Jews’ Voting Habits Hard to Break

Jews’ Voting Habits Hard to Break

Dave Schechter

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“As long as the Jews feel that Israel is protected, it is not their top priority” at the voting booth, Emory ethicist Paul Root Wolpe says.
“As long as the Jews feel that Israel is protected, it is not their top priority” at the voting booth, Emory ethicist Paul Root Wolpe says.

American Jews are exceptionally conservative voters.

Hear me out — or, rather, sociographer Milton Himmelfarb.

“Clinging more than most to old attachments and habits, American Jews may fairly be called more conservative than most,” Himmelfarb wrote in Commentary magazine in 1989.

It wasn’t intended as a compliment.

To understand what Himmelfarb meant and why that statement remains true, look back to 1920.

Five years after the lynching of Leo Frank, Atlanta was home to 11,000 Jews, 5.5 percent of the city’s population.

That year the U.S. population topped 100 million.  The most popular song was Al Jolson singing “Swanee.” The League of Nations was established. The American Professional Football League (forerunner of the National Football League) was formed.

The Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Richard B. “Dick” Russell began his political career with election to the Georgia General Assembly. Ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote (though suffrage in Georgia was delayed until 1922 by the legislature’s refusal to change voter registration requirements).

The 1920 election also was the last time Jewish voters favored the Republican nominee for president.

In winning the White House, Republican Warren Harding received an estimated 43 percent of the Jewish vote. Socialist Eugene Debs received 38 percent (despite being prisoner No. 9653 at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, serving a 10-year sentence for violating the 1917 Espionage Act through his vocal opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I). Democrat James Cox trailed with 19 percent.

So why 96 years of Republicans wandering in a Jewish voting wilderness?

“I think that Jews have for some time perceived that the Democratic Party is more committed than the GOP to the kind of pluralist, secular state that they believe has enabled them to succeed in American life,” said Kenneth D. Wald, a distinguished professor of political science and the Samuel R. “Bud” Shorstein professor of American Jewish culture and society at the University of Florida. “Particularly since the late 1980s, when the Christian right became the Republican base, most American Jews have seen the Democrats as more likely to safeguard the political system from religious sectarianism.”

“The Jewish vote” story is a staple of political coverage. The content is predictable: influential despite small numbers … centered in key states … high turnout … major donors … candidate positions on Israel … will this be the year that Republicans break through?

This will not be that year. Hillary Clinton is expected to receive the overwhelming majority of Jewish votes against Donald Trump and lesser challengers. Whether she nets the percentages of Democrats in recent presidential elections remains to be seen.

Reliable Voters

Why all the fuss about a people who make up only 2.1 percent of the U.S. population?

How Jews vote is important because they do vote.

Americans may complain about the government, but when it comes to showing up and voting, they’re laggards. In 2012, 53 percent of the eligible voting-age population voted, an unimpressive figure compared with other nations.

So when Jews who are eligible to vote turn out at a rate of 80 percent or better (estimated at 85 percent in 2012), they get noticed.

“I believe that the concept of tikkun olam contributes to the participation rate. We believe that we have a responsibility to repair the world, and what better way to achieve that than through voting for the issues and candidates that we believe in?” said Dov Wilker, the Southeast regional director of the American Jewish Committee.

Perhaps more important is where they vote.

Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim shares his dire warning about Muslim extremism with the Christians United for Israel crowd.
Rabbi Shalom Lewis says he is an example of a voter who no longer feels in sync with the Democratic Party.

“Jews get a lot of attention from both parties because they are strategically distributed geographically — in major urban areas in large states which determine election outcomes — and because they tend to be supervoters and contributors to campaigns,” Wald said.

In states where a slim margin could decide which candidate wins the electoral votes, the Jewish ballots could make the difference or at least a major contribution.

As of late October, listed Florida (29 electoral votes/5.4 percent of the population Jewish) and Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes/3.35 percent Jewish) as toss-up states between Clinton and Trump. Georgia (16 electoral votes/1.5 percent Jewish) also was in the toss-up category.

Or maybe this is all overblown.

Professor Gil Troy of McGill University in Montreal scoffed at the conventional wisdom in an article recently published by the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa.

“Even with a high Jewish voter turnout and the Jewish concentration in key battleground states and major media markets, there simply are not enough American Jews to sway American elections,” Troy wrote.

