This past election, once again the perpetual question that inevitably came up was about 'the Jewish vote': which candidate won it -- and why does it even matter? The Democrats consistently brag that they own the Jewish vote, while the Republicans just keep on claiming that they are just on the verge of acquiring it.
This bipartisan fight over the Jewish vote can be traced back to Herbert Hoover.
In their 2012 book "Herbert Hoover and The Jews," Rafael Medoff and Sonja Wentling, propose that the Jewish vote became a thing in the leadup to the 1944 presidential election, when Roosevelt ran for his 4th term, against Thomas Dewey.
A review of that book notes that in contrast to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it was Hoover -- 10 years after he was voted out of office -- who stood up for European Jews. Hoover publicly advocated for the US to open its doors to Jewish refugees and repeatedly spoke out for Jews during the Holocaust years.
The book also reveals that although, at the time, Rabbi Stephen Wise and the Jewish leadership were wary of Republican politicians in general and of Hoover in particular, Republicans such as
Hoover himself, Senator Robert Taft and Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce espoused strongly pro-Zionist and pro-rescue planks that were incorporated into the Republican convention’s 1944 platform. Only this threat to their monopoly of the “Jewish vote,” Medoff and Wentling argue, forced FDR and the Democrats to adopt similar planks, which have ever since remained unshakable for both parties. [emphasis added]
But why would anyone ever bother with the Jewish vote to begin with? After all, for a voting bloc, there is not a lot to recommend it:
- Jews are about 1.5% of the American population o That percentage is about half of what it was 50 years ago
- And this percentage is continuing to shrink
- As a bloc, it is not even unified -- with religious Jews tending to vote Republican and non-religious voting Democratic
- While the vast majority of Jews support Israel, come election time Israel does not rank as a major issue
So what is the big deal?
In a 2016 video, Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, listed some of the reasons why politicians vie over the Jewish vote, even despite its small size:
- Despite their small numbers, Jews turn out to vote in high numbers -- according to one estimate, 85% of all eligible Jews vote in presidential elections o Jews historically contribute large amounts of money to political parties -- both Democratic and Republican.
- Jews happen to live in key states that presidential candidates want to carry, such as Florida
- There are indications that the Democratic party is moving away from Israel, which may present an opportunity for Republicans to capture more of the Jewish vote
Four years earlier, in a 2012 article, Shmuel Rosner added another reason why politicians consider is important, and why the attention to the Jewish vote is out of proportion to its numbers:
One would say it's the influence that Jews have in the media and their solid presence in notable positions. Others would point to their presence in celebrity circles and the arts, while still others would look to the over-representation of Jews in American politics, as advisors, consultants, pollsters, analysts and elected officials.
But you can really just call it the bellwether factor. Jews are seen as major political players because they believe that their vote really counts, because they project self-importance. They might not tip elections, but they appear as if they can.
Going further back to 2010, Pew Research found indications that the perpetual prediction of Republican gains among the Jewish vote might actually be happening:
The religious landscape is far more favorable to Republicans than was the case as recently as 2008. Half of white non-Hispanic Catholics (50%) currently identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, up nine points since 2008. Among religiously unaffiliated voters, who have been stalwart supporters of Democrats in recent elections, 29% currently identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, up from 25% in 2008 (the proportion identifying as Democrats has fallen seven points since then). And 33% of Jewish voters identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, up from 20% in 2008. [emphasis added]In a different article, Rosner finds indications that Jews are not actually trending Republican -- they are trending libertarian, meaning that losses in the Democratic share of the Jewish vote are not necessarily translating straight into Republican gains.
But either way, Democrats cannot take the Jewish vote for granted anymore -- despite what they may say publicly.
In 2006, a Washington Post featured an article Future of Orthodox Jewish Vote Has Implications for GOP, based not only on the conservative views of Orthodox Jews, but also on their higher birth rate.
I’m not quite ready to buy this prediction. After all, who’s to say whether today’s Orthodox babies will grow up voting Republican, Democratic, Green, or Libertarian. (or whether today’s Orthodox babies will stay Orthodox, become Renewal rabbis, or even succumb the Jews for Jesus subway ads) Still, it’s an interesting assumption that Orthodox communities will always produce kids and adults who vote according to Jewish self-interest, narrowly defined.
Yeah, and who's to say whether the Democratic party will someday stand idly by as the radical left progressives of their party openly attacked not only Israel but also accuse Israel's supporters of dual loyalty?
Then there is the argument on how to even define, and measure, the Jewish vote.
Yossie Hollander, chairman of the Israeli Institute for Economic Planning, claims Contrary to popular belief, most US Jews support Trump.
No one is counting the Jewish vote correctly because they are overlooking certain components of the American Jewish population:
- Israelis who emigrate to the US and are citizens with voting rights -- estimates of the size of this group range from 600,000 to one million. Pollsters do not know how to reach and measure this group and manage to measure only a very small percentage of it.
