10/7/2016 The Jewish Vote in the US
Jews make up less than 3% of the US population. Yet, because of their concentration in certain swing states, as well as their proclivity to help fund political campaigns, they have been much sought after voters. Understanding why Jews vote as they historically have voted has been a full-time cottage industry. As sociologist Milton Himmelfarb observed, a quarter of century ago: “Jews earn like Episcopalians, but vote like Hispanics.” Jews have been one the key elements of the Democratic coalition for over 80 years.
Jews were reliable Republican voters, until the 1932 election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt received overwhelming support from the Jewish community– and he did not disappoint the Jews who supported him. FDR appointed an unprecedented number of Jews to government positions and led the fight against the Nazis. Jews have remained securely in the Democratic camp ever since. Since 1932, the highest percent of Jewish Presidential votes received by a Republican candidate was in 1956, when President Eisenhower earned 40% and then in 1980, when President Reagan garnered 39% of the Jewish vote.
After reaching 39%, in 1980, Republicans were hopeful they had broken the Democratic party’s hold on the Jewish vote. The Republicans had a solid record of support for Israel and Republican Presidents had appointed many Jews to their administrations. The GOP was disappointed when Jewish support for President Reagan dropped to 31% in 1984. Subsequently, Jewish support for Republican candidates has been as low as 11% in the race between George Bush v. Bill Clinton, and reached 30% in 2012, when Barack Obama ran against Mitt Romney. Currently, Donald Trump is polling at 19% among Jews.
Why have Jews voted consistently for Democrats – despite the fact Republican candidates have often (though not always) been perceived as more supportive of Israel and promoters of policies seemingly more in line with Jewish economic self-interests; as one the most affluent groups in the American society?
One explanation repeatedly put forth has been the contention Jews are more liberal than other groups. While that would appear to be a reasonable hypothesis, research I conducted two decades ago, with a large data set of New York voters showed that, at least in New York State, (arguably not representative of the nation as a whole) – Jews were no more liberal than their Protestant and Catholic neighbors on most issues.
So why do Jews consistently vote for the liberal candidates?
With the exception of the Orthodox Jews (who according to the Pew Report of 2013 comprise 10% of American Jewry), one liberal issue unites all Jewish voters, i.e., the separation of church and state. Traditionally, separation of church and state has been a strong Democratic issue, while Republicans (especially in the past 35 years) have been willing to compromise this value. Many explain the sharp drop in support for Reagan, in the 1984 elections, as being a direct response to his willingness to bend on this issue. To Jews, separation of church and state remains a hot-button issue, that many believe has been a key to Jewish success in America.
Second, for many years, the Republican party has been perceived as the more ‘elitist’, less welcoming and more antisemitic party. Republicans were viewed as members of the country clubs that would not accept Jews; people who were happy doing business with Jews, but would never invite them into their homes.
In another survey I conducted, a number of years ago, over 80% of respondents asserted the Republican party had more antisemitic members than the Democrats. Moreover, those surveyed believed Democrats were better equipped to fight antisemitism – by a margin of 4-1.
Republicans have continually hoped that younger Jewish voters would be less likely to vote Democratic, no longer being tied to the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy. Instead, in a country that statistically seemed less antisemitic, younger Jews reported greater concern over antisemitism. It turns out that the greater the acceptance of Jews, the greater degree of assimilation, the more Jews experienced various forms of antisemitism. When all your friends and colleagues are Jewish, you are less likely to experience antisemitism. When a high percentage of your friends are not Jewish, suddenly you start hearing jokes whose protagonist happens to be Jewish.
With Trump polling at less than 20% among Jews, it is clear that previous patterns of Jewish voting are likely to repeat this year. It would not be an overstatement to say American Jews have been shocked by the level of blatant antisemitism emerging from Trump supporters over the course of the current campaign. While Jewish college students have been dealing with a certain level of antisemitism on campuses from the left, (an indirect outgrowth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,) the vitriol and volume of the attacks by Trump faithful, on any Jew who criticizes Trump has been astounding.
In addition, many of Trump’s statements regarding other immigrant groups are pure anathema to Jews, who less than a century ago were excluded from entry into the US. While there is a significant debate among historians as to what the US could have done during World War II to save Jews; there is agreement that if the US had a more liberal immigrations policy in the years leading up to the start of the war, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews, would have been saved. These factors, combined with Trump’s utter lack of understanding of foreign policy, have led the overwhelming majority of Jewish conservative intellectuals to come out against Trump.
Considering all these factors, one could ask how could any Jews – other than his daughter and son-in law – could support Trump?
The answer is two-fold. Clearly, some of his support comes from the Orthodox community; a community, that because of its insularity is much less attuned to, or concerned about the antisemitism felt by the rest of the Jewish community. Second, some Orthodox Jews are single voters issues. Somehow, Trump and his surrogates have convinced them that he will be better for Israel than Hilary (an assertion with which most Israelis observers disagree). This might explain about 10% of the 20% of the Jewish vote that Trump appears to have secured – but not the rest.
One of the leading sociologists of the American Jewish Community, Professor Steven M. Cohen, has a rather straightforward answer:
“In recent years, America has become more politically polarized and individual voters more electorally predictable. Jews are no exception. Their political identities -- as Democrats or Republicans, and as liberals or conservatives -- are incredibly predictive of their intended vote for Clinton or Trump. Among Jews, strong Democrats -- by their own definition -- are almost unanimously voting for Clinton, just as strong Republicans are overwhelmingly voting for Trump. When it comes to predicting Jews' vote intentions, party identity "trumps" everything else.”
Cohen is saying that those Jews who have been immune, over the past few decades, to the reasoning that has motivated most Jews to vote for Democratic candidates, remain immune in this election. What is glaringly obvious, is that the Republican party is going to have a very steep slope to climb to grow its support among Jews in future election.
Jewish voting has always been motivated by key factors, the largest and most misunderstood is the fear of latent antisemitism. In this election, that fear has gone from suspicion regarding suppressed antisemitism to anxiety over very real and public antisemitism. It will be very hard for the Republican party to put this genie back in the bottle and very hard for the Jewish electorate to forget what they have seen.
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