The Gentile’s Guide to the Jewish Voter

Picture of former NYC mayor Ed Koch... a Jewish Voter.This piece originally appeared on the Values and Capitalism blog – a project run by The American Enterprise Institute exploring connections between Christianity and the free market.

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The Jewish Voter is a fascinating and puzzling creature. This essay—“The Gentile’s Guide to the Jewish Voter”—outlines the basic characteristics of the Jewish Voter and is intended for new observers.

Size and habitat

The population of the Jewish Voter is deceptive. It may make up a sizeable percentage of your university, think tank, or East coast city, but by most demographic accounts, American Jews number approximately 6.5 million, or 2 percent of the country.[1] The Jewish Voter, however, can be as large as 4 percent of the voting population given its very high turnout rate.

The Jewish Voter is highly geographically concentrated; it prefers large urban areas, especially in the Eastern United States. The tables below give a geographic breakdown of American Jews (Wikipedia from adherents.com):

Metropolitan areas with largest Jewish populations
Rank (WJC) Rank (ARDA) Metro area Number of Jews (WJC) Number of Jews (ASARB)
1 1 New York City 1,750,000 2,028,200
2 3 Miami 535,000 337,000
3 2 Los Angeles 490,000 662,450
4 4 Philadelphia 254,000 285,950
5 6 Chicago 248,000 265,400
6 8 San Francisco 210,000 218,700
7 7 Boston 208,000 261,100
8 5 Baltimore-Washington 165,000 276,445

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States with the highest proportion of Jews
Rank State Percent Jewish
1 New York 9.1
2 New Jersey 5.5
3 Florida 4.6
4 District of Columbia 4.5
5 Massachusetts 4.4
6 Maryland 4.2
7 Connecticut 3.0
8 California 2.9
9 Pennsylvania 2.7
10 Illinois 2.3

 

Does the Jewish Voter matter?

Given the small population of the Jewish Voter, many outside observers question whether the Jewish Voter has any effect on the larger political ecosystem or national presidential elections. The question is debated, but most scholars feel that the Jewish Voter is important at the margins of presidential elections through its ability to tip swing states. Most conspicuous among these swing states is Florida. As noted in a Slate article on the subject, “In Florida, Jews make up around 5 percent of the voting population—more than enough to swing a close race.” And Anat Hakim, writing for the Los Angeles Times, identifies “nine states where the size of the Jewish population was larger than the size of victory for either President Bush or Sen. John Kerry in 2004: Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.”

The importance of the Jewish Voter is also elevated due to its wealth. Ron Kampeas, writing atThe Jewish Telegraphic Agency, claims that “estimates over the years have reckoned that Jewish donors provide between one-third and two-thirds of the party’s money.” Similarly, David Freedlander noted in the New York Observer that “According to some estimates, nearly 60 percent of the money raised by the Democratic National Committee is donated by Jews, and any drop in support for the president’s re-election could endanger the campaign’s ambitious goal of $1 billion.” Steven Windmueller at The New York Jewish Week claims that “Jewish donors have generated as much as 45 cents of every dollar raised by Democrats and provide a growing base of support for Republican candidates.”

It’s impossible to know with certainty how influential Jewish Voter money is—theories range from the “The Israel Lobby owns American politics” theory by Professors Walt and Mearsheimer, to the recent article in Moment Magazine by Nathan Guttman which argues that “With the Supreme Court’s relaxing of limitations on corporate advocacy donations, the Jewish proportion of overall donations is expected to decline. And the emergence of online giving as a major funding source could dilute the importance of large donors and bundlers.”

The majority of commentators, however, acknowledge the importance of Jewish Voter money in national elections. Why else, they ask, would President Obama already have nervously recruited Alan Solow, former head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to campaign among his fellow Jewish Voters? The campaign clearly wants something from Jewish Voters—be it votes, money, or both.

The behavior of the Jewish Voter

If we accept that the Jewish Voter matters, then it becomes important to look at its past behavior. In terms of national elections—the scope of this article—the Jewish Voter is a decidedly blue creature. Only once in the past 80 years has the percentage of Jews Voters favoring the Democratic candidate dropped below 50 percent (Carter, 1980). But even in that year, more Jewish Voters went for Carter than his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. The following table—courtesy of Jewish Virtual Library—demonstrates Jewish Democratic hegemony since 1928.

