Hours before President Barack Obama was projected to win re-election, Exponent staff members spoke with Jewish voters in polling sites throughout Philadelphia and Montgomery County. While the conversations were far from comprehensive or scientific, they offered a glimpse into how voters felt on this long-awaited Election Day.
Some were passionate, others nonchalant. Some voted for a particular candidate, others voted against someone.
Many cited the economy as a top concern, with social issues, health care, education and foreign policy in the Middle East not far behind. Some voters said they wished President Barack Obama had been stronger on Israel, but they still voted for him for other reasons or didn’t see Mitt Romney as a better alternative.
Clearly, Jewish Republicans live in the area, as evidenced by the fact that more than 500 people turned out for a Republican Jewish Coalition event last week in Melrose Park. Still, reporters had a hard time finding Jewish GOP voters who would talk on the record.
Few voters said they split their ticket, so in almost every case, those who supported Obama also backed U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and other Democrats — and vice versa for the Republicans.
By 6:30 a.m., with the day just beginning to brighten and the air on the raw side, a long line of people had already gathered to vote at Gratz College.
Steven Selbst, 60, a pediatrician who resides in Melrose Park, cast his ballot for a second term with the same candidate he supported four years ago. He described Obama as a bright individual who “is in touch with how people are feeling.”
As a physician, Selbst said he supported the president’s health care legislation, which has come to be known as Obamacare.
“I don’t say I’m an expert about it,” he confessed, but “access for everyone seems to me a good thing.”
He said his only concern about Obama had to do with the president’s approach to Israel.
“I don’t know how he’ll act after he’s no longer a candidate,” Selbst said. “I had some issues with him over his handling of Israel when he was first elected, but I think he’s shown himself a friend.”
Neil Wernick, also 60 and from Melrose Park, said he began the campaign season with an open mind, “but when it became clear that Mitt Romney was to predominate, I realized that we have the superior candidate already.”
The financial services business executive said he settled on Obama over specific issues — “social justice and women’s issues, especially.”
He, too, said Israel was something of a sticking point at times, but he characterized the opposition’s effort to court the Israelis as pure “pandering for votes.”
As a businessman, he said, he’s acutely aware of economic matters and has worked for men like Romney.
“He could definitely be a good CEO, but what the nation needs is a commander-in-chief,” said Wernick. “Mitt Romney would put us to work for the rich; Obama works for all of us.”
Jenkintown resident Lois Orenstein has a specific reason for supporting Obama for a second term: “To keep the crazies out of office,” she said with a laugh.
Aside from being adamant that “we not go back” to the times when women were often not accorded a say in their own well-being, Orenstein and her husband, Alan, also lauded Obama for his accomplishments over the past term, such as rescuing the nation from a possible Depression and salvaging the auto industry.
“I don’t trust Romney on Israel and many other issues,” said Alan, 65.
No matter who wins, Lois said she hopes that the economy and national security will be the victor’s prime focus.
“And education,” added Alan. “Crime is a big issue and we have to be more serious about education for younger people.”
Huntingdon Valley resident Maida Aviad, 66, also cast her second vote for Obama, citing the headway he’d made in health care and the economy.
As for the Mideast – “he’s done as well as any other president has done.” Aviad said she wouldn’t fall for the Republican Jewish Coalition party line that derides Obama as an enemy of Israel. Even her Israeli husband, she said, “says that Israel feels Obama has supplied what Israel needs.”
How long did Abington resident Joel Petroff, 49, know that he’d pull the lever for Obama again, too? He laughsed. “Since 2007.”
Yes, the economy has been a concern, he said, but under Obama “it has picked up.” And while many people don’t believe Obama can bring peace to the Middle East, he knows international policy “better than anybody,” Petroff said.
West Mount Airy
The racially and ethnically diverse West Mount Airy section of Philadelphia is known as a bastion of liberalism and, true to form, it was hard to find anyone who wasn’t voting for the president during the morning rush at the polls.
But at the Germantown Jewish Centre, at least one Jewish voter cast a ballot for Tom Smith, the conservative Republican who largely self-funded his ultimately unsuccessful campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) As Bob Levenson, a 67-year-old retired city worker told it, his choice was more a repudiation of Casey.
“It was a vote for a non-politician,” said Levenson, as he left the building on a brisk, cloudy morning.
Levenson said he didn't necessarily agree with Smith’s opposition to abortion and some of his other stances, but he associated asey with politics as usual and the state’s political machine.
