With the Iowa caucuses less than one week away, the 2016 presidential candidates are making their final rounds throughout the state, and the more than 6,000 Jews who live there are taking notice.
About 150 were on hand Monday at the Waukee headquarters of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines to hear former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deliver an 18-minute address, much of which focused on the U.S.-Israel relationship and fighting terrorism.
“Israel needs a strong America by its side, and America needs a strong and secure Israel by our side — to have an Israel that remains a bastion of stability and a core ally in a region of chaos,” Clinton told attendees, according to the Times of Israel.
Clinton, the overall favorite in the Democratic primary, is running nearly neck-and-neck with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Iowa. Sanders, the only Jewish candidate in the race other than Green Party member Jill Stein, is leading Clinton by double digits in New Hampshire, which holds its primaries one week after Iowa, making for a competitive beginning in the contest for the Democratic nomination. Yet, those involved in the Clinton campaign feel confident in their belief in her ability to win both states.
“I believe that going into the caucuses we have an advantage in that we’ve done it before, they know what they’re doing, they know how the game is played,” said Scott Sokol, who chairs Baltimore County’s Hillary for President chapter. “Women tend to be much more significant and powerful in both the Republican and the Democratic nominations. And women are a force supporting Hillary. … So we’re not out of it at all.”
Sokol said even if Clinton were to lose the first two states, she still has a tremendous advantage in other parts of the country, such as the South, and that the race ultimately may be decided by the so-called super delegates. They are free to vote their conscience at the Democratic National Convention this summer, just as in 2008 when Clinton was narrowly defeated by then-Sen. Barack Obama.
“She has people from every single state in the country who would die to get her elected,” Sokol said. “She is not out of it if she loses Iowa or New Hampshire.”
Sokol himself is no stranger to the hoopla that is election season in Iowa, having lived there in 1984 while working on the campaign of presidential candidate Walter Mondale as well as that of former Sen. Tom Harkin.
“It was democracy at its best,” he said of the experience. “You have to get people and they have to be committed. And they have to be willing to come out to the caucuses. The whole idea was to capture as many people as you can. It was very intense. You were on the phone all the time.”
Sokol said he recalled that TV cameras were almost everywhere he went while working there, and that residents he spoke with were particularly sharp when it came to politics.
“Iowans know everything,” he said. “I had to know each of the positions each candidate took on issues and why my candidate was the best.
“And so, it was so spectacular. I was so overwhelmed to see how they took this whole process. This happens nowhere else but Iowa.”
Very little has changed from three decades ago, and Des Moines resident Wendy Adato said the four-year election cycle has now be come a two-year cycle due to the candidates usually beginning to campaign the year before the election.
“It’s just crazy,” she said.
“In The Des Moines Register, there’s a schedule every day of who’s going to be in the state and the times and everything, so if you want to see someone, you know where to go.”
Adato moved to Des Moines from Gaithersburg in 2005 with the relocation of cher husband’s job, making this the third presidential election she’s seeing from an Iowa perspective.
In 2008, Obama made an appearance at the firehouse in her neighborhood, which she attended, and it was “packed.”
It is these small-scale events that she said make Iowa’s politics more intimate than others.
“You really do get a chance to see them, ask questions, sort of get to know them,” she said of the candidates.
Adato had planned to attend Clinton’s speech on Monday, but was unable to due to another commitment.
Adato’s son Michael has found his way into the political scene, having attended both Obama and Clinton rallies in 2008 while in seventh grade. Now 16, Michael is working as a precinct captain for the Sanders campaign.
Although not old enough to vote, he is responsible for organizing phone banks and canvassing for caucus-goers.
“It frustrates me to no end, which further motivates me, because I want to make up for the fact that I can’t vote,” he said. “And when I meet people that aren’t going to caucus just because they don’t care, I tell them, ‘I would pay you for your vote if I could use your vote for myself.’”
Michael said his top priorities in the election are college affordability and income inequality, two planks of Sanders’ platform.
“I just think it’s not fair that people die because they can’t pay to go to the doctor while Donald Trump [Republican presidential primary nationwide front-runner] is trying to choose which yacht he’s going to take,” he said.
Michael said Sanders has been an inspiration to him and has motivated him to seek a career in politics.
“I don’t want to be a member of a party, I want to be there and fight the systematic corruption of the government,” he said.
Iowa has been won by the eventual Democratic nominee in five of the past seven caucuses in which an incumbent Democratic president was not running for re-election.
Heidi Moscovitz, a Bethesda resident who lived in Des Moines for 13 years, said attending a caucus in 2008 was an eye-opening experience.
“It was really exciting to be there during political times,” she said. “You could meet any candidate you wanted up-close and in-person really.
“I knew I wanted to do it because I hadn’t had that experience. I don’t think a lot of people in Iowa have done it. It’s kind of an odd thing.”
As she was walking toward the Clinton campaign table and her husband was walking to Obama’s, she noticed a particularly dramatic trend, she recalled.
“As people were talking you could see the people slowly going over to Obama and the Clinton side of the room was getting smaller and smaller,” she said.
“And that’s kind of how the nation went too.”
Moscovitz said she does not typically discuss politics or get involved but as a New York City native, she said she is excited by the prospect that former mayor Michael Bloomberg may enter the race as an independent.
