Voting behaviors

Insights into the changing Jewish political marketplace

In Short

American Jewish assimilation is being reframed. Social mores and cultural norms are altering how Jews understand and embrace their Jewish identity in the context of their Americanism. Contemporary antisemitism and the disruptive state of American politics must be seen as additional transformative factors.

Are we seeing new voter behaviors?

Politics represents an extension of who we are.[1] All of the social forces acting upon us serve to define our political outlook. Within the Jewish political context, we know that religious affiliation, ethnic orientation, generational status and one’s urban-suburban status are all key influencers in shaping both voting patterns and candidate giving. 

This is an uncertain moment in the American democratic story. The immense and significant issues before us are also impacting the Jewish voter. Threats to the character and substance of our democracy, the pending Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, the issues of economic justice, the questions of racial equality and sexual choice, these and so many other considerations are profoundly important to Jewish Americans. Living with spiking gas prices, expanding COVID cases, managing gun violence and responding to domestic extremism add to this season of challenging issues. Externally, one finds a world in distress facing a global climate crisis, the effects of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the presence of such reckless national actors as Iran and North Korea. As with domestic considerations, Jews remain deeply concerned about the international order, especially as it may impact Israel and the United States.

A new CNN survey of American voters is quite sobering. Just 14% of Americans say they’re either excited (4%) or optimistic (10%) about the way things are going in the country, with 65% calling themselves concerned and another 21% saying they’re scared. Only about one-quarter, 23%, call themselves “fired up” about politics, with 53% describing themselves as “burned out.” 

A national poll, released by the Institute of Politics at Harvard, points to a sharp increase in youth believing that “political involvement rarely has tangible results” (36%), their vote “doesn’t make a difference” (42%) and agreement that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing” (56%).[2]

Of particular note, 59% of young Black Americans, 43% of young Asian Americans, and 37% of young Hispanic Americans feel “under attack” in America. Nearly half of LGBTQ youth feel under attack “a lot.” These findings confirm what various studies have reported about young Jewish Americans when confronting antisemitism or anti-Israel comments or actions.

In connection with younger voters, 50% of young adults in 2016 self-identified as “political independents,” although they were much more likely than older generations to hold liberal views on a variety of social and political issues.[3] A second study, conducted in 2018 by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found 56.4% of young people (ages 18-24) “chose to affiliate with” either the Democratic or Republican political parties, one-third, or 33.1%, identified as Independents. 

The Jewish Response: 

American Jewish assimilation is being reframed. Social mores and cultural norms are altering how Jews understand and embrace their Jewish identity in the context of their Americanism. Contemporary antisemitism and the disruptive state of American politics must be seen as additional transformative factors.[4]

Much like all other voters, Jews are being bombarded by the many electoral and policy considerations that define our society. The Jewish political typology parallels these general patterns, as Jews are concerned on the one hand about the welfare of this democracy and on the other realize that their self-interests are being challenged.

There exists a political edginess within our community that reflects the broader tide of uncertainty. Indeed, recent polling offers us insights into a mix of findings pointing to a degree of “political burn-out” as noted in the CNN study but also to an acceleration of intense concern over the state of American democracy as Jews feel buffeted by far right and progressive left politics. 

We should remind ourselves how deeply embedded Jewish voters are with both contemporary legislative and judicial outcomes. With major Supreme Court decisions due to be released shortly on abortion, a ruling on prayer in public spaces, and gun control legislation among other cases, we can anticipate significant reactions from the diversity of Jewish political players deeply connected to these high-profile issues. 