He did split his ticket, however, voting for Obama more because he feared that Romney wouldl roll back financial regulatory reform than because he lauded the president’s accomplishments. If Israel had been a decisive factor, Levenson said, he would have chosen Romney.
As voters had to wait in line for up to a half an hour to cast their ballot at the synagogue, married couple Joel Silver and Rina Maskler called themselves Obama “diehards.’
Silver, who is in his 50s, said that ‘the other guy has made his life doing what caused the financial meltdown in the first place.”
Maskler said she hopes to see the Israelis and Palestinians restart negotiations and thinks Obama will be more supportive of that process. Still, she acknowledged that bringing the two sides together just might be impossible.
Adam Zion, 42, wore a Barack Obama kipah and brought his 2-year-old daughter into the voting booth. If Obama is re-elected, Zion said he hopes the president can be less circumspect and govern more like a liberal.
“Republicans are elected and they are expected to be full-throated conservatives. Democrats are elected and they have to be cautious liberals,” said Zion, who works in computer software.
Residents of the Philadelphian high-rise in Center City chatted amiably as they lined up outside a second-floor multipurpose room to cast their ballots.
“I think I voted for a winner!” one man said with a wide grin as he exited the polls.
For Belle Parmet, 94, there was never a question of not supporting Obama after watching him in action.
“I vote based upon character, on point of view about social issues, about protecting women’s rights, protecting the rights for people who are underserved in our society,” said Parmet, a retired social worker.
Republicans completely turn her off when it comes to social issues, Parmet said, even those already in office like House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
“I would like to slap him. He’s a Jew after all, doesn’t he understand tzedakah?”
For 76-year-old Will Klein, it was Obama’s health care program and his distaste of Mitt Romney’s social views that helped him make up his mind about a month ago to support the current president once again. On top of opposing abortion and stem cell research, Romney’s plan to undo the health care reform could be disastrous for family and friends who have pre-existing medical conditions, said Klein, a former surgical equipment manufacturer.
“I don’t want any Bible thumpers,” Klein said.
One of the few younger voters in the crowd, 26-year-old Jessica Rose Cohn, echoed the others in her support of Obama.
“I think he better understands what we need and, especially since he’s the current president, everything that he’s doing to help our economy, we should let him continue doing because you can’t start fixing something and then stop halfway through and restart,” said Cohn, a graduate student majoring in vocal performance at Temple University.
Aside from the minority inspector volunteering at the site, Republicans were nearly impossible to find — though not everyone was completely enamored of the Democratic choice.
Visibly agitated, though perhaps partly because of her role as a poll volunteer, Ronnie Pleet said this election was “the first time in my life that I troubled over my vote. I agonized.” The retired teacher said she was concerned about how Obama would treat Israel during a second term knowing that he wouldn’t have to worry about being elected again. Ultimately, she said, she decided that Obama was still the better choice when weighed against how Romney would govern the country, fill Supreme Court vacancies and impact women’s issues.
“I realized that I am first an American, even though my heart is in Israel,” said Pleet, sporting a button that read “Barack Obama” in Hebrew.
Brenda Simon said she was surprised to see such a Jewish push for Romney, though she’s supported Republican candidates herself in the past. Unlike many other voters interviewed at the Philadelphian, the 65-year-old former facilities manager for the Department of
Defense voted for John McCain four years ago. She said she decided to throw her support to the president about two years into his term.
“I felt that Romney in general was false in some of the things he said,” Simon said, adding that she especially didn’t care for his policies on abortion and healthcare.
A staunch Obama supporter, Leah Blumenthal, 81, said she’s been impressed by Obama’s willingness to compromise, compassion, intelligence and international policy.
“It bothers me that Jews can see him as anti-Israel, I do not see any basis for that,” said Blumenthal, a retired elementary school teacher.
When asked if she was at all nervous about the outcome of the election, Blumenthal shrugged.
“We’re older now, we don’t care,” she said. “The only good thing about this election is there’s so much conversation. I hope that will continue.”
University of Pennsylvania
Allison Brodsky still hadn’t decided whom she would vote for as she waited in line Tuesday morning at a polling place on the University of Pennsylvania campus.
A junior from Philadelphia, Brodsky said she was most concerned with the economy, social issues such as women’s rights and Israel. On two of the three — women’s rights being the exception— she favored Romney. She did the math and cast her ballot for the Republican.
Brodsky said she also disagreed with the stimulus package Obama approved in 2009.
“There’s way too much pork barreling,” said Brodsky, a health and societies major. “A lot of places got money that didn’t deserve it.”
