NEW YORK – When decision time comes this fall, the real swing votes in the 2004 presidential election may not come from Pennsylvania, Ohio or even the notorious Florida. The ultimate Bush-Kerry battleground may turn out to be somewhere more far-flung and unexpected — Israel, Britain, even Indonesia.
And both political camps say they are getting ready for the fight, courting American voters who are living overseas and taking no chances that the expatriate vote will undermine them at the finish line.
Although an official census has never been taken, between 4 million and 10 million American citizens are believed to be living abroad. Those over 18 are entitled to have their absentee votes counted in the state where they last lived — no matter how long ago that was. And many are planning to do just that.
"There's enormous interest abroad, because the whole of the world depends on the result," said Phyllis Earl, 72, who lives in Britain and has not voted in a U.S. election since 1956, two years after she moved overseas.
Overseas voters are considered particularly important this year. Polls suggest razor-thin margins in several battleground states, and votes coming in from abroad — a score here, a dozen there — could well tip the balance.
Contrary to widespread belief, it was more likely American voters in Israel, not Florida, who put George W. Bush in the White House four years ago — a phenomenon that has Kerry's supporters in Israel vowing to do whatever it takes to make certain that doesn't happen again in November.
Kerry's sister Diana speaks several languages and has been using them all in campaign swings throughout Europe. Sharon Manitta, spokeswoman for the group Democrats Abroad (search), said Kerry supporters have been active in "overseas outreach efforts" in Europe, Indonesia, Mexico and even Iran. In 2000, the organization had 30 overseas chapters; now it has a presence in 73 countries — including an Iraq chapter called "Donkeys in the Desert."
Bush, too, has advocates chasing the overseas vote on his behalf, according to Ryan King, deputy director of Republicans Abroad, which has chapters in 50 countries. Among those crossing the oceans for Bush this fall are former Vice President Dan Quayle (search) and George P. Bush, son of the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search).
"Be an expatriate patriot," says an ad planned by Republicans Abroad that also quotes former President Ronald Reagan: "We cannot play innocents abroad in a world that is not innocent."
After Labor Day, Republicans Abroad also plans campaign ads on the president's behalf in the International Herald Tribune and in Stars and Stripes, a newspaper with wide distribution among the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 U.S. military personnel serving abroad.
Those who doubt that Americans living abroad could tip the balance in 2004 might consider this: Various chads aside, Al Gore received 202 more votes than George W. Bush on Election Day 2000 in Florida. Only after all the overseas votes were counted, including more than 12,000 from Israel alone, was Bush's election victory certified. The margin was 537 votes.
In 2000, according to King, Israel was one of the keys to Bush's success. No other foreign country's U.S. citizens contributed more to Bush's narrow Florida victory, he said.
Harvard Professor Gary King, co-compiler of a survey analyzing Florida's overseas vote in 2000, has no doubt that expatriate Americans gave Bush his victory four years ago. And while it's unclear whether the vote from Israel alone was enough to put Bush over the top, 185,000 U.S. citizens live there — an undetermined number from Florida.
Mark Zober, chairman of Democrats Abroad in Israel, said he has no firm figures but estimates that roughly 100,000 Americans in Israel are eligible to vote in the upcoming U.S. election, and that roughly 14,000 were registered in 2000.
But how could Israeli Jews give Bush his margin of victory when Jewish Democrats outnumber Jewish Republicans by a wide margin in the United States? Both Zober and Ryan King think they know the answer.
Zober sees little doubt that the Jewish vote in New York state heavily favored Gore. But in the 2000 presidential election, Zober points out, it made no difference how Israeli immigrants from New York voted. All that mattered was how expatriates from Florida cast their ballots.
Israel is home to roughly 6,000 former Floridians — expatriates who tend to be more conservative than Jewish voters in New York and many of whom voted for Bush in the last election, Zober said.
Additionally, he said in a telephone interview from his office in Tel Aviv, many Israeli-Americans who might have voted for Gore if they were living in the United States voted for Bush because they considered him an unflinching supporter of Israel.
Once in Israel, Zober said, Jewish voters are no longer guided by a presidential candidate's position on domestic issues. Instead, he said, they vote for whoever they think will serve Israel's interests. Even this year, Zober acknowledged, many American-Israelis are still inclined "to vote for the devil they know instead of the one they don't."
No statistics exist to predict definitively whether Americans in Israel will play such an important role this November. But Marc Zell, chairman of Republicans Abroad's Israel chapter, is taking no chances.
Zell said his group has about 150 volunteers who aggressively started registering potential Bush voters a few months ago. As the election nears, he said, they will be holding "parlor sessions" at their homes to discuss Bush's support for Israel and will probably take out pro-Bush ads in Israel's English-language newspapers.
The Democrat group, meanwhile, is hoping to show American-Israelis that their adopted home is no safer today than before the war in Iraq and that Kerry is no less a friend to Israel than Bush.
Israel is hardly the only country Bush and Kerry supporters are turning to for votes. Registration drives are under way in countries across Europe, Asia and Latin America. And in Britain, home to an estimated 224,000 American expatriates, voter interest is greater than ever, according to Democrats and Republicans alike.
Timothy Spangler, who heads Britain's branch of Republicans Abroad, said chief Bush political adviser Karl Rove has come to London on the president's behalf, as have Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. This fall, Republicans Abroad plans to take advantage of voter interest by sending representatives to register voters at businesses that employ many Americans.
Democrats in Britain are doing much the same thing, registering expatriates who have been living there for decades as nonvoters. Manitta said her group has set up a booth outside her local movie house in Salisbury, about 85 miles southwest of London, to register potential Kerry voters leaving Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11".
Earl, who moved to London in 1954, will vote this year for only the second time in her life — not because she wants to, she says, but because she's afraid of what might happen if she doesn't cast her ballot against incumbents who she feels "don't have the interest of the country at heart."
"The situation is desperate," Earl said. "For me, it reached a critical point. I just felt I had to vote."