Traditional Jewish voting patterns were constructed around congruent religious values, friendship and institutional connections, shared concerns, and specific generational behaviors. As we study the emergence of 4th generation of American Jews, we can identity differing social alignments and cultural factors:

  • Jews hold fewer links to Jewish religious and social networks than prior generations.[5]
  • All demographic studies posit that younger Jews are less connected to the State of Israel.[6]
  • The intermarriage rate among younger Jewish Americans is extremely high.[7]
  • Younger Jews are being impacted by changing economic and cultural factors, work patterns, and geo-political elements.[8]

Correspondingly, 21st Century Jewish political behavior will be driven by different influencers than prior generations of voters. What will be the effect of these transformative elements on Jewish voting patterns, party affiliation, and the degree of fidelity to Jewish political interests? Political adjustments occur as a result of the impact of external demographic and social forces as well as the imprint of shifting internal priorities.[9]

Nuance is replacing the more established voting patterns we have identified in the past. From Libertarians to Independents, from Conservatives to Progressives, Jews today cover the political roadmap.[10] As Jews increasingly take on the social characteristics and cultural values that define our larger society, we will continue to experience the growing diversity and splintering of Jewish political expression.[11]

Some General Characteristics of Jewish Voters:

Jewish Americans are primarily concentrated in the Northeast and areas around New York City. The 10 highest concentrations of Jewish Americans in counties with more than 10,000 residents are: Rockland County, New York (18%); Kings County, New York (12%); Nassau County, New York (10%); Montgomery County, Maryland (9%); New York County, New York (9%); Palm Beach County, Florida (9%); Ocean County, New Jersey (9%); Bergen County, New Jersey(8%); Westchester County, New York (7%) and Orange County, New York (7%).[12]

Seventeen major population centers account for 66% of all Jewish Americans: Analyzing it another way, 75% of America’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. A majority (51%) of Jewish Americans live in suburban areas, while four in ten (40%) live in urban areas, and only 8% live in rural areas.[13]

Among the more than 10% of American Jews who are not white, 2% are black, 5% are Hispanic, and 4% are another ethnicity.[14] In a more recent Los Angeles County Survey of Jewish Voters, some 13% described themselves as “other than white.” The impact of intermarriage on Jewish voting patterns represents another striking feature in measuring Jewish voting performance. 

Another distinguishing characteristic of Jewish voters, they are “very engaged” with politics, discussing political issues with family and friends (96%), attending political functions and rallies (44%), making contributions (62%), and sending letters and signing petitions (77%).[15] Indeed, “politics” can be found everywhere within the Jewish community! More recently, political discussions and disagreements have radically reshaped communal discourse, even dinner table conversations!

But what we also find is a growing aversion to bringing “politics” into the mainstream of our communal institutions and synagogues. While everyone is acutely attuned to politics and openly acknowledge the “great divide,” there are few Jewish forums that permit or welcome these essential conversations.

The Democratic Jewish Voter:

As the polling and demographic data suggests, Jews remain overwhelmingly Democratic.[16] The Pew 2020 Report found that Jews ages 18-29 and 30-49 “were just as Democratic” as their older counterparts but more liberal.[17] Yet, the internal divisions within this party, involving the progressive left with its negative positions on Israel among other considerations, has raised challenges for mainstream Jewish Democratic voters. As a result of this upheaval, one finds an array of new organizational responses, designed to recalibrate Jewish political interests while affirming the liberal orientation that still defines much of American Jewry.[18]  

As Democratic pollster and consultant Mark Mellman has observed, the Jewish community generally divides into two quite distinct camps.[19] One regards their Jewishness as a core identity, is pro-Israel and at least somewhat involved in the Jewish community. For the other segment, Jewishness is peripheral at most. They are not engaged, and don’t want to be, because, while they may be ‘proud’ to be Jewish, there is little by way of deeper connection. Jewishness is just not important to them. Spiking anti-Semitism may be helping to make the former group larger than it might otherwise be.

If there is one aspect of Judaism with which this latter segment identifies, Mellman asserts, it is the universalism of tikkun olam. In other words, if one has a very tenuous connection to Judaism, that connection is likely to revolve around the liberal agenda that most strongly differentiates Democrats from Republicans. In short, more assimilated Jews are more likely to be political liberals and Democrats. So, if anything, increasing assimilation means more politically liberal Jews.