Their greatest impact, he said, came in 2000 when thousands of South Florida Jews apparently mismarked paper “butterfly” ballots, giving Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan votes likely intended for Democrat Al Gore and contributing to Republican George W. Bush’s narrow win in Florida and thus in an election eventually affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

From the mid-1860s until 1920, Jews favored Republicans, though more in the post-Civil War North than in the formerly Confederate South.

“Note that in those years the Republican Party was the more progressive, having been founded on an anti-slavery platform. The Democrats were the conservative party of states’ rights, Southernism, and enduring post-emancipation bigotry. It would take the Great Wave of Eastern European immigration, the rise of the City Bosses, and, ultimately, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to complete America’s great political reversal, in which the Democrats became liberal and the Republicans, conservative,” Troy wrote.

FDR Milestone

Roosevelt’s presidency remains a touchstone in Jewish support of Democrats. FDR received 90 percent of the Jewish vote in winning re-election in 1940 and 1944, a figure matched only by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

The last time a Democrat won less than half the Jewish vote was in 1980, when the incumbent, Georgia’s own Jimmy Carter, received 45 percent. Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, who won the election, garnered 39 percent. No Republican has received that much of the Jewish vote since.

Bill Clinton received 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992 when he defeated Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush and 78 percent four years later when he won re-election against Republican Bob Dole.

Barack Obama received 78 percent of the Jewish vote in defeating Republican John McCain in 2008 and 69 percent in winning re-election in 2012 against Republican Mitt Romney.

In losing efforts, Al Gore received 79 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000, and John Kerry garnered 76 percent in 2004.

Jewish women have been more likely than Jewish men to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate in eight of 10 elections since 1972, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey of American Jews.

Jewish voters also have backed Democrats seeking seats in the U.S. House and Senate by significant margins in recent decades.

There is another Jewish impact on elections, possibly more pronounced that the votes. If, as the saying goes, “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” American Jews have done much to nourish the process, including in this year’s election cycle.

Troy estimated that Jewish donors contribute half the money raised by the Democratic Party and a quarter of the funds of the Republican Party.

According to an analysis by the numbers-crunching website, Obama received 71 percent of Jewish donations in the 2012 presidential campaign, and 29 percent went to Romney.

FiveThirtyEight also reported that, as of mid-September, of $95 million contributed “by donors who appear to be Jewish,” 84 percent had gone to Democratic presidential hopefuls and 16 percent to Republican. Remove the primary challengers, and the division was 95 percent to Clinton and 4 percent to Trump.

Theories of Why

Politically engaged Atlanta Jews’ answers to the question “Why?” range across the political spectrum.

Andrew Feiler, who grew up in Savannah, is a member of The Temple. (Photo by Paul Perdue)
Andrew Feiler sees the Democratic Party as the moderate, centrist option. (Photo by Paul Perdue)

“I think the simplest explanations are likely the most accurate: American Jews tend toward a liberal political outlook, and they are not single-issue voters. Even though most support the state of Israel, Jewish Americans tend to have much more nuanced political views. Thus, they support the Democratic Party, which they see as more in line with their political beliefs,” said lawyer Kevin Levitas, a Democrat who represented a portion of DeKalb County in the Georgia House from 2007 to 2011.

Paul Root Wolpe, who directs the Center for Ethics at Emory University, is the son and brother of prominent rabbis.

“Despite Jews’ wealth, our deep-set mentality is still of the marginalized. We remember times before where we felt an important part of the society, where we were rich and established, and it all changed in a moment,” Wolpe said. “In addition, a fundamental aspect of our religion is the care of and acceptance of the stranger. No other point is made more often in the Bible, 36 times in all. So we believe deeply in liberal values of protection of the vulnerable and marginalized, and those are Democratic values.”

Andrew Feiler, a fifth-generation Georgian Jew who has worked on the campaigns of several Democratic candidates, made similar connections.

“Jewish history teaches us empathy of being a minority, of being a stranger in a strange land, of the criticality of caring for all and of the dangers of a world in which we fail to care for all. I think this history, these experiences and these values influence how Jews vote,” he said. “Similarly, Judaism is fundamentally grounded in the centrality of living an ethical life. I think that plays out in caring deeply about social justice. And I think that too motivates how Jews form their political points of view.”

Sheri Labovitz, a retired commercial real estate lawyer who was deputy finance chairman of Michelle Nunn’s unsuccessful 2014 U.S. Senate campaign, cited lessons learned elsewhere.

