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N.Y. Special Election Shows Obama's Trials To Come

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N.Y. Special Election Shows Obama's Trials To Come

A crowd cheers as Republican Bob Turner appears on stage during an election night party on Tuesday in New York. The traditionally Democratic and Jewish district elected Turner, revealing the problems Obama may have with political strongholds in the 2012 election.

Mary Altaffer

This week brought another slew of bad political news for President Obama. The Democrats lost two special elections: one in a Republican-leaning district in Nevada, and one in a Democratic stronghold in New York.

There are also new polls showing the president’s support weakening among Democratic voters in blue states.

Sometimes off-cycle elections are good predictors of the trends in the next national election, and sometimes they’re not. But Tuesday’s rout in the heavily Democratic and heavily Jewish 9th congressional district of New York sent a wave of gloom through the Democratic Party.

A Turning Tide For Obama’s Jewish Voters?

Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition says the results suggest that Obama will have trouble with Jewish voters next year in battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.

“An overwhelming number of Jews — reform Jews, conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews — crossed over and voted for the Republican, because [of], in large part, the concerns that they have with the Obama administration’s position on Israel,” Brooks says. “I think it’s very telling.”

Democrats say New York’s 9th is unique because there’s no other district in the country with as many conservative Orthodox Jews. Like other observant religious people, they’ve been drifting to the GOP for a while.

Democrats also say Jews are still one of the most loyal Democratic voting blocs, but they’re not as loyal as they used to be. Jewish voters went 80 percent for President Obama in 2008, down from 90 percent for Bill Clinton.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says President Obama does have a Jewish problem.

“The president’s problem is that too many Jews think that his support [of Israel] is kind of formal, but half-hearted. They really don’t trust him, and that is a significant problem,” Rothenberg says.

It’s a significant issue not because Jews make up a large voting bloc, but because they are disproportionately Democratic activists and fundraisers. The White House is well aware of this problem; it’s doing outreach to Jewish groups to make the point that press secretary Jay Carney made Thursday.

“As recently as last week or the week before, the prime minister of Israel made an incredibly strong statement about the remarkable commitment — unshakable commitment — that this president has to Israel’s security, and the unprecedented assistance that this president has provided Israel,” Carney said.

An Overall Decline In Support

Rothenberg and others say it would be a big mistake to look at the New York results solely as a reflection of the president’s problems with Jewish voters.

“Some of this is specific to the Jewish community, but a lot of it is a more general softening of Democratic support for the president,” he says.

That’s a much more serious problem, says Mitchell Moss, an expert on urban politics at New York University who followed the special election won by Republican Bob Turner.

Moss explains that the Turner people put out a mailer showing President Obama on a golf course with a headline that read: “Washington Just Doesn’t Get It.”

“Nationalizing the race turned out to be an effective way to basically take a Democratic seat and make it a Republican seat,” Moss says.

It’s the kind of attack Republicans will use everywhere next year — with all kinds of voters — against the Democrats and President Obama.

“He has fundamental problems, because the employment problems of this country have not been solved, and he doesn’t look like he understands how to solve them,” Moss says. “I don’t think this is about Israel; this is about the economy.”

Even among Jewish voters in New York’s 9th congressional district, polls showed that the economy, Social Security and Medicare were more important than Israel. And that, says Moss, is the real takeaway for Obama.

“The Democrats are in trouble,” he says. “I think it tells you that there’s a lot more in the 2012 electoral map that is contestable than people realize.”

New polls from blue states highlight the problem the president is facing among people who should be his most reliable supporters. In California, Obama’s approval rating is down to 50 percent, and a poll in New York shows him with only 45 percent approval. These are dismal numbers for a president who needs the enthusiastic support of Democratic voters in every state.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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