American Jewish Political Behavior and the 2020 Elections
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
This every four year ritual is again upon us! In some measure, for American Jews these election cycles have emerged as a centerpiece of their American and Jewish identities. The rawness of American politics, especially in connection with this particular campaign, has only added to the intensity of this election season. With less than four weeks to go, this contest is consuming the attention of Jews across this nation!
Setting the Stage:
Anxiety: November 3rd is more than a date; it represents for many Jews a defining moment. If they are Trump supporters, it is an opportunity to acknowledge the President’s leadership and more directly, his role as a defender and promoter of the Jewish State. Indeed, for those who oppose 45, this is all about reclaiming this country, as they view him as problematic to the wellbeing of this nation. These two distinctive and competing perspectives contribute to the “great Jewish political divide”.1
Unlike prior campaigns, voters in 2020 have generally made up their minds, whether one endorses or opposes Donald Trump. Conviction is driving political sentiment. The feeling tones around this President, to say the least, are intense!
Unpacking American Jewish Voters: 2020
Based on a recently released poll, two-thirds of Jewish voters say they will vote for Joe Biden over President Trump, and three-quarters of Jewish women say they favor Biden.2
Political Behavior: Reacting to particular events certainly drives “traditional” voters to opt out of their comfort zone in order to make alternative choices. I have argued elsewhere that “Jewish voting patterns may undergo significant change at those times in which Jews sense that their self-interests are being challenged, and that it is essential for them to re-evaluate their political position within the society.”3 In 2020, the majority of Jewish voters believe that the Trump Presidency raises more threatening challenges to the welfare of this society and its democratic institutions than the benefits accrued by the President’s actions on behalf of Israel and other specific Jewish concerns.
Multiple Jewish Voting Patterns: While there may only be two primary political parties, one finds a diversity of Jewish voter-types. Over the years, many historians and political scientists have tried to explain the elements that define and comprise this Jewish liberal tradition. Increasingly, Jewish voters are taking on the political attributes of the broader American society. With assimilation comes a growing affinity to adopt the political values, ideas and practices that align with the social groups with which differing Jewish constituencies identify.
A particularly unique feature to the Jewish electorate is its liberalism. Let’s take a deeper dive into Jewish liberal practice. The political mindset of Democratic Jewish voters is centered around a universal, progressive agenda. “Will this policy enhance the welfare of the society?” represents their defining agenda.As with conservative voters, Jewish liberals have a broad set of interests and define their political priorities through various lenses. For Jews liberalism is a “moveable feast” where specific policies and ideas take on added significance at different times and for different segments of the Jewish Democratic base.4 Three elements describe the Jewish Democratic base:
Liberal Suburban Democrats: As with other voters, these older longstanding Jewish constituencies have a set of established political interests that tend to include a broad range of domestic and international concerns. Undergirding their voting behavior are a set of social values about how they envision a more just and democratic society. Indeed, a significant number of these voters are increasingly disturbed by the policies promoted by the progressive wing of the party.
Urban Activists: Unlike their suburban counterparts, these younger, urban-based voters tend to be more self-defining in their political choices, focusing more on economic concerns, social justice issues, and cultural/racial matters. In order to allow them greater voter flexibility and as representative of the behavioral characteristics of their generation, many younger Millennial Jewish voters have registered as “independents.”
Red-Diaper Babies: There are still remnants among Jewish Democrats of the old socialist tendencies that once defined a significant cohort of immigrant voters. These “lefty” Democrats are found today both inside and outside of the “Progressive” wing of the Democratic Party. Part of their political positioning is linked to their support of or opposition to the anti-Zionist voices found within that sector of the Party.
Conversely, on the Republican side, there are at least four diverse Jewish constituencies:
Ideological Conservatives: Voters with an abiding commitment to conservative political values and policies.
Religious Values Voters: Individuals(including many Orthodox Jews) who align with the Evangelical wing of the Republican Party around core principles and basic policy priorities.
Identity-Politics: This voting class asks the question: “Is this good for the Jews (State of Israel)? Their abiding interest is centered on advancing policies that they view as enhancing Jewish priorities and Israeli security concerns.
Never-Trump Republicans: Longstanding GOP (Grand Old Party) supporters who oppose the President whether around policy or personality.
Indeed, different writers and political observers offer various explanations concerning the types of Jewish voters.5
The Jewish Vote: A Deeper Dive:
A February (2020) poll provided these core findings that seem to confirm American Jewish political behavior:6
- A majority of Jewish voters identify as Democrats, and an overwhelming majority of Jewish voters disapprove of President Trump.
- While Jewish voters remain strongly pro-Israel, Jewish voters prioritize domestic policy issues over Israel when asked which issues are most important to them in selecting a candidate.
- While nearly all respondents identify as “pro-Israel,” a majority also identify as critical of at least some of the current Israeli government’s policies.
- Jewish voters feel less secure than they did two years ago, and they hold President Trump responsible for their insecurity.
- A plurality of Jewish voters believe that the best way to improve the security of Jews in the United States is “helping people with the right values get elected.