Judging by the number of students wearing Obama-Biden stickers, however, the incumbent appeared to be enjoying majority support at the polls set up in Houston Hall. After voting, one student walked by the line of young adults and whispered, “Obama, Obama, Obama,” before stepping outside.
Almost every Jewish student interviewed said the candidates’ rhetoric and policies toward Israel had a major influence on how they voted — many of them for the first time.
Elana Stern, a sophomore political science major, said she is looking for a president who will move forward “with informed relations with Israel.”
“I don’t think visiting a country makes you qualified to lead relations with them,” said Stern, who cast her ballot for Obama.
Jacob Shuster, a board member of Penn Democrats, said he feels Obama has been a strong supporter of Israel but hasn’t been vocal enough about that.
“We have a strong partnership with Israel, and we should show that,” said Shuster, 21.
Shuster, who is gay, said he appreciated the president’s statement in May that he supported same-sex marriage but he would have voted Democrat regardless. For him, discrimination based on sexual orientation is a bigger concern than equal marriage rights.
Adam Wininger, an 18-year-old aspiring entrepreneur from a middle-class Los Angeles household said he doesn’t like Obama’s rhetoric about the upper class.
Wininger voted for Romney but said he liked both candidates and considers himself a social liberal.
The president’s philosophy “is that people who became rich, they got lucky,” Wininger said. “I disagree with that. I think people make their own luck.”
Bala Cynwyd mom Nicole Tell was less enthusiastic about voting for Obama this time around than she was four years ago. But, the 41-year-old said, after evaluating each party’s core beliefs about the state of the nation, “whether we’re all in this together or not,” it was clear that the Democrats believe that “we take care of everyone.”
The two presidential candidates pretend to be different on foreign policy issues, but they both “take tough stands,” said Tell, who let her 8-year-old son, Ezra, push the "cast your vote" button in the voting booth.
For Barbara Wortsmann, 77, the distinctions between the parties were more stark.
“It’s my heartfelt sense that Obama really means the best for this country,” she said as she exited the polling station at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood. “The other one frightens me.”
Daniel Raff, 61, said he also feared the notion of a Romney-Ryan victory. Given Romney’s dramatic shift from a once-liberal governor in Massachusetts who supported health care reform and gay rights, Raff said he can’t have any confidence in what he stands for now. That, combined with Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, leads Raff to believe that “it would be a disaster if they get in and implement their policies.”
He’s not concerned about Obama’s positions on Israel, saying no one “should be a rubber stamp for the Israeli government.” The Republican position on Israel, he said, “is just pandering.”
Among the few Jewish Republicans willing to discuss their choices at the precincts visited by the Exponent, Nick Fiekowsky said, “Obama had his chance, now it’s time for a change.”
The 60-year-old Wynnewood resident, who voted for John McCain in 2008, said the top factors driving his choice were the economy and the feeling that the same rules don’t apply to everyone since Obama took office. “You have to be part of Obama’s crowd to do well,” he asserted, after casting his ballot at Beth Hillel-Beth El.
Concerns about Israel and Iran also played a role. “Obama did put a lot of space between the United Sates and Israel,” he said, adding that such a tack was not in the interest of either country. He said he was also concerned that Obama “was reluctant to impose and enforce sanctions on Iran.”
Elsewhere in Wynnewood, it seemed as though most of the voters coming through the double doors at Main Line Reform Temple were feeling blue. Of 11 people interviewed, 10 cast their vote for Obama.
Among them was Emily Steiner, a 41-year-old resident of Wynnewood, whose mind had been made up “since the beginning,” she said.
Michael Levy, 68, of Ardmore, who pronounced himself “not impressed with the Republicans’ plan to cut taxes for the wealthy and benefits for the middle class and poor people,” acknowledged that the economy was still not in great shape, but emphasized that “20 to 30 years of deregulation led to that, so I don’t think that it can get done quickly.”
Dan Bernstein, 39, of Wynnewood, made a similar point.
“I think it takes a little longer than four years to figure out what’s going to work with the economic crisis,” he said. “President Obama at least articulated a plan.”
Bernstein’s support of the president was qualified, though. He made his final decision “later than I would have liked to — quite frankly, I wasn’t terrifically inspired by either of the candidates. I felt like, in the absence of a really clear feeling about one candidate or the other, that Obama deserved the chance to finish what he started.”
One area where all the interviewees agreed: Regardless of Republican claims to the contrary, the president is a friend of Israel. Ken Miller, 61, of Wynnewood, perhaps summed it up best: “The impression is that Romney is better for Israel, but he’s far too hawkish for me. I think that real peace in the Middle East has to come from the point of view that Obama has.”