In other settings, this writer has had occasion to offer a more comprehensive analysis in connection with the nature and character of Jewish liberalism and the specific elements that bind many Jewish Americans to the Democratic Party.[20]

Conservative Jewish Politics and Culture:

In the midst of these predominantly liberal Jewish expressions of activism, one finds a series of countervailing forces, including the rise of a vibrant, triumphal American Jewish Orthodoxy, the burgeoning of a vigorous Jewish conservative cultural and literary presence, and a growing conservative political focus, challenging the community’s traditional liberal anchor.

There appears to be a robustness within conservative Jewish political circles. The growing intellectual voices as reflected in such publications as Mosaic and the rise of right-of-center news organizations, websites and organizational platforms are advancing a conservative Jewish political agenda.

Among voters there appear to be three distinctive Republican groupings.[21] One finds “committed conservatives” who in some measure reflect Republicanism, pre-Trump, with a particular focus on economic issues, tax policy and foreign policy considerations. By contrast, “the populist right” appear to be skeptical about the economic system, hold deep concerns about immigration, and remain loyal to Donald Trump. The third group, the “ambivalent right” tend to be younger voters who differ with more conservative views on gender and race while adopting other core tenets of Republicanism. An abiding consideration for Jewish Republicans most certainly remains the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Indeed, among Jewish Republicans, Never-Trump Republicans appear to have abandoned the party, while some who broke with the former President around January 6, 2021, have returned to the ranks of the GOP. Republican Jewish voting strength varies, with strongholds as Florida and parts of the Mid-West leading the way. Nor should one dismiss the number of viable Jewish Republican candidates present across the nation.

Orthodoxy and American Jewish Nationalism:

As we know, and now what is confirmed by a 2021 Pew Study on Jewish political views:[22] 

Orthodox Jews stand out as a small subgroup (roughly one-in-ten Jewish adults) whose political profile is virtually the reverse of Jews as a whole: 60% of Orthodox Jews describe their political views as conservative, 75% identify as Republicans or lean toward the GOP, and 81% approved of Trump’s job performance.

When examining the American Jewish Orthodoxy more fully, we uncover the following distinctive trend lines:[23]

Among Orthodox Jewish Trump voters, Israel, Iran and terrorism were among the top concerns cited in a survey by Nishma Research, a Connecticut-based polling firm. Among Orthodox Jewish Biden voters, the coronavirus pandemic, ‘bringing the country together’ and health care were the top three issues.

‘Overall, it seems pretty clear that Orthodoxy has shifted toward Trump,’ said Mark Trencher, president of Nishma and the lead researcher of this new study, noting that among those who voted Republican or Democrat, ‘there were huge differences.’

We note that Trump’s American nationalism aligned with Jewish identity politics. Just as the 45th President re-framed American patriotism to represent his political message, many of his Jewish supporters, especially within the Orthodox community, brought with them their deep Zionist/Israel connections as a parallel value. The blending of their own Jewish ethnic orientation and their self-interest politics with Trump’s nationalism would produce this political alliance. The alignment of Americanism with Zionism created a shared agenda for this sector of Jewish voters.

Correspondingly, we can identify a vibrancy of political activism within Orthodox Jewish circles. We can identify several rabbinic groups including the Coalition for Jewish Values, who have emerged to represent conservative political perspectives. The OU Advocacy Center has provided a platform for the Orthodox community to articulate its messages and project its interests. Betty Ehrenberg in 2004 laid out in Tradition (2004) the halachic and communal basis of the Orthodoxy’s political activism.[24]