“I believe American Jews vote the way they do because American Jews generally lean towards inclusiveness and progressiveness. Throughout their history, beginning with the Diaspora, Jews have always been among the more progressive members of their respective societies, both in profession and in overarching way of life. Jews were predisposed to maintain their religious and cultural identities in the face of pressures to assimilate to the societal norms. I believe this carried over to America,” she said.

Where Democrats see an adherence to Jewish values, Republicans see a misunderstanding of the same.

Different Interpretation

Mitchell Kaye represented a portion of Cobb County as a Republican in the Georgia House from 1993 to 2003. In his professional life he specializes in assessing the value of businesses. Religiously, he describes himself as “Jewish and continuing on my journey.”

“Embedded in our spiritual DNA is a yearning to improve the world and correct societal ills. But without the framework of Torah from Mount Sinai, it has mutated toward other ‘isms,’ like liberalism, socialism, environmentalism, feminism, humanism and others, as substitutes,” Kaye said, blaming a “lack of Jewish knowledge and practice” for the trend.

Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb cited another ism.

“For many Jews today, secularism has become their new faith, and the left-leaning Democratic Party is a comfortable fit. There is no singular explanation of why so many Jews are Democrats, but it is an unshakable and baffling fact,” Rabbi Lewis said.

“Jewish people have traditionally always supported social issues/causes for those in need. However, the Democrats have carried this too far, enabling people who do not work to be supported by government programs,” said Laurie Weinstein, a retired real estate property manager and longtime member of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “Abortion and Planned Parenthood seem to be another reason Jews vote Democratic. What they don’t seem to realize is that it promotes promiscuity, and traditional marriage is no longer a priority.”

Two studies that crunched a lot of numbers provide estimates on the political leanings of American Jews.

The Pew Research Center reviewed 253 surveys it conducted between January 1992 and August 2016 and determined that 74 percent of Jewish voters either identified as Democrats or leaned toward the Democratic Party (a figure that had grown slightly the past few years), compared with 24 percent who identified as Republicans or leaned toward the Republican Party.

Another broad sample was created when the American Jewish Population Project culled the opinions of 6,000 Jews out of 280,000 total respondents to some 250 surveys done from 2008 to 2015.

In terms of party affiliation, 54.2 percent identified as Democrats, 14.1 percent as Republicans, and 31.7 percent as neither. In Georgia, the breakdown was 45 percent Democrats, 20 percent Republicans and 35 percent others.

When it came to political philosophy, nationally only 43 percent of Jews identified themselves as liberal, a lower percentage than identified as Democrats. On the other hand, 20.9 percent identified as conservative, more than the percentage of Republicans. The remaining 36.1 percent considered themselves neither liberals nor conservatives.

Orthodox Alternative

There is an exception to the rule of support for Democrats: Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10 percent of American Jewry and are far more conservative in politics and on social issues.

In the 2013 Pew survey, 57 percent of Orthodox Jews identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party, compared with 18 percent of other Jews. Philosophically, 54 percent of Orthodox Jews identified as conservative, compared with 16 percent of other Jews.

“Orthodox Jews also tend to express more conservative views on issues such as homosexuality and the size of government; that is, they are more likely than other Jews to say that homosexuality should be discouraged and that they prefer a smaller government with fewer services to a bigger government with more services,” the report said.

In an American Jewish Committee survey of 1,002 adult American Jews this year, 61 percent backed Clinton, and 19 percent supported Trump, with sizable margins for Clinton among Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews and those identifying as “just Jewish.” Among Orthodox respondents, 50 percent favored Trump and 21 percent Clinton.

Another illustration of the divide can be found in Florida, home to 9.5 percent of the nation’s Jews. In an August poll of 500 Jewish likely voters, Clinton led Trump by 42 percentage points head to head, while Orthodox Jews favored Trump by virtually the same margin.

“With non-Orthodox Jews continuing to trend overwhelming liberal and Democratic, the rift within the Jewish community is growing perilously wide. And as Orthodox Jews’ birthrate makes them an ever-larger proportion of the Jewish community, the liberal tradition so many Jews value may be headed for the history books,” commentator J.J. Goldberg wrote in the Forward.

For now, that tradition continues.

The University of Florida’s Wald suggested that “Americanism” is at least as responsible for the voting pattern as Judaism or other isms.

