Talking Jews and elections with Steve Rabinowitz

Photo by David Stuck

By Miller Friedman

Remember Gary Hart? Remember Walter Mondale, Mo Udall, Michael Dukakis?

Steve Rabinowitz does. He worked on their campaigns for president. And although none of them got even close to the White House, Rabinowitz backed one who did, and became President Bill Clinton’s director of media planning.

Today, Rabinowitz, 62, is president and co-founder of Bluelight Strategies, a D.C.-based media outreach and relations firm that specializes in both Jewish and Democratic communications. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the Jewish Democratic Council of America and the Jewish Federations of North America have been Bluelight accounts.

Rabinowitz says he likes doing Jewish.

“It’s the best part of being me,” Rabinowitz says, with a hint of characteristic absurdism. “A lot of my friends are allowed to take off for Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret from work and go to shul, but I’ve been able to work Sukkot into my professional life, and a lot of people just don’t get to do that. It’s been really special.”

And he’s proud of the work his clients are doing.

“We don’t choose them by accident. We don’t work for any bad guys.”

From where he stands, he sees the Democratic side of the political fence crowded with Jews. And he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

“Every two or four years, my Republican Jewish friends predict that this is going to be the year that Jews vote Republican in increasing numbers, and every subsequent November it proves not to be true,” Rabinowitz says. “This cycle will be no different.”

That’s because nothing has happened to change Jewish voters’ party allegiance, about 75 percent for Democrats. “Donald Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — big deal. He embraced the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights — whatever. He is going to release a so-called Middle East peace plan eventually — so what? He will not get 30 percent of the Jewish vote, no matter what.”

Rabinowitz says that one issue that “the Jewish community cares about in a disproportionate way” is anti-Semitism.

Steve Rabinowitz in 1993 with Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton.
White House photo

“I think it’s very much on the forefront of our minds,” Rabinowitz says. “This is a rare election where anti-Semitism needs to be added to the list.”

Israel is on the list for some, but it’s far from being the number one issue for most Jewish voters.

“Israel has long been what I call a threshold issue for Jews,” Rabinowitz says. “It’s not the most important issue, but [if a candidate] is bad on it, they’re disqualified.

This claim is backed by polling data. A 2018 J Street poll found only 4 percent of Jewish voters chose Israel as one of their top two issues.

Rabinowitz believes Jewish voters want presidential candidates to speak about more than just Israel.

“Our community rolls its eyes at candidates who only talk to us about Israel, Israel, Israel. I care about Israel a lot, but there is so much more I want to hear about also,” he says.

Rabinowitz was born in Tucson, Ariz., and is a member of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington. In the Clinton White House he helped introduce the town hall meeting. He and his colleague Jeff Eller placed Clinton in what he calls a “bowl of voters” during the gatherings, which allowed Clinton to appear more personal and empathetic when he answered questions.

Today, networks around the country use this method during their town halls.

“As I thought I was helping Bill Clinton figure out how to do these [town halls], it was the networks who figured it out in no time,” Rabinowitz says. “They are bringing all these candidates to their own setups, which are identical to what Jeff and I pioneered almost 30 years ago. It tickles me to death that it’s the same format.”

As for whether there is a clear frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s nominee for president,
Rabinowitz says he is unsure.

“I long thought Biden was the clear frontrunner, but clearly Sanders and Warren took big chunks out of that,” he says. “Everybody else is far back with the possible exception of Buttigieg, who is maybe in fourth place.

“Tell me what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire,” he adds, “and I’ll tell you the answer.”

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