An Uncertain Moment! Where Do We Go From Here?
The 2020 Elections and American Jewry
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
As we await the complete results of the 2020 election, Americans of all stripes have just participated in one of the most challenging, contentious and divisive political moments that this republic has experienced. 83% of us believed this to be the most defining election in our lifetime and that this outcome “matters”!1
For this nation, and more directly for Jews, this four year period has been a defining moment:
The Trump Presidency has resulted in a fundamentally disruptive moment in this nation’s political culture. Not only are we experiencing strikingly different policy options and directions, but the cultural artifacts of politics, namely how this President operates dramatically challenges the existing norms of political behavior and action. As we have shifted from a period of American liberalism to a time of political populism, deep fissures are dividing Americans in general and Jews in particular. … Jewish political differences may never have been more pronounced, as Jews debate and disagree over what defines their vision for America and how they understand their self-interests in this new political reality.2
In many ways, for Jewish Americans and for all of this nation’s citizens, this campaign was a referendum on Donald Trump. The Jewish Democratic vote in 2020 was shaped by a shared dislike and fundamental anxiety in connection with the Trump Presidency.
If this election was to have been a repudiation of the President, it in no way represented that message. For Jewish Democrats, Tuesday evening would constitute a nail-biter, filled with disappointments and uncertainties.
For many Jewish Republicans this election, in their view, represented an opportunity to applaud this President for his accomplishments on behalf of the State of Israel, in advancing the American economy and in support of his leadership in promoting American nationalism.
In this initial analysis, even as we cannot define the final outcome, we are able to identify several key factors. No doubt, the uncertainty of this campaign creates its own frustration and tension for both political camps. Will this election process play out over the weeks ahead in court houses as the legitimacy of this vote is being challenged?
Jewish Voter Analysis:
- Much of the 2020 polling did not correctly read the American electorate. Some election analysts believe that voters did not share with pollsters their true sentiments, especially with regard for their support of the President. When studying Florida, were the Jewish polling projections correct? One poll for that state had suggested that Joe Biden would win 73% of the Jewish vote to 22% for the President.3 National polls, taken over the past few days, continued to point to an overwhelming vote for Joe Biden among Jewish voters.4
- Orthodox voters, we believe, did support President Trump by significantly large numbers.5 The political gap between Haradi voters and other Jewish Americans represents but one element of a deep and penetrating divide that exists among Jewish Americans.
- Jewish money in the 2020 campaign was impactful both on the Presidential level and in connection with key state senatorial and house races! In some measure the significant outpouring of campaign donations represents the principle Jewish storyline of this election cycle, as both Jewish Republican and Democratic contributors played a high profile role in support of their party’s candidates.
- A number of specific races involving the Senate and House are play. We are monitoring in particular four senatorial races involving Jewish candidates. At this time, it would appear that none of these four races will result in a Jewish win.
We note 27 Democratic incumbents in the House, with 11 more Jewish Democrats seeking to join the House. Finally, we are monitoring 10 Jewish Republicans seeking to become part of the 117th Congress. In total, some 47 Jewish candidates competed in House and Senate races.
Some General Assessments:
- The political realignment that had been anticipated was only partially realized in the aftermath of this campaign.
- Based on exit polls, late deciding voters (4.8%) appeared to have broken for President Trump. In the end it appears that “Independents” divided fairly evenly between the two candidates.
- In the exit polling reports, Republican voters noted that this election was all about the “Economy” and “Crime and Safety”. Democrats stated that the election was about the “Coronavirus” and “Racial Equality”.6
- While much of the composition of the House of Representatives remains to be defined, what we do know the 117th Congress will include a far-right, conspiratorial-oriented Republican and additional BDS, anti-Israel Democrats.
- The deep political divide that this election clearly affirmed is also being mirrored inside of our community. How Jews see each other and relate to one another across these real and significant partisan lines, whether around Israel, American politics, or religious identity, may represent the essential structural challenge facing Jewish leadership moving forward.
In some measure, these political behaviors align in part with our growing assimilation as fourth and fifth generation Americans. Increasingly, Jews reflect the political practices and social behaviors that define our fellow citizens.
- Within the closing days of this campaign, observers noted a spike in anti-Semitic ads directed against Jews and Jewish candidates in both Senate and House races, adding to the growing concerns in this nation over the rise of racial and religious hatred.7
Longer Term Outcomes:
Managing our Anxieties! This has been an election cycle like non other in our lifetime where folks, regardless of party or candidate, reflected their deep and abiding concerns and fears. Some are bracing for a post-election push back or worse, while others maybe seeking revenge or retribution. We are only hours following the early returns, yet are we likely to see civil unrest and increased social tension? For Jews anxiety remains a part of their DNA ingredient as the public square remains an unsettled stage in which they will continue to play a high profile role.
Early Voting: In connection with the pandemic, we would see the largest pre-voting in this nation’s history, as more than one hundred million voters cast their ballots prior to November 3rd. We experienced more early voters in 2020 than the entire vote count in the 1996 election.
Minority Voters: Joe Biden did not do as well as Hillary Clinton with Latino voters in key battleground states of Florida, Georgia and Ohio. The former vice president, for example, was up only about 25 percentage points in Georgia and about 24 points in Ohio, compared to Clinton’s margin of 40 percentage points and 41 points in Georgia and Ohio, respectively. 8
Political Divide: As noted above, the political divide, identified both generically among American voters and within the Jewish community will remain unchanged at least for the moment. The New York Times Exit Poll confirms the deep divide among voters.9 The ability to cross these ideological lines in order to find common ground has clearly diminished. We will be looking to political elites, public personalities, and institutional leaders to demonstrate and model political behaviors that can reunite the country.
It’s All about the States: With this election also comes the every ten year ritual of reapportionment. Who controls the state legislatures determines the political fortunes for this nation! As the 2020 Census is completed, the results will likely redefine the American political landscape.
The Tasks Before Us: Goals for Jewish America:
Working with others, the Jewish communal enterprise will need to rebuild the “trust factor” in connection with American political institutions. The importance of responsible civic discourse must be seen as core to our understanding of the American story. Collectively we must push back against the messages of hate, anti-Semitic expressions and those that seek to promote racial division and class conflict.
As I have laid out in my recently published “Jewish Manifesto” we must confront major internal challenges just as we face significant national issues essential to rebuilding this democracy.10 Here are four critical outcomes from that study:
- A new American social contract must be framed that brings the voices of all of our peoples to the public table.
- The renewal of trust in all phases of our public setting requires that our citizens assume a renewed interest in the various facets of our social order and this democratic experiment.
- Various issues serve to discourage and alienate voters. Impediments to voting, the need for campaign finance reform, and the high costs associated with running for public office represent a few of the challenges in making our democracy accessible and transparent.
- This is a time inside of the Jewish community for political engagement, requiring of us to reimagine a vibrant and essential community relations agenda, focusing on the core issues of intergroup relations, economic access and social justice, civics education, and much more.
Reaching out to Latino-Americans, as an example, will be critical to Jewish political interests.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.