Preparing for 2020:
On the Politics and Political Lives of American Jewry
By Steven Windmueller
As this nation prepares for the 2020 Presidential election, what roles will America’s Jews play in next year’s campaign? A new Gallup Poll indicates that 71% of America’s Jews oppose the President, while 26% support President Trump.
Following the President’s appearance this past weekend at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting, a renewed debate has evolved over the role that Jews will play in the forthcoming campaign. In this article, we will be reframing the issues that are likely to be important for Jewish Americans in connection with the 2020 elections!
Background on Jewish Political Engagement:
Over the course of the past 240 years of this nation’s history, Jews have been committed to and involved with the political process as voters, commentators, candidates, and funders. The depth of their political participation reflects in no small measure their abiding sense that their religious culture and ethnic heritage serve as political roadmaps, in part inspiring them to be participants and actors in the American story. This accounts for the fact that Jews are the most politically engaged religious and ethnic community in this nation, as 85% of eligible Jewish voters have traditionally participated! Just as the founders of this Republic embraced the idea of America as the “New Zion,” such a concept would become part of the American Jewish political mindset.
Jews are present in all of the varied expressions of American politics, in part reflecting their integration and acceptance into this nation’s culture. As part of American Jewish political behavior, two core values are constantly in play with one another: a nationalist perspective, i.e. Jewish self-interests, is seen in tension with the universal Jewish imperative of promoting the broader social good. Over recent years, these competing ideas have divided Jewish Americans. Some critics have suggested that “Jewish political liberalism” is merely an extension of liberal Judaism. Alternatively, opponents of Jewish conservative thought have contended that such ideas are only self-serving, while others critique that identity politics provides a far too narrow perspective at a time when the society requires a broader engagement with issues that will define the future of this nation.
In the material introduced below we are examining a number of the key elements that will shape Jewish political behavior over the coming 18 months. While most of this data is new, several critical pieces to the 2020 story have been reintroduced from prior articles.
Preparing for 2020: Some General Observations
The 2020 campaign will most likely prove to be the most contentious in modern times, as both political camps will seek to maximize their positions with Jewish voters. Labeling and name-calling will likely be the framework of the 2020 campaign design. Already we are seeing this type of rhetoric being introduced into the political discourse.
This campaign will be waged in 7 states, as the “blue” and “red” state balance are generally set across the remainder of the country. These contest states include Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. As always, Ohio and Florida will be in the political mix. Don’t be surprised if Texas does not become a “battleground” state in 2020! Unlike Congressional races or Senate contests, we are reminded that this national contest is all about the “Electoral College”! As in the past swing state Jewish voters will be targeted for their support as both parties seek to win these key states. As the election unfolds, some of these calculations are likely to alter.
Beyond the Presidency, both political parties will be seeking to increase their base of influence on the state level. The 2020 US population census is of key importance to both parties in connection with such issues as reapportionment, redistricting, and government resource allocations.
The Jewish Stake in 2020:
Winning the Jewish Vote:
No doubt, the “Jewish vote” will again be a centerpiece for both campaigns. Republicans will continue to press their message that their party ought to be the new home for America’s Jews, in light of its strong pro-Israel record. They will also be marketing the case that the Democratic Party is no longer “good for the Jews” in light of the anti-Israel/anti-Semitic sentiments of some progressives within the leadership ranks of the party.
Democrats will be building their case for Jewish support, as they seek to unseat the 45th President, reasserting the party’s long history of engagement with Israel and their proactive agenda around social policy concerns that have historically inspired and engaged Jews.
Efforts are underway now to “win” the Jewish vote. Several examples support this premise. Jexodus was recently created to win over millennial voters to the Republican Party. The recently established Jewish Democratic Council of America is seeking to build the case for Jews to support the Democratic Party.
The Changing Political Roles of American Jews:
As we noted in 2016, American Jews played a significant role in funding candidates in both political parties, as Jewish supporters accounted for significant financial prowess. This pattern will clearly continue as Jewish financial clout is rapidly replacing our community’s traditional voter participation. The combination of Jewish Pac monies and individual political contributions has radically shifted Jewish political clout.
Who’s voting, and how they are voting?
What we noted in 2016 was a drop off in Jewish voter participation. As was reported, in the case of some Bernie supporters, unhappy over his being denied the nomination, these Jewish millennial voters did not participate in the general election. On the Republican side, there was evidence that some traditional GOP Jewish voters, unwilling to support Donald Trump, stepped away from voting at all or ended up endorsing the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. The general assessment is that the 2020 campaign will accelerate voter involvement, for some it will be about defeating the incumbent president, while for others this election is about providing support for President Trump.
31% of Jewish voters now identify as politically “independent.” According to Gallup, only 16% define themselves as Republicans, while 52% indicate that they are “Democrats,” down from 55% in 2008.
Jewish Political Candidates:
In light of the heightened levels of Jewish activism over the past several years, it is quite likely that we will see a significant number of Jewish candidates running for federal, state and local offices. In the 2018 mid-term elections, there were some 18 new Jewish candidates running for Congressional seats, with 8 winning their respective races. In addition, two new Jewish Governors won their respective races in Illinois and Colorado, while Nevada’s Jackie Rosen would win in her bid for the Senate.
Focusing on Jewish Audiences:
Both political parties will be paying special attention to Jewish audiences. It is therefore likely that the respective campaigns will devote considerable time to positioning their candidates and their representatives in front of Jewish groups over the next year and a half. Why is this the case? Jews vote, and they are active financial supporters of their respective political party and its candidates!