Year Candidate % of Jewish Vote
1928
Hoover (R) 28
Smith (D) 72
1932
Hoover (R) 18
Roosevelt (D) 82
1936
Landon (R) 15
Roosevelt (D) 85
1940
Wilkie (R) 10
Roosevelt (D) 90
1944
Dewey (R) 10
Roosevelt (D) 90
1948
Dewey (R) 10
Truman (D) 75
Wallace (Progressive) 15
1952
Eisenhower (R) 36
Stevenson (D) 64
1956
Eisenhower (R) 40
Stevenson (D) 60
1960
Nixon (R) 18
Kennedy (D) 82
1964
Goldwater (R) 10
Johnson (D) 90
1968
Nixon (R) 17
Humphrey (D) 81
Wallace (I) 2
1972
Nixon (R) 35
McGovern (D) 65
1976
Ford (R) 27
Carter (D) 71
McCarthy (I) 2
1980
Reagan (R) 39
Carter (D) 45
Anderson (I) 14
1984
Reagan (R) 31
Mondale (D) 67
1988
Bush (R) 35
Dukakis (D) 64
1992
Bush (R) 11
Clinton (D) 80
Perot (I) 9
1996
Dole (R) 16
Clinton (D) 78
Perot (I) 3
2000
Bush (R) 19
Gore (D) 79
Nader (G) 1
2004
Bush (R) 24
Kerry (D) 76
Nader (G) <1
2008
McCain (R) 22
Obama (D) 78

Explaining the Jewish Voter’s Blue Stripes

The logical subsequent topic is an explanation of the Jewish Voter’s allegiance to the Democratic Party. Again, many theories have been postulated, but some of the most popular include:

  1. Fear of the religious right. In the Broadway musical Spamalot – which chronicles a crusade for the Holy Grail—one of the characters doesn’t reveal his Jewish identity until almost the end of the play. When asked why, he responds: “Well… It’s not the sort of thing you say in front of a heavily armed Christian.” The Jewish history with European anti-Semitism, often cloaked in pro-Christian rhetoric, has etched itself on the Jewish Voter’s mind, and it has led the modern day Jewish Voter to view the Republican Party—home to more observant Christians—with a good deal of skepticism.
  2. Civil Rights. Even as late as the 1970s, Jews faced discrimination in American society.  Perhaps most conspicuous are the country clubs and businesses that barred Jews from becoming members, but the intolerance trickled down to more basic levels of life. As a result, a large percentage of Jews played active and leading roles in the Civil Rights movement, a movement that strongly aligned with the Democratic Party of the 1960s and 1970s.
  3. Franklin Roosevelt. Rightfully or wrongfully, FDR is seen as a hero by the Jews. FDR was perceived as a champion of minority rights, firmly opposed to Nazism, and the leader that guided America through WWII and the liberation of Europe. These actions won FDR and the Democratic Party intense Jewish loyalty. President Truman further solidified Jewish Democratic loyalty when he recognized the state of Israel almost immediately.  Not until many years later did historical analyses begin to question FDR’s efforts at stopping the Holocaust.
  4. Social liberalism. Jews are one of the most—if not the most—socially liberal groups in the country. According to a study conducted in 2000, 88 percent of Jews are pro-choice. In 2007, The New York Times reported that 67 percent of Jews support gay marriage; and the Los Angeles Times reports that 78 percent of Jews opposed California’s Proposition 8; this opposition outstripped all other religious and ethnic groups. Jews are also very opposed to religion in politics (88 percent against) and are much more likely than other religious groups to favor the decriminalization of marijuana.
  5. Secularism. Jews are highly secular. A 2003 Harris Poll found that only 16 percent of Jews go to synagogue at least once a month; 42 percent go between 1 and 11 times a year; and 42 percent don’t go to synagogue or go less than once a year.[2] Secular Americans tend to favor the Democratic Party (Gallup).

The Orthodox exception

Orthodox Jews are far more likely to vote Republican than the average Jewish Voter. According to a 2007 poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), “42% of Orthodox respondents identified themselves as Democrats, while 30% identified as Republicans” (Spence in The Jewish Daily Forward).  Orthodox Jews are more traditional in their practices, more religiously observant, and they adhere strictly to both written and oral Jewish law. Orthodox Jews make up approximately 10 percent of all Jews.

The Jewish Voter and Israel

Gentiles readily assume that Israel is of critical importance to the Jewish Voter. This seems reasonable, but again, and frustratingly, experts disagree on the subject.

