Trump's Israel ground game
There’s one state where Donald Trump’s ground game appears to be a model of efficiency, rather than a ramshackle operation lacking organizers and field offices: Israel.
As part of an effort to target what the Israeli chapter of Republicans Overseas says are as many as 300,000 U.S. citizens living there — many of them registered in places ranging from safe Democratic states like New York, New Jersey and California to swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania — the pro-Trump group is employing all the traditional tools long eschewed by the campaign itself.
In some ways, the Trump organizing efforts are more extensive in the West Bank of Israel than in West Palm Beach, Fla.
While the Trump campaign and its allies spent much of the summer waving off the importance of brick-and-mortar offices in the U.S., the Israeli team is expanding its physical footprint. So far, there are five offices open in areas around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as well as in the West Bank. And the group has plans to open three more offices starting as soon as this week: In Gush Etzion, which is also in the West Bank, near Jerusalem; and two others around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
There’s even coalition-specific engagement—a top adviser to the Chief Rabbi of Israel is focused on courting the ultra-Orthodox vote for Trump, according to the campaign manager for the Israel effort. Compare that to the Trump campaign in Florida, for example, where there is little evidence of tailored Jewish outreach at all, much less constituency-focused outreach to various Jewish subgroups.
Marc Zell, who heads up Republicans Overseas Israel, said they are “closely coordinated” with both the RNC and the Trump campaign on messaging. But the Israeli-based Trump effort is supported by local fundraising, not the GOP nominee’s campaign or the RNC.
A Marco Rubio backer in the GOP primary, Zell tried to resign his GOP leadership position after Trump won, he said, initially distraught over Trump’s nomination. But Zell has since come to support the Republican nominee, heartened by the strong pro-Israel language included in the platform passed at Trump’s convention. Many Israelis who whole-heartedly embrace Trump appreciate his tough talk on terrorism and the fact that he represents a clear break with the Obama administration, which has had a tumultuous relationship with conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One poll of Israelis from June, however, found that 42 percent of Israeli citizens overall would vote for Hillary Clinton if they were American citizens, and 35 percent would back Trump.
Other organizations estimate that there are only around 200,000 U.S. citizens in Israel. But whatever the number, the pro-Trump forces are targeting a group that includes many Orthodox Jews, who tend to be more conservative — and more likely to vote for Trump.
“People, they…come back from work, they’re going to get help through the registration process from our specialists,” said Tzvika Brot, a former Israeli journalist who is campaign manager of the Israel effort. “Every evening, we’ll come to that office or some base in the houses of our volunteers. We even appoint area captains for each area in Israel.”
To American political operatives who have worked with the Jewish community stateside, the intensive Israeli efforts to target U.S. citizens on Trump’s behalf underscore how little the Republican is doing to court Jewish voters in key American swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and especially Florida.
“Instead of focusing on expats who are Floridians who live in Ashdod [in Israel], I would focus on Jewish Americans who live in Boca Raton,” said Michael Fragin, a consultant who worked on Jewish outreach for the Republican National Committee in Florida in 2004, and remains plugged in to the Jewish political world.
In the U.S., he continued, “Nobody I know is aware of anything going on specific to Jewish outreach.”
Added Lisa Spies, who ran Jewish outreach for Mitt Romney and remains heavily involved on the pro-Israel donor landscape: “With Trump, yes, there are pro-Israel Republicans listed on invites, or that go to events, but what they still haven’t done, and every campaign before has done, and Hillary is doing, is have a concerted Jewish outreach.”
While the Jewish vote in the U.S. is traditionally heavily Democratic, there have been major efforts in recent years to convert more Jewish voters to the GOP.
In 2012, Romney surrogates like former Sen. Norm Coleman hit the synagogue circuit for Romney and billboards reading “Obama…Oy vey!” littered South Florida roads. Romney personally visited Israel. And four years earlier, former Sen. Joe Lieberman was a top surrogate for John McCain.