“He knows how to get things done,” she said. “He’s got a vast amount of money but he’s willing to use his own money to do things.
“I know people say he goes a little too far with things like the size of sodas, but I think his heart’s in the right place. And he gets the job done.”
Less than thrilled in New Hampshire
By Melissa Apter
Less than thrilled is how some New Hampshire Jewish voters describe their feelings toward the presidential candidates vying for votes in the Granite State. Despite the lackluster enthusiasm for this year’s candidates, the Jews of New Hampshire will do their duty and head to the polls on Feb. 9.
“I’ve been a lifelong Democrat,” said Dr. Sol Rockenmacher of Bedford, “[but] this election both my wife and I are undeclared.”
Though Rockenmacher draws comparisons to Democratic hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — they both grew up the children of immigrants in Brooklyn, N.Y. — he’s disappointed that neither the self-described democratic socialist nor former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spoken up about Israel.
“We have three married daughters and five grandchildren and our biggest concern is national security and secondly is Israel,” said Rockenmacher. “Speak up Bernie! Speak up Hillary!”
Rockenmacher and his wife Linda, who belong to Temple Adath Yeshurun, a Reform congregation of approximately 200 in Manchester, have applied for absentee Republican ballots. He is considering Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He is not considering voting for frontrunner Donald Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Abraham, a Conservative synagogue in Nashua, concurred, saying, “People are not tremendously excited about the candidates this time, but I said in synagogue the other day it’s good because we’re not here to fall in love [with candidates].”
Despite the disappointment with this year’s crop of candidates, both Rockenmacher and Spira-Savett said that they and their fellow Jewish New Hampshireites feel a certain responsibility because of how the primary can influence the rest of the race.
Spira-Savett went so far as to discuss politics in his Yom Kippur address.
He was nervous at first, but given how political talk permeates the congregation, from folks casually chatting about candidates during kiddush to families hosting campaign staffers in their homes for “weeks and months,” it was worth broaching the subject. It helps, he added, that he’s an independent (“My allegiance to God and Torah is bigger than allegiance to a political party,” he said).
The haftarah for Yom Kippur morning, Spira-Savett explained, asks “is our fasting worth anything if we neglect the homeless, don’t feed the hungry? … If we’re really concerned about the Jewish imperative to serve those in our society who have the most need, then we have to talk about politics.”
“I told the congregation: If you’re a liberal, be a more Jewish liberal,” he recalled. “If you’re a conservative, be a more Jewish conservative.”
The Brotherhood at Temple Adath Yeshurun, which Rockenmacher co-chairs, has invited the campaigns to send a representative to their candidate forum on Feb. 4. With the Iowa caucus taking place just days before, Rockenmacher expects he will hear from campaigns at the last minute, but he’s optimistic given the media coverage that his synagogue’s annual fall forum for local candidates attracts.
Access to candidates and their surrogates is a privilege of living in New Hampshire, one that more than makes up for the inundation of campaign calls — “eight calls a day,” said Spira-Savett — and mailings.
“When we lived in North Manchester, one of our neighbors had Bob Dole over and we met him, even though we were registered Democrats,” said Rockenmacher.
And when the Rockenmachers supported Gen. Wesley Clark’s Democratic bid for the presidency in 2004, two Jewish politicos, Rahm Emanuel, the now embroiled mayor of Chicago, and Anthony Weiner, the former congressman from New York who resigned amid a sexting scandal, came to their home to stump for the general. Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, is a longtime aid to Clinton.
The Clintons, though, seem to have a certain pull with New Hampshire Jews.
According to Spira-Savett, who joined his congregation seven-and-a-half years ago, the former president and his wife, once attended a dance at his synagogue and a number of congregants have pictures with them.
He and his family got to meet Hillary Clinton through a congregant who serves in the state senate and worked on a past Clinton campaign.
This year, Spira-Savett took his 12-year-old daughter to a Labor Day parade and Kasich, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has since left the race, and Sanders took the time to shake his daughter’s hand.
“You can see whoever you want,” joked Rockenmacher. “You just have to get there early.”
In D.C., Hillary vs. Bernie
Days before the Iowa caucuses, Jennifer Stein is bullish on Hillary Clinton.
“In the national polls, she’s still way ahead of Bernie Sanders,” the Bethesda attorney said. “People think that if he does well in the early primaries it will influence later voting. I’m really hopeful that will not be the case.”
Stein, who voted for Clinton in the 2008 Maryland primary, said being a known quantity is an advantage for the former secretary of state. “Next time, the spotlight will be turned on Bernie Sanders.”
She called the Republican presidential nominees “a scary bunch,” and despite viewing Sanders as a fringe candidate, said “I will certainly vote for him if he’s the nominee.”
Josh Neirman will vote for Clinton if she’s the nominee, but the Vermont-raised Washington resident thinks his candidate is riding to victory. “I think Bernie Sanders will be president,” he said.
Neirman, a property manager for low-income housing, is glad that Sanders has kept his focus on domestic issues. When it comes to the so-called Islamic State, Iran and North Korea, “any candidate is going to do what needs to be done for national security.”
He called Republican politics “toxic. It scares me. The Democrats are at least talking about substantive issues.”