On the heels of Mitt Romney’s arrival in Israel, a strange narrative has emerged in American and foreign media about the point of the presumptive Republican nominee’s visit. According to this narrative, the purpose of Romney’s trip is to make an appeal to American Jewish voters by going all the way to Israel to meet with Israeli officials to polish his foreign policy credentials, while squeezing in a quick closed-door fundraiser. Indeed, “Obama and Romney compete for Jewish voters,” reads one headline; “Romney on to Israel as Republicans launch bid for Jewish vote in US,” declares another.
Politico is one of the worst offenders, having spent inordinate amounts of time reporting on the Jewish vote, and whether the Republicans can actually make any gains within the demographic. But to even discuss the issue in such terms is patently absurd. In addition to the fact that Jews comprise just 2.1% of the country's total population, the vast majority of them live in states that will not be in play in November, with just 21% of American Jews living in the nine toss-up states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Florida, Missouri, Michigan, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico) currently up for grabs between Obama and Romney. In these states, there are 1.4 million Jews. In a country of 310 million, that's 0.45% of the electorate.
So is Romney really in Israel trying to appeal to this incredibly narrow slice of American voters?
Let’s dispense with the political correctness. Mitt Romney is not visiting Israel so he can try to make a dent in Obama’s lead among Jewish voters. Romney is in Israel trying cut into the president’s fundraising advantage among Jews. The Romney trip is not about competing with Obama for Jewish votes, but rather, for Jewish campaign contributions, which Democrats rely heavily on, with as much as 60% of Democratic money coming from Jewish donors compared to only 25% for the GOP, according to the Washington Post in 2006.
That would include money from the powerful Israel lobby, especially the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee. According to a 2005 National Journal survey among congressional insiders, AIPAC was ranked as the second-most powerful lobbying organization in Washington. The Israel lobby in general is quite active, donating to Democrats and Republicans alike, as it aggressively pushes the U.S. government to adopt and maintain support-Israel-no-matter-what policies. Romney is very much on board with this agenda, having slammed Obama for being insufficiently pro-Israel.
Romney knows he's not going to woo many Jewish voters since they tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. He also knows that November's Jewish vote breakdown will be largely immaterial. For him, the question isn't whether he can garner x percent of the Jewish vote, but whether he can get the small percentage of Jews who do support him to donate substantial amounts of money to his campaign. And on this front, Romney has had success. Several major Jewish donors who gave money to Democrats in the last election presidential cycle have thrown their support to Romney by donating to his super PAC.
No doubt Romney's trip to Israel is also an effort to burnish his foreign policy credentials. But the main motivation is to show would-be Jewish (and also Christian conservative) donors that he will be a staunch defender of Israel as president, and that he is willing to go the extra mile to demonstrate this. Whether the visit will bring about new donations is a gamble the Romney campaign is clearly willing to take. Although he will lose the miniscule Jewish vote in November, the real question is whether he can raise enough money from those who support him so that it doesn't matter.