This answer: (a) because he can – and President Obama hasn’t since taking office; (b) it makes for good campaign optics; (c) it makes scads of political sense.
Allow me to explain . . .
1) Thank you, Al Gore or whoever invented the Internet, for making it possible to find out post-haste that Barack Obama has made 24 presidential trips to 46 countries, none of them to Israel, since becoming America’s 44th President. The commander-in-chief some conservatives mock as “Chosen One” has been in the neighborhood – Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – but he’s yet to spend quality time with the “chosen people.” Watch for Romney, during his pledge to “do the opposite” on Israel, to promise a first-term return to the Promised Land.
2) Consider the visuals of an Israel mission. Romney’s seen coming off a plane, meeting with the head of a foreign government, talking international security. In a word, it’s presidential. Challengers struggle with this in national elections – the optics of competing with an incumbent president seen deplaning from Air Force One and speaking to large, adoring crowds. It’s one reason why Obama did his swing through Israel and Germany (remember the Berlin speech?) in 2008 – a chance not only to sound like he belonged in the international big league, but to look Kennedyesque, even Reaganesque. The wild card: if Romney decides to take in the London Olympics, where Ann Romney’s horse is competing. Republicans will say why not – he ran the 2000 Winter Games in Utah. Democrats will point to the calendar. But again, it’s what heads of state do.
3) Finally, the payoff back home. Two stories that won’t go away this fall: Obama’s struggle with the Jewish vote (at present, not what it was in 2008); Romney’s struggle with the evangelical vote (still a work in progress). What those two blocs have in common: passionate support for Israel. And it ties into an interesting theory: whereas Romney can make inroads with Obama-loathing evangelicals despite his faith, Jewish voters might turn out to be unusually sympathetic toward a Mormon candidate.
When trying to make sense of the 2012 election, it helps to look at the numbers. And the numbers on display in Ohio and Florida offer yet another clue as to why Romney’s making the journey overseas.
Let’s start with Ohio.
In 2008, John McCain lost the Buckeye State by 200,000 votes. The story here: Republican underperformance. Barack Obama received 2.708 million votes, which turned out to be about 32,500 fewer votes than Democrat John Kerry’s take in 2004. The problem for Republicans: McCain’s 2.501 million Ohio votes were roughly 358,000 less than what George W. Bush earned four years earlier. In order for Romney to turn Ohio from blue to red, he has to reassemble the Bush coalition. And that means turning out evangelicals in larger numbers than McCain failed to do in 2008.
As for Florida, Republican turnout wasn’t the story in 2008. McCain’s 3.939 million votes in the Sunshine State were only 25,000 fewer than Bush’s 2004 haul. Small potatoes. The problem for Republicans: the Obama surge (the same bow-wave that put the Democrats over the top in North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana). Obama’s 4.143 million votes in Florida bettered Kerry by 640,000. So Romney returning to a Bush-level performance isn’t enough; he has to chip away at Obama’s numbers. Skeptical independents will help, as will mobilizing evangelicals. But Romney has to chip into Obama’s 2008 base, which is where the state’s Jewish vote comes into play (Florida Jewish-Americans accounting for only 3% of the state’s population, but a higher portion of the November vote thanks to a 95% turnout rate).
As with the Hispanic vote, the goal isn’t to carry the bloc (William Howard Taft being the last Republican to carry the Jewish vote, 104 years ago; and Democrats getting at least 70% of the Jewish vote in 15 of the last 21 national elections).
Instead, the aim would be to play to a “draw” – more accurately, an acceptable minority. For argument’s sake, let’s say the same 35% that the Romney camp would take from Hispanic voters in a heartbeat.
Such a shift, in and of itself, isn’t enough to deliver Florida to Romney.
Then again, have we forgotten what happened there in 2000?