- The ultra-Orthodox -- while people talk about them as a political component of the Jewish vote, Hollander writes that because the percentage of their children is relatively higher compared to the average population, the number of eligible voters is not the same ratio as in other populations, and so they end up not being surveyed.
- Immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children -- there are about 350,000 of them and for a variety of reasons, they are rarely surveyed.
- The "Southwest Belt" -- Over the past 30 years, there has been massive immigration in US population centers from the north to areas in Orange County California, San Diego County, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Atlanta, and Florida. Jews are part of this migration, and as a result, the Jewish communities there are growing rapidly, mostly in conservative areas. According to Hollander, most polling models still use the old population model.
That is a criticism of the methodology behind the polls.
Compare that with political consultant Jeff Ballabon, who takes a more sociological approach and compares the Jewish vote with the Irish vote.
Ever notice that no one talks about politicians going after "the Irish vote?"
To be statistically meaningful or politically relevant, a characteristic must impact voting behavior. For example, there are almost 35 million Americans of Irish descent, but it’s been decades since presidential campaigns engaged in sustained Irish voter outreach. That’s because it’s long been difficult to distinguish anything sufficiently unique – identifiably Irish - about their political behavior. Most vote precisely as their education, profession, income, and zip code alone would predict. The exceptions tend to be active, practicing Catholics who elevate concerns relevant to their faith...
The use of the term “Jewish” interchangeably to mean both ethnicity (like “Irish”) and faith (like “Catholic”) obfuscates it, but the same phenomenon is true for America’s Jews. [emphasis added]
According to Ballabon, a large segment of American Jews, like Irish Americans, are arguably not uniquely Jewish in their own political behavior:
The American Left seethes with enmity towards President Trump and is thoroughly wedded to the Democrats. The vast majority of Jews who follow suit proudly confirm that they do so as progressives with universal concerns; not parochially – not as part of a “Jewish Vote.” Even when they profess concern over antisemitism, it’s glaringly limited to those alleged by progressives to be malefactors. [emphasis added]
Whether radical groups put the word "Jewish" in their name or name their group after a popular saying in Pirkei Avot, that often appears to be the full extent of their identification with their fellow Jews.
Meanwhile, as for the latest fight for bragging rights to the Jewish vote, the results of this last presidential election seem to validate that the Jewish vote is no longer limited to being a Democratic cheerleading squad.
While Biden easily got the majority of the Jewish vote -- there are indications that Trump improved his numbers for the Jewish vote, which made it possible to win the state of Florida, where an AP exit poll indicated he received 43% of the Jewish vote compared to 56% for Biden. Nationally, exit polls indicated Trump received the highest percent of the Jewish vote for a Republican in decades (30%), while the Jewish vote for Biden was low for a Democrat (68%).
There are hints that the conservative element of the Jewish vote may finally be coming into its own -- and the same Jewish vote that helped Biden in some states was successfully siphoned off by Trump to win others.
But at what cost is the Jewish vote being split?
Jonathan Tobin writes that Jews in America are among Trump’s fiercest opponents – but also his most fervent supporters:
For Jewish liberals, Trump is an ally of antisemites and a proto-authoritarian whose character and conduct, statements mark him as a unique threat to democracy. They can’t understand why even one Jew would consider voting for him.
...It’s not for nothing that the Jewish Democratic Council has produced ads that more or less accuse Trump of being a Nazi and, despite the offensive nature of these analogies, have found them resonating with many liberal Jews.
Tobin points out that Jews, like the rest of America, are divided into 2 political cultures which feed off of different circles on social media -- circles that usually don't include the other side. The overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Jews identify with the social justice agenda of the Democratic Party and think it forms the core of Judaism and place it higher as a priority than support for Israel. On the other hand, Orthodox Jews, and non-Orthodox Jews who identify as politically conservative, see support for Israel as a decisive issue.
At home, the Orthodox and conservative groups don't see Trump’s embrace of nationalism as a threat. Instead, they see it as the best way to defend Jews against the antisemitism of the intersectional left which is assuming a more prominent and vocal role in the Democratic Party.
Even Jews who are members of the same, educated classes who find Trump so offensive, share the distrust that the working-class has for the mainstream media that made it their mission to defeat him, working together with the liberal social media to censor conservative views and unflattering stories about Democrats.
The choice boils down to how much value you place on having a president who may be flawed, but is historically pro-Israel and supportive of a conservative political agenda, as opposed to the cherished hope of Trump opponents: that a moderate liberal like Biden can restore a sense of pre-2016 normalcy, while also keeping in check the Democrats’ radical wing.
In comparison with everything we hear about the need to address the divide between American Jews and Israelis, this developing rift within the Jewish community itself, as reflected by the split in the Jewish vote, is being overlooked.
But it is unlikely to go away.