New Insights on Jewish Political Behavior: What Can We Take Away from the November 2010 Elections?

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Just as each election has its own outcomes and political message, each campaign builds upon the next.

Mid-term elections create their own countervailing forces against the party in power, and more specifically, the disconnect among certain voters with Barack Obama within all demographic categories appears to have had an impact among Jewish voters, at least in certain congressional and senatorial elections across the country. Prior to the November contests, there was some initial evidence from several polls showing a decline in Jewish support for the President. In a more general sampling of voter attitudes, the Pew Research Center found in a recent poll that “60% of self-described Jews identified as Democratic or leaning towards the party, compared to 33% with those feelings towards Republicans.”

A number of elements seem to dominate the 2010 mid-term elections involving the Jewish vote and with reference to Jewish political priorities. While the 112th Congress will be seating 12 Jewish senators, one less than the current numbers, the emergence of Virginia Republican Representative Eric Cantor, as the new Majority Leader in the House would seem to take precedence. This marks the first time that a Jewish member of either party or from either chamber has held such a prominent position within the Congress. While there will be more than 30 Jewish House members in the new Congress, the GOP momentum was responsible for the defeat of five Jewish Democrats.

The emergence of Republican Jewish victories elsewhere would also seem impressive, as there were a number of candidates who won statewide positions including Jay Dardenne, Louisiana Lt. Governor; Tom Horne, Arizona State Attorney General; Sam Olens, Georgia State Attorney General; and Josh Mandel, Ohio State Treasurer.

The momentum and energy exhibited by the RJC (Republican Jewish Coalition) in seeking to build the case for Jewish support for the Republican agenda should be understood in the context of two core factors. In eight states, the RJC mounted an elaborate multi-million dollar “Issue Advocacy Effort”. In their press statement announcing this initiative, the RJC noted: “American Jews have the privilege and obligation to be active participants in our democratic process, and they should be knowledgeable participants as well.”

A series of sub-terrain battles accompanied last week’s elections. The RJC took on J Street supported candidates in some eleven races (three Senatorial races and eight House contests), the two most prominent involved the Pennsylvania campaign for Senate, involving Republican Pat Toomey’s victory over Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak and the Congressional race in the 9th district of Illinois, featuring Democratic incumbent Jan Schakowsky who defeated Republican challenger, Joel Pollak. These election contests resulted in polling activities undertaken by both groups to justify and confirm their investment of resources in these campaigns.

Where then from Here?

Does the higher than normal Jewish vote for Republican candidates foretell any type of more defining shift or pattern in preparation for the 2012 presidential campaign. Obviously, we don’t know. But what is known is that the President will need to re-establish his case with not only Jewish voters but with the general electorate.

Over time we have tracked Jewish voting patterns to be significantly different in state and local elections than in relationship to federal campaigns. By contrast, Jews vote their ideological passions in national political campaigns. Some commentators have suggested that the different voting behaviors are shaped by the fact that Jews tend to vote their pocketbook interests in local and state contests. In selective polling, Republicans appeared to get just over 30% of the Jewish vote, although some of the RJC’s polling data has been called into question. It should be noted that Republican Jewish support in these off-year campaigns generally average around 24%.

As a result of these elections, more statehouses have shifted into the Republican camp. This will have significant implications for certain Jewish elected officials, as reapportionment in some states may result in the potential loss of some safe Democratic seats. In more heavily Jewish populated states, including Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and possibly Ohio and New York, reapportionment may result in the loss of one or more House seats. In turn, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington are each likely to gain seats. Florida and Texas are projected to gain between two and four seats, respectively. Outside of Florida, none of these states are home to significantly large Jewish populations.

The Jewish vote continues to diminish in relationship to the overall voter base. Many political observers believe that the Jewish vote is declining in terms of both its numerical strength as well as being identified as a cohesive voter block. Does this suggest a loss of Jewish influence? The presence of Jewish activists within both parties and the availability of Jewish PAC monies and individual donor support would argue well for a sustained level of Jewish influence. Likewise, there is evidence of a growing number of Republican and Democratic Jewish candidates seeking local, state and national offices from areas that do not possess high density Jewish populations. The lesson, as borne out in this cycle, would seem to include the following: you don’t need Jewish voters to elect Jews or allies of our community’s public affairs agenda to win key elections!

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.