The Political Funding Wars: PAC’s and More

Indeed, as politics has become even more divisive, competitive, the political funding space offers one example of the changing dimensions of Jewish politics. While there are today a large number of Jewish PAC’s, some established with very defined objectives whether specifically focused on Israel (J Street PAC and the more recently established United Democracy Project of AIPAC) or single-issue domestic causes, others were created to advance partisan candidates (NJDC and RJC).[25] Some of these PAC’s have significant financial resources. Jewish PAC giving continues to increase with some $8,700,000 directed to candidates in 2020.[26] It is likely that we will see a significant increase in PAC giving in 2022 and beyond, especially with the presence of AIPAC as a key funder.[27] No doubt, this dimension of Jewish political giving deserves a more robust analysis as PAC monies are not only impacting political races but escalating tensions amongst funders.[28]

End Notes:

In this unsettling moment, politics represents one of the key measures reflective on how Americans in general and Jews in particular are responding.

The growing partisan divisions and a changing voter culture are specific expressions of how Jews are manifesting their political angst. In some areas we observe a robustness of energy and innovation, clearly present within conservative and Orthodox political institutions. Correspondingly, one finds sectors of the liberal Jewish world deeply energized, among the motivating factors include such accelerants as Roe v. Wade, gun control, race and gender considerations and international affairs but most certainly the forth coming 2022 midterm elections. 

The fight against antisemitism and the propaganda war against Israel have generated whole new institutional players and added to Jewish voter anxieties, just as it has evoked internal fights over strategies as to how best to manage these issues. A new emphasis on political funding adds yet another layer to where we can identify heightened engagement. As we have come to recognize, politics represents a bellwether of the broader social and cultural environment in which we find ourselves in 2022.

Steven Windmueller is an emeritus professor of Jewish communal studies and currently is the interim director of Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, HUC-JIR, Jack H. Skirball Campus, Los Angeles. His writing can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com


[1] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/american-jewish-political-giving-a-primer/

[2] https://iop.harvard.edu/youth-poll/spring-2022-harvard-youth-poll

[3] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/how-will-gen-z-vote

[4] https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/opinion/348595/rethinking-the-jewish-communal-enterprise/

[5] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/jewish-practices-and-customs/

[6] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/

[7] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2013/10/01/chapter-2-intermarriage-and-other-demographics/

[8] https://www.google.com/search?q=d.+Younger+Jews+are+being+impacted+by+changing+economic+and+cultural+factors,+work+patterns,+and+geo-political+elements.&rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS892US892&oq=d.%2509Younger+Jews+are+being+impacted+by+changing+economic+and+cultural+factors,+work+patterns,+and+geo-political+elements.&aqs=chrome..69i57.2718j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

[9] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-essentials-taking-another-look-at-the-american-jewish-voter/

[10] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-essentials-taking-another-look-at-the-american-jewish-voter/

[11] https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/17/politics/cnn-poll-us-politics-burnout/index.html

[12] https://www.prri.org/research/2020-census-of-american-religion/ 

[13] https://www.prri.org/research/2020-census-of-american-religion/

[14] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-essentials-taking-another-look-at-the-american-jewish-voter/

[15] https://www.jewishdatabank.org/databank/search-results/study/1076

[16] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/u-s-jews-political-views/

[17] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/u-s-jews-political-views/

[18] Among these new organizations, https://theheartofisrael.org/, https://jilv.org/, https://nyja.org/

[19] Email exchange, May 29, 2022

[20] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/unpacking-political-liberalism-the-jewish-engagement-with-the-democratic-party/

[21] https://www.state.gov/briefings-foreign-press-centers/understanding-the-american-voter-in-2022

[22] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/u-s-jews-political-views/

[23] https://religionnews.com/2021/02/19/the-political-chasm-between-left-and-right-is-tearing-orthodox-jews-apart/

[24] https://search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?hspart=blender&hsimp=yhs-002&p=orthodox+political+activism%27&type=2608149564

[25] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/pro-israel-pacs-campaign-contributions

[26] Ibid.

[27] https://theintercept.com/2022/05/16/pennsylvania-summer-lee-steve-irwin-israel-aipac/

[28] https://www.jpost.com/international/article-70491