of clear winners and losers.  I couldn't disagree more.  In the MSNBC debate, I praised Rick Perry for earning his spot on the stage despite his prior reputation as an intellectual lightweight.  In the CNN debate this week, I thought he got absolutely creamed.  He was the clear loser in the back and forth with Mitt Romney, who successfully demonstrated Perry evading a clear question about whether Social Security should be discontinued as a program, a position that everyone knows would be toxic in a general election.  Perry also took a much more serious assault for his "default in, opt out" vaccination program, issued by executive order, against an STD that causes cervical cancer, a completely defensible position, but one that Perry was running scared from in a conservative forum.  Perry looked absolutely punch-drunk by the end of the discussion and Mitt Romney still looked Presidential.  Michelle Bachmann turned in probably her best performance, although I still don't see a path to victory for her unless Perry completely implodes.

I'm sure Perry will continue to lead the polls, at least for the time being, but I think Romney will slowly, but steadily, chip away at his lead.  Pre-Debate, Perry was leading in most national polls by 12 or 13%.  If Romney can make a little headway, and win decisively in New Hampshire (he is still well ahead there), I think he has a strong path to the nomination.

Of course, just because I think Perry is a weak general election candidate and a lightweight doesn't mean he can't get the nod or that it isn't possible that he could topple an unpopular Barack Obama in the general election.  And Perry may well get a lot better at debating with all the practice he's getting.  But Romney is still the guy to beat.

New York - 9, All National Politics Are Local?
The 9th district in New York doesn't generally elect Republicans.  It is more Democratic than the national average, having voted for Barack Obama by 4% more than the national average (Obama +11% in 2008.)  Anthony Weiner represented the district for 12 years before resigning in disgrace (the reason for the special election.)  It last had a Republican representative in the 1920s.  Before today, that is.

In an odd campaign that was part a referendum on an unpopular President in general and partly a specific referendum on our relationship with Israel, Bob Turner pulled an impressive upset, winning the seat for the GOP by about 6%. 

The district is a little unique in its heavy Orthodox Jewish population and Middle East politics were front and center in the race.  President Obama's positions on Israeli-Palestine peace talks, and specifically his view that the starting point for discussions should be the return of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Arab control were front and center.

This result demonstrates the odd political divide that many religious Jews face.  It's dangerous to generalize, but that's a bit of what demographic politics are about.  Jewish people, in general, tend towards liberal positions on social and economic issues but conservative positions on foreign policy, especially as it pertains to the Middle East and Israel specifically.  The GOP has, for a long time, been a staunch ally to Israel.  In the case of Orthodox Jews, some of the social policies lean a little further right as well.

So is there a national message in this vote?  One could certainly be that President Obama is in trouble with the Jewish vote.  He certainly is not at risk, at least at this point, of losing New York (it would take an absolute national thumping to put that state in play), but the Jewish vote is also a critical swing constituency in Florida, a state very much in play in 2012.

It's also one more data point, albeit a murky one, that the national mood continues to be anti-Democrat. 

This result isn't the be all and end all of predicting a 2012 outcome, but, on balance, it certainly isn't good for Democrats.

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