by Mik Moore
Every four years, American Jews join their fellow citizens in watching a competition full of pageantry, pomp, and politics. Then, two months after the final medal is awarded at the Summer Olympics, we choose our president.
While election outcomes can be difficult to predict, the Jewish vote is remarkably stable. Each presidential candidate begins with a solid base of support. Twenty percent of Jews line up with the Republican candidate, 60 percent with the Democratic candidate. About 20 percent are uncommitted to a particular party.
When the two parties compete for Jewish support, they aren’t only targeting the 20 percent of Jewish swing voters. At only about 2 percent of the population, Jews do not make a significant difference at the ballot box. But our impact is critical: We write checks, volunteer, and editorialize. We find dozens of ways to influence voters whose ballots do determine the elections.
In 2012, what will determine whom Jews support and the intensity of that support?
Three factors will help answer this question: the Republican ticket (a Sarah Palinesque candidate may move Jews to support President Obama); externalities (a security breach in the United States or a major event in Israel could shift the dynamic); and the issues. Here, I’ll focus solely on the issues, even though the Republican presidential and vice presidential candidates may have more of an impact than anything else.
In presidential elections there is less deviation from conventional party positions, so issues often matter less than one might expect. For example, most people know that Republicans support Israel, low tax rates, less regulation of business, smaller government, and fewer social services while opposing expanded rights for disadvantaged communities, reproductive choice for women, and support for international institutions like the United Nations. Democrats support Israel, progressive tax rates, robust social programs, public investment in infrastructure, minority rights, international aid and diplomacy, environmental protections, and a woman’s right to reproductive choice.
Voters who have strong feelings on these issues are probably already solidly aligned with a political party. Strong bipartisan support for Israel takes the issue off the table for most Jews. Republicans will do their best to paint Obama as Israel’s worst enemy, but if past is prologue, this will do little to move Jewish votes.
This year, the key policy fights will be about the economy and job creation. Republicans will try to convince voters that Obama’s policies have killed jobs and wrecked the economy and that their low-tax, business-friendly approach is what is needed to put Americans back to work. The Democrats will argue that Obama saved the country from a second Great Depression, that things are getting better despite efforts to block the president’s job-creation agenda, and that if a Republican is elected, Americans will be stuck with the very policies that got the nation into this economic crisis in the first place. Whichever side wins this debate wins the election.
For Jewish voters, programs for seniors will get special attention. The current Jewish community is older than other communities, and the Jewish seniors in South Florida always have disproportionate influence in an election year. If the Republican candidate supports (or is successfully portrayed as supporting) a plan to reduce benefits or privatize Social Security and Medicare, it could have an impact on how seniors vote. Democratic support for similar changes to these programs could undermine one of the party’s few advantages with seniors.
The prospect of future Supreme Court nominees, government dysfunction, and the populist movements will all play some role in influencing Jewish voters. With several justices considered to be near retirement, including at least one liberal justice, the balance of power in the Supreme Court for a generation could well be determined by the next president. This will be used by both sides to motivate their bases. In the Jewish community, the prospect of an unstoppable conservative majority on the court may motivate Jews to support or increase their involvement in the Obama campaign.
Congress has an approval rating of 9 percent. Obama’s approval rating at this moment is in the low 40th percentile. These numbers reflect voter disgust with the level of dysfunction in the federal government. In general, this benefits Republicans, who have been telling voters for decades that government is useless while doing everything they can to make their assessment a reality. This year some voters – including some Jews – could be motivated to vote out any and all incumbents, including the president. Anti-incumbency might hurt Republicans in the House, but overall there are many more competitive Democratic seats in play in the Senate.
Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements are not mirror images, but they both are grassroots efforts that reflect popular anger at the status quo. In 2010, the Tea Party brought its energy to bear on the midterm elections and had a huge impact, electing dozens of candidates in the Congress while losing several winnable races in the Senate. Republicans have been uncertain how to handle the Tea Party’s energy. Democrats may face a similar challenge in 2012, with the Occupy movement representing a kind of mixed blessing even if its core stays out of the electoral arena.
When the media covers the Jewish vote, it will likely focus on the candidates’ support for Israel. After all, why should this year be any different? But the fight for Jewish swing voters, volunteers, and donations will almost certainly be won or lost elsewhere.
Mik Moore has worked at the intersection of politics, communications, and the Jewish community for the past 15 years, most recently as the chief strategy officer at Jewish Funds for Justice. In 2008, as co-executive director of the Jewish Council for Education and Research, he helped develop The Great Schlep and other efforts to mobilize Jewish support for Barack Obama. Moore has recently launched a consulting firm, which can be found online at mikmoore.com.
This article is reprinted with permission from the journal Sh’ma, January 2012, as part of a larger conversation on the Jewish electorate.