Professor Steven Windmueller of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is one leading supporter of the “Israel-as-top-issue” theory. According to a 2003 paper by Windmueller, “The key Jewish issue remains support for Israel.” Four presidential elections seem to confirm the importance of Israel for Jewish voters. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won 71 percent of Jewish Voters. Following four years of less-than-friendly policies toward Israel, Carter only won 45 percent of Jewish Voters in 1980. President George H.W. Bush also stood on shaky ground as concerns Israel, and his share of Jewish Voters dropped from 35 percent in 1988 to about 11 percent in 1992.

The majority of scholars and pundits disagree that Israel reigns supreme. Guttman cites an AJC survey which “asked [Jewish] participants to rate the issues important to them when going to the polls on November 2 [2010 Midterm election]. Israel came in sixth place, while the economy, unemployment and health care topped the list of Jewish voters’ concerns.” The website “Political Correction” makes similar claims of the Jews voting in the 2010 midterm election: “62% say it is economic issues that most influence their vote. Then there is health care with 31%. After that, the numbers drop down pretty quickly with 7% basing their votes on Israel policy and the same number citing environmental policy.” These numbers come from a study commissioned by the liberal Israel affairs organization J Street and conducted by Gerstein | Agne Strategic Communications (J Street Press Release). Prominent conservative pollster John Zogby comes to a similar conclusion as J Street: “Israel is extremely important to American Jews. But so are traditional liberal stances, particularly on social issues.”

A third party of commentators combines these two theories. Israel policy—they claim—is a hurdle that must be cleared by any candidate wanting to win the Jewish vote. Once this minimum threshold is passed, however, other issues become more important than Israel. David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council articulates this theory: “Jewish voters need to be comfortable that their candidates support Israel, and once they are sure of that, they move on to other issues” (in Guttman).

Is the Jewish Voter becoming more Republican?

The internet is now littered with articles suggesting that the Jewish Voter is becoming more Republican. There’s good reason for the hubbub—prominent Democratic Jewish Voters such as former New York City Mayor Ed Koch (his Real Clear Politics article here) and Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz (his Huffington Post article here) have strongly criticized Obama’s recent policies toward Israel. And this is just the top of the iceberg; Obama’s Cairo speech and, more recently and importantly, his speech suggesting Israel return to borders based on 1967 have kept less-prominent Jewish critics of Obama busy as internet commentators. The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) has reported an increase in its membership, and the organization’s president—Matt Brooks—has gained prominence in national debates. The Republican Jewish movement also gained momentum through the publication of Why Are Jews Liberal?, an in-depth exhortation for Jews to vote Republican written by well-known political commentator and journalist Norman Podhoretz.

Still, as suggested in the preceding section, the Jewish Voter has interests beyond Israel, and on these fronts, the Jewish Voter’s dissatisfaction with Obama has been less pronounced. Accordingly, most pollsters and commentators suggest that the Jewish Voter will remain firmly Democratic in the coming election. For evidence, J Street points to the fact that only 31 percent of Jewish Voters went Republican in the 2010 midterm election—up from the 2008 election, but still nowhere near a plurality. “The American Jewish community took no part in this [rightward] shift, remaining a fundamentally liberal and progressive constituency and deeply suspicious of political conservatives, of the Republican Party, and of the Tea Party movement.” Zogby similarly predicts that there will be no substantial shift in the partisanship of the Jewish Voter: “I think [the Israel issue] will be raised by Republican candidates, but I think the lines are drawn fairly well, and I think it’s hard for it to not be a 75 to 25 split for Obama and the Democrats [in the 2012 election].”

For some, the prediction that Jews are becoming more Republican is like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Democratic political consultant Steve Rabinowitz is one of these: “Every two or four years Republicans say, ‘This is the year Jewish voters, or donors, or activists, are going to trend Republican.’ Every November it turns out not to be true” (in Kampeas) (See also Rabinowitz’s consultant partner Matt Dorf in Guttman).

The Future of the Jewish Voter

Given the predicted competitiveness of the 2012 election and the president’s allegedly controversial Israel policy, the Jewish Voter will likely be the subject of much commentary in the coming months. As this Guide teaches us, however, all dialogue should be carefully weighed. For every commentator advancing one idea about the Jewish Voter, there is likely another expert suggesting the opposite. The only poll that will really tell us where the Jewish Voter is going is the actual election in November 2012, a date not too far away.


[1] A few scholars claim that the number of American Jews is significantly greater. These scholars argue that some Jews are reluctant to identify publicly as Jewish due to either a commitment to secularism or a fear of being included on Jewish lists.

 

[2] This same Harris Poll found that 36 percent of all Americans attend a religious service at least once a month.