Later polls, including a September 2020 study, confirm these results.7
Following the 2016 campaign I had occasion to write about the implications of that election.8 Indeed, the Trump Presidency has represented a fundamentally unique and transformative moment in this nation’s political culture. Not only did this country experience strikingly different policy options and directions, but the cultural artifacts of politics, namely how this President perceived and managed his role dramatically challenged existing norms of political behavior and action.
Over these past four years this nation shifted from a period of American liberalism to a time of political populism, creating in the process deep fissures among Americans in general and Jews in particular. Republican Jewish triumphalism has been offset by the angst and uncertainty operating among many Jewish Democrats. Indeed, the political directions chartered by the Trump administration have had profoundly significant implications for the State of Israel, as Jewish Americans and Israelis consider the new dimensions of United States foreign policy in the Middle East and across the globe, just as the domestic agenda of this nation has been fundamentally reconfigured over this four year time frame.
Religiosity as a Political Measure: Numerous polls confirm that Haredi Jews embrace this president.9 Along with Evangelicals, this sector of the Orthodox community identify with particular policy priorities and conservative social values that align these constituencies with the Republican Party. A January 2020 Nishma Poll indicated that some 56 percent of the ultra-Orthodox and 29 percent of the Modern Orthodox voted for Trump in 2016, and his approval rating had risen to 68 percent among the ultra-Orthodox and 36 percent among the modern Orthodox earlier this year.10
Israel: What Matters or Not: For “identity voters” Israel is a core election issue. While a significant majority of middle age and older Jewish voters care deeply about Israel, where the Jewish State ranks however among competing voter priorities represents a different story.
A 2015 American Jewish Committee poll found that “barely a quarter of respondents listed Israel as one of their top three issues, though more than 70 percent agreed strongly or somewhat that caring about Israel is ‘a very important part’ of being Jewish.”11 Numerous surveys confirm the same outcome.
A recent study reaffirms the strong support that Israel enjoys among America’s Jews.12 Nearly nine-in-10 (88%) of respondents surveyed describe themselves as generally pro-Israel…. Democrats (87%) and Republicans (87%) characterize themselves as pro-Israel at the exactly the same level. While respondents are strongly pro-Israel, we find that half of the Jewish electorate are critical of at least some of the current Israeli government’s policies.
Issues of Importance: A recently released poll provides us with insights into the key issues of importance to Jewish voters this fall:13
Anti-Semitism and the Jewish Vote: When examining this final chart (“Rated Importance of Selected Issues”), in fifth position, one finds reference to “anti-Semitism.” Over the past four years, we have noticed a heightened concern by American Jews of the impact of hate crimes and prejudicial statements directed against Jews and Israel. Every national study references this phenomenon as a significant issue for Jewish Americans.14 How may it impact voting? Once again, the political divide defines how Jews understand this question.15 Republican Jews increasingly reference “left wing” anti-Semitism, while Jewish Democrats point to “right wing” hate.16
The Supreme Court and Jewish Voters: In this same chart, please note the eighth item, “Supreme Court Justices.” The recent passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be seen as no small matter for many liberal Jewish voters, who place particular value on the policy outcomes and legal decisions of the Court. Issues such as immigration and refugee policy, civil rights and affirmative action, abortion rights, church-state separation, and health care are seen as core to Jewish political interests. Therefore, the judicial credentials of the next nominee and the timing of the confirmation process are critically important factors to Jewish audiences. This controversy adds another dimension to an already divisive and intensive election cycle.
Political Ideologies: What impact will the changing character of the American politics have in shaping the 2020 election? For example, how will Jewish voters react to the growth of the progressive wing inside the Democratic Party? Indeed, even as some Jews embrace the policies put forth by the left-wing, others have specific concerns related to the anti-Israel positions endorsed by some within this camp as well as other policy proposals emanating from this sector.
Correspondingly, the presence within the Republican Party of right-wing extremist candidates along with efforts on the part of white supremist groups to identify with this President and his unwillingness, at times, to forthrightly distance himself from such expressions has raised concerns within the Jewish community.17
In previous eJP articles I have had occasion to describe the impact of these changing political dimensions on American Jewish political behavior.18
“Bagel Belt,” Where the Jewish Vote Really Counts
This year, Florida-Georgia-North Carolina-Pennsylvania-Michigan-Wisconsin-Ohio-Arizona-Texas have been identified as contested or “purple state” areas. Jewish voters in these states are being targeted by both campaigns. Employing on-line events and phone banks to reach Jewish voters, both the RJC (Republican Jewish Coalition)19 and JDCA (Jewish Democratic Council of America)20 are seeking to promote their case on behalf of their respective political party.
Matt Brooks, director of the RJC, was quoted as committing $10 million in Jewish political outreach in Florida, Ohio, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia. Correspondingly, Jewish Democratic organizations have organized a Jewish Battleground Coalition in order to reach voters.21
The Rest of Us:
Stepping back for a moment, so where do the majority of American Jewish voters live?