For several election cycles, Florida Republicans have targeted Orthodox Jews, Israeli-American Jews and Jews from South America, some of whom tend to be more conservative than their generally liberal co-religionists.
And Jewish Republicans could claim some success in 2012: President Barack Obama won 69 percent of the Jewish vote in 2012 — down from 78 percent in 2008.
But Trump, who has had to spend time swatting down accusations of racism and anti-Semitism following support from bigoted backers like former Ku Klux Klan head David Duke, already has built-in challenges with the community. And his lack of campaign infrastructure and outreach doesn’t help either, some Jewish political operatives say.
It’s a missed opportunity, they add, especially in Florida, a battleground state crucial to Trump’s path to victory, where five percent of the electorate is Jewish and presidential elections are routinely close.
“Who are their surrogates doing rallies, getting out the vote, speaking to this specific group?” Spies asked. “There doesn’t seem to be an actual effort.”
Aaron Keyak, the co-founder of the firm Bluelight Strategies and a former top executive at the National Jewish Democratic Council who worked to counter Republican Jewish outreach in 2012, said he was surprised at the barebones effort in the U.S. this year.
“’Incompetence’ was never a word that came up when it came to [Republican] Jewish voter outreach in 2012,” he said. “You don’t even know where to start now.”
This time around, Coleman refuses to back Trump, Lieberman is supporting Hillary Clinton — and doing pro-Israel events with moderates and Republicans on her behalf — and Jewish supporters and detractors of Trump both agree there has been virtually no Jewish-focused outreach from his campaign in Florida, something the campaign itself acknowledges.
“We welcome and include everybody, so I would say our approach is more general,” said Susie Wiles, who this month took over Trump’s Florida campaign, an operation that until recently had almost no field offices at all. “Our approach is also more aggressive, our outreach, our voter contact is unprecedented, that includes everybody in Florida.”
She didn’t deny the absence of a specific Jewish voter outreach plan in Florida.
“I would say that’s not wrong,” she said.
But the lack of concerted Jewish outreach effort from the campaign itself doesn’t bother some of Trump’s Jewish supporters in Florida, who think the campaign is wise to focus on more sizable, less liberal-leaning constituencies.
“Those of us who are Republican Jews are plenty outspoken about the sell-out of Israel by liberal Jews, but there’s no part of us that thinks we’re going to change their minds,” said Sid Dinerstein, a former chair of the Palm Beach County GOP. “There are bigger fish to fry.”
The Clinton campaign doesn’t see it that way.
They have both a director of Jewish outreach and a Florida-specific Jewish vote coordinator, as well as operatives in Ohio and Pennsylvania who focus on the Jewish vote. They conduct “bubbe banking” — using the Yiddish term for “grandmother” to describe programs through which Jewish senior citizens call their grandchildren and urge them to vote for Hillary Clinton. They’re also encouraging rabbi-to-rabbi phone banking.
There are Jewish Women for Hillary events across the swing states, and weekly calls with rabbis and community leaders. The campaign has plans for more surrogates to hit swing-state synagogues, and they are highlighting centrist validators like Lieberman, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and billionaire Seth Klarman, a major donor to Jewish causes and to Republicans. That’s part of an outreach effort to moderates and Republicans who care about a muscular foreign policy and strong support for Israel.
Jews for Progress, a super PAC chaired by former Congressman Ron Klein — who lives in Boca Raton, Fla. — is also planning to advocate on Clinton’s behalf in swing state Jewish communities, with the goal of raising a sum in the seven figures, Klein said, to fund that effort.
While there are Clinton volunteers in Israel as part of activities run by Democrats Abroad, their efforts don’t appear as extensive as those from Republicans Overseas Israel.
Asked whether there was a similar Democratic effort, Israeli operative Nimrod Dweck replied, “No! No. There’s no reason. Three hundred thousand people, that’s like a small town.”
Dweck, who works on center-left issues in Israel and has partnered with 270 Strategies, a consulting firm whose founders played key roles on Obama’s campaigns, continued, “If you want to work on your effort, go to key states in the U.S. Do get-out-the-vote in the United States.”