“I’m not persuaded that Judaism per se explains this pattern, although many Jews do believe that their support for progressive causes is applied Judaism (and conservative/Republican Jews feel the same about their policy preferences). Most Jews in the rest of the world are not liberal but tend to be centrist or predominantly conservative in politics,” Wald said. “American Jews are different because they feel a deep sense of membership in this country and want to maintain the system that has permitted that. That’s especially so this year when the Republican candidate has engaged in populist attacks on various minority groups and appeals strongly to white nationalists. Right now, Jews trust the Democrats more than the Republicans to preserve an open and inclusive society.”

In the American Jewish Committee survey, using the political parties on this year’s ballot, 51 percent identified as Democrats, followed by independents at 26 percent, Republicans at 18 percent, Green Party members at 2 percent and Libertarians at 1 percent.

When the AJC asked about political philosophy, 51 percent self-identified as liberal or leaning liberal, 23 percent as moderate or “middle of the road,” and 24 percent as conservative or leaning conservative.

Identifications can change. Rabbi Lewis offered himself as an example.

“It was easy years ago to fit in. The Democratic agenda and values fit comfortably. Civil rights. Choice. Gay rights. Israel. Unions. But as the years have passed, we find ourselves in a place of confusion. … The GOP and the Democrats are different today than they were years ago. I don’t agree with elements of the left, and I don’t agree with elements of the right and so must determine what to me is most important in seeking a party and in providing my vote,” he said, mentioning dismay with aspects of Democrats’ positions on Israel.

Kaye connected past and present in a different fashion.

“A lack of overt and government-sponsored anti-Semitism has been a blessing for our safety and integration into society at large, but it has also been a curse in making it too easy to stray from the religion and practice of our grandparents. Also, many Jews who are not knowledgeable about their Judaism are particularly frightened by religious Christians, especially those who are involved in public life,” he said. “The Jews that respect and/or practice the Judaism closest to Mount Sinai see more compatibility with GOP ideals. These include support for the sanctity of life; respect for elders and military/law enforcement; a helping hand, not perpetual handouts; (and) the opportunity to be treated as an individual, not part of some special interest or voting bloc.”

Feiler, who has worked for several Democratic candidates, found a different lesson in the same history.

“The relationship between Jews and American politics has obviously changed over time as the relationship between Jews and America has evolved and American politics has evolved. We happen to be at a moment in America’s political history when the Democratic Party is centrist and moderate while the GOP has become ideologically extreme,” he said.

Israel as Issue

While a declaration of support for Israel may have become a requirement for candidates of both parties, evidence suggests it is far from the most important issue for Jewish voters.

“Jews don’t appear to see a lot of distance between the two parties in their support for Israel. Apart from rhetorical support and symbolic actions, the policy differences between the two parties aren’t that meaningful, so it’s not a voting issue,” Wald said.

“American Jews are more pro-choice than pro-Israel when voting,” McGill University’s Troy wrote. “This doesn’t make American Jews anti-Israel; on the contrary, they perceive the Democratic Party as taking a strong pro-Israel stance, proving that progressive Zionism is not an oxymoron. Thus we can say that American Jews are more pro-choice than pro-Israel in the voting booth, but pro-Israel nevertheless.”

“Each election cycle, the American Jewish Committee commissions a poll of Jewish opinion. Time and again, the economy and jobs, as well as terrorism and national security, are the top issues,” the AJC’s Wilker said. “While Israel is an important issue, it is not the only issue that Jews look at when deciding who to vote for.”

An AJC survey in 2015 of 1,030 Jews asked for a ranking of the three most important issues that would determine their vote in 2016.

The economy was No. 1 at 41.7 percent, followed by national security at 12.3 percent, health care at 12 percent and income inequality at 11.6 percent. The U.S.-Israel relationship trailed at 7.2 percent.

When the 2016 AJC survey sought responses to the statement “Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew,” 47 percent agreed strongly, 26 percent agreed somewhat, 16 percent disagreed somewhat, and 10 percent disagreed strongly.

The AJC also offered a list from which respondents could select the most important issue determining their vote. The top choice was the economy/jobs at 29 percent, followed by 16 percent for terrorism/national security, 10 percent for foreign policy, 9 percent for climate change, 9 percent for health care, 4 percent for immigration, 4 percent for race relations, 3 percent for taxes, and 2 percent for the federal budget deficit.

“Another issue” was cited by 12 percent.

Israel was not one of the issues specified, but asked to characterize the U.S.-Israel relationship, 16 percent called it very good, 57 percent called it fairly good, 17 percent rated it fairly poor, and 8 percent said very poor.

Even in the Florida poll of 500 likely Jewish voters, Israel only tied for ninth out of 13 issues, though it topped the list for Orthodox Jews. The economy, Islamic State and the Supreme Court led overall.