Seventeen major population centers account for 66% of all Jewish Americans:22 Analyzing it another way, as Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky noted in their eJP article, 75% ofAmerica’s Jews live in eight states (California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Massachusetts) and these states account for 188 electoral votes.
If one were to also include the seven states containing between 100,000 and 200,000 Jews, the combined electoral vote count would be 300 (with 270 necessary to win the election).
Another way to understand this geopolitical reality, the high urban density of the Jewish vote is built around the 100 most populated counties in this nation. Hilary Clinton would carry all of these areas in 2016. By comparison, Donald Trump won nearly every other county (nearly 3000) in America!23
Age and Other Factors: As an older ethnic religious cohort, Jewish voting priorities, as an example, focus on health care and social security policies. As noted above, American Jews are older than other white ethnic constituencies.24 Today, the Jewish community comprises 1.8% of this nation’s population. In the United States, 20.6 percent of the general population is 65 or older, yet among Jews, 26 percent are part of this older cohort. While 45.8 percent of all Americans are aged 18 to 44, among Jews that figure is 41 percent. Within that category, only 10.5% of Jewish Americans are between 18 to 24 years of age.
Most polling data identifies Jews as more liberal than the American electorate as a whole, 41% to 23%. Jews are three times as more likely to hold a graduate degree than other US citizens. Yet, while 31% of the general electorate define themselves as “non-religious,” nearly one-half of Jewish voters identify as such.25
Political Fundraising and Jewish Donors: While there isn’t specific data available at this time concerning the 2020 campaign and Jewish political giving, there is supporting information in connection with the significant financial role involving Jewish donors to political causes and campaigns.
In 2012, as an example, 71 percent of the $160 million that Jewish donors gave to the two major-party nominees went to President Obama’s re-election campaign; 29 percent went to Mitt Romney’s campaign, according to our analysis of campaign contributors, which used a predictive model to estimate which donors are Jewish based on their names and other characteristics. This ratio of support mirrors how Jewish voters cast their ballots in 2012.26
Maybe the most impressive statistic is this one: 50% of all campaign dollars donated to the Democratic Party are from Jewish funders, while 25% of donations to the Republican Party are provided by Jewish contributors.27 Take as an example, among the top 50 donors to the 2016 campaign, 11 of the top 14 Democratic Party contributors were Jewish, while 9 of the top 36 Republican supporters identified as Jews.28
Broader Issues that Need to Be Explored:
Who Votes? With reference to the general election, It is estimated that some 150 million ballots will be cast, possibly 12 million more than in 2016! What makes this election even more intense and complicated will be the uncertain timeline in connection with confirming the results. With a significantly large number of voters opting for a mail-in ballot, the ability of a number of states to manage delivering the final totals in a timely fashion will be challenged. Few states are equipped to handle such a volume of ballots by mail.29
Finding an adequate number of trained polling booth workers, as a result of COVID-19, presents some states with an additional challenge. One can also anticipate numerous legal challenges, including voter suppression issues, election counting procedures, and the arrival of mail-in ballots in a timely fashion.
Only about 60% of eligible voters actually exercise their political franchise, yet among Jewish voters participation has been as high as 85%. While representing less than 2% of this nation’s population, Jewish political influence can be an important factor, especially in highly contested campaigns and in key battle ground states.30
The Street: This summer’s civic activism tied to Black Lives Matter brought more than 26 million individuals to the street, including many Jewish Americans. The issues that have been raised and the violence that has resulted triggered a fierce internal Jewish debate about anti-Semitism and anti-Israel expressions in connection with BLM actions and statements. What should be the Jewish response to this effort? This issue has only added another element to the already deep divide one finds among Jewish voters.
One element that has not as yet been measured by Jewish demographers is the impact of the “law and order” factor, as a result of this summer’s urban unrest. How might these events impact political choices for this fall?
- National polls are interesting but tell us very little as we are engaged in 50 separate (state) elections! (Remember the Electoral College!). Remember you can win the Presidency (as Donald Trump did in 2016) without garnering the majority of votes.
- Undecided voters count! In the end it is likely that “last minute” voters may well determine the outcome in states where this contest remains “undecided.”
- Incumbents dominate! Only ten sitting Presidents in this nation’s 231 year history have failed to win a second term.
- Voter “Intensity” as a factor: “83% of registered voters say it really matters who wins the presidency, up from 74% four years ago.”31
Along with other Americans, Jews will be actors in the unfolding story of this fall’s political campaign. What type of a national story will emerge is being crafted both by the political actors and by the events unfolding within this society on a daily basis. Possibly more than any other election, the Trump-Biden contest represents a hallmark moment in American Jewish political history. As in the past, Jews will continue to play a significant story in this American drama.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.
4 See Steven Windmueller, The Quest for Power: A Study in Jewish Political Behavior and Practice, 2014
5 Herbert F. Weisberg, The Politics of American Jews (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2019) provides a rich analysis of various explanations of Jewish voting patterns.
25 Gil Troy and the Ruderman Family Foundation, pdf, “The Jewish Vote 2020: More Empowered than Powerful”, page (Israel, 2020)
28 Troy and the Ruderman Family Foundation, page 15