“About Israel, Jews feel generally that both sides are pro-Israel and that the differences are nuance,” Wolpe said. “Despite all the supposed negatives about Obama and Israel, for example, his administration gave more money to Israel than any other president has in U.S. history. So as long as the Jews feel that Israel is protected, it is not their top priority. If we ever got a president who was really anti-Israel, rather than one who is claimed to be by the right to make points, I think that might change.”

Labovitz said: “There are times where it feels like, even as a fourth or fifth priority, American Jews still give Israel too much weight in deciding their vote. Until proven otherwise, neither party is going to do anything but fully support the only democracy in the Middle East. Democrats may condemn Israeli aggression in Gaza and the continued construction of settlements in the West Bank, but, even so, the U.S. continues to monetarily support Israel at record levels. American Jews should be voting for the party that best reflects their beliefs and views of how America should be run and what kind of country they want to continue to build for their children. Support for Israel will remain strong regardless.”

Across the party aisle, Georgia’s highest-ranking Jewish elected official was Attorney General Sam Olens until he resigned to become the president of Kennesaw State University on Tuesday, Nov. 1, one week before the election. A Republican, he is among those who feel that Israel does not receive enough weight when Jews vote.

Asked whether the Democratic Party takes the Jewish vote for granted, Olens said: “Yes. See Iran deal.”

Jeff Kunkes, an ear, nose and throat doctor who served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention this summer after backing Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida during the primaries, echoed Olens.

“The Iran nuclear agreement is an example of the contempt the Democratic Party holds for the Jewish vote,” Kunkes said, citing Obama’s “temerity” in belittling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the press and inviting then-British Prime Minister David Cameron to make an address countering Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on the nuclear deal. “Despite a major campaign by AIPAC and polls of over 60 percent of all voters against the deal, the negotiations and treaty were finalized.”

Kunkes also took a poke at the clergy, saying, “The rabbis of Atlanta are committed to gun control, toilet gender, food stamps, voter ID and whatever social agenda is being dictated by the New York/Los Angeles consortium, but not to demanding that the Iran deal be overturned.”

Potential for Change

In four years, the Jewish voting pattern will be a century old.

“I never say never, but it’s hard to see much evidence of change,” Wald said. “As the Republican Party base has moved so far to the right, the party now takes positions on issues that are, for the most part, diametrically opposed to the preferences of Jews.”

Levitas said: “Not on the horizon. Both parties seem to be moving ever more away from the political center, making the movement of their traditional base — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — less likely.”

Still, Labovitz cautioned the party she supports.

“The trend isn’t set in stone. The Democratic electorate has grown increasingly younger and even more progressive, and as the position of the American Jew becomes more normalized in American society, these young people have stopped identifying Jews as a people with a history of being persecuted and have begun to identify Jews/Israel as the persecutors of a people. The Republican Party has seen an opening to target single-issue Jewish voters by professing ironclad support of Israel and all her policies. Should the Democrats’ platform continue to take on an increasingly pro-Palestinian slant, there is a strong possibility that neither party will again be able to count on American Jews voting as a bloc,” she said.

“The Democratic and Republican parties are not the same as they were years ago. Family values must and should be restored. American Jews must be educated how little Democrats support Israel — i.e., the Iran deal, which is disastrous to America as well as Israel. Both parties need to be a little more moderate,” Weinstein said.

“Demographic changes in the Jewish community vis-a-vis religious vs. degrees of nonreligious have been taking place for quite some time, as shown in the periodic Pew studies,” Kaye said. “Over the years we have witnessed much higher Orthodox birthrates, the ba’al teshuva movement, and the 70 percent of the rest who assimilate and intermarry. In my opinion, the bigger issue is for Jews to return to Judaism, not which party they vote for.”

“We are, as tradition teaches, an om kishei oref, a stubborn people,” Rabbi Lewis said. “Old habits and allegiances are difficult to break, and so it is hard to predict what will be. My sense, though, is that as American Jews assimilate, they will be drawn to the left and to the Democratic Party, which is becoming a leftist party.”

He offered an anecdote to illustrate the depth of Jewish support for Democratic candidates. “I invited (Georgia Republican and former U.S. House Speaker) Newt Gingrich to my son’s bar mitzvah. He and I interacted on several occasions. He came to the party Saturday night, brought a gift and was very gracious. My mother, an old-school Democrat, never forgave me for inviting him.”

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