In light of the recent rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents of hate, it is likely that during the forthcoming campaign we will see other expressions of these sentiments. Some of the messaging in connection with these attacks have focused on the “dual loyalty” charge, while others have been critical of Jewish financial clout and political influence. The test here is how vocal will political leaders and party officials be in pushing back against such messages. Social media has become the new battleground turf for many of these statements.
Defining Jewish Interests:
While Israel remains a significant priority, surveys indicate that Jewish voters have a broad list of Jewish interests, ranging from medical and health care concerns to the Supreme Court and immigration policy matters. As with other American voters, Jews have an array of political priorities and interests.
Indeed, in more recent years, Israel itself has become a contentious issue for American Jews. While overwhelmingly supportive of the Jewish State, some American Jews have misgivings over Israel’s various policies and practices of the Netanyahu government.
Some Current Political Trends Among American Jewish Voters:
- Civically Alienated: Just as other minority communities report various constituencies becoming disconnected from particular political causes and candidates, one can find similar patterns of behavior among certain Jewish constituencies. As an example, among some Republican Jewish voters, one finds “Red State Dissenters” who represent Republicans disenchanted with the President. What role will we likely see Jewish Republicans playing in the 2020 campaign? While the President garnered 24% of the Jewish vote in 2016, will we see a fall off from this number or in light of the President’s policies on Israel, the economy, and national security, etc. strengthen his standing among Jewish voters?
- Broadly Engaged: While heavily connected to liberal Jewish policies, many Jewish Democrats face a new and significant political threat. Blue State “Traditionalists” involve pro-Israel Jewish Democrats who today are facing increasing challenges from the “progressive” wing of their party. Elements from that sector of the party hold negative views regarding the State of Israel and are seeking to break the Democratic Party’s political ties in support of the Jewish State. In light of the efforts on the part of some Progressives within the Party to pull support for Israel, what will be the impact on Jewish voters in 2020?
- Political Specialists: One can find “specialty” areas among Jewish voters. The rebirth of “Red Diaper Baby Jewish Voters” offers one such example. If we saw in the late 1960’s a generation of voters who reflected their grandparents’ 1930’s leftwing, socialist perspectives, then what we are likely to see in this the second decade of the 21st century the grandkids of the 1960 Vietnam generation acting out these same progressive politics. As part of American political behavior, one can find examples of repetitive voting patterns, carried forward in a different timeframe by the offspring of those who held similar views a number of decades earlier. Are we likely to see similar political voting behaviors among some Jewish Democrats in next year’s election?
- Politically Marginalized: Today, we find voters angered by the failure of the political system to deliver on key promises or betraying core social values. Feeling marginalized, these voters double down on their political objectives. Case in point has been the emergence of “Red State Jewish Nationalists,” who in the aftermath of the “build the wall” scenario share the President’s particular focus on national security. Drawing on the President’s commitment for a safe and secure Israel, these Jewish Republican voters want to demonstrate their loyalty to this administration by adopting this domestic message and mantra of the White House. Part of this political behavior symbolizes what social scientists describe as the socialization process that Jews along with other Americans have experienced. How strong will this sector be in promoting the President’s pro-Israel agenda by engaging new Jewish voters for Trump?
- Donors: This sector is heavily represented among Jewish activists, who like their counterparts are seen as financially connected to political causes and candidates. The Jewish Donor Class can be found among both Democrats and Republicans who are seen as actively engaged with funding priorities associated with their respective political positions.
New Political Challenging Facing American Jews:
(a) Whiteness as a New Political Measure:
Where once Jews were seen as “marginal” players to the American economic and political story, today we are being described as the “New WASPS” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), i.e. as important and visible power brokers within this society. For our enemies with the Alt-right this development is seen as threatening to their definition of a “white” America. As political impostors, we are being viewed as operating in a territorial space reserved for others.
(b) Intersectionality Movement and anti-Israel Politics:
On the political left Jews are now seen as “powerful” and “influential” and as a result, “frauds” in our strivings to be present and active in challenging the status quo. American Jews are seen as “too white” and “too Zionist,” therefore forfeiting our place or case among victims and oppressed peoples. As a particular outcome of this perspective, Israel is defined as an oppressor society, taking on the attributes of an imperialist society.
(c) Non–Voting Behaviors:
Significant numbers of younger Jewish voters did not cast a ballot in November 2016. According to several studies, some of Bernie Sanders’ supporters (8-10%) decided to sit out the election contest, seeking instead to express their unhappiness with the process.
The larger issue involves the general downturn in voter participation. The highest voter turnout in recent presidential elections was in 2008 (62.2 percent), followed by 60.7 percent in 2004. In the 2016 elections, 134 million Americans (58.1%) cast ballots, while 97 million who were eligible to vote did not cast ballots. The impact of this for America and its Jews is the growing sense of disenchantment and disconnection with democratic institutions and public leaders.
So, what questions ought Jews to be asking?
- Why are America’s Jews so connected to politics and the political process?
- What is the impact of American “Exceptionalism” on Jewish consciousness and behavior?
- How might we explain American Jewish liberalism and its distinctive and pervasive influence?
- Similarly, what is important about Jewish political conservatism and its impact on America and Jews?
- Is the “great divide” that exists among America’s Jews over partisan politics and Israel a positive outcome of the maturing of the Jewish community or a threat to its collective interests?
- If seeking influence and having access to political elites were seen as legitimate 20th Century Jewish goals, why do we find today among various 21st Century American and Jewish thinkers a critique of political power?
- What issues today define and shape Jewish political behavior?
- Some have suggested that American Jews are beginning to experience the end of community. What does this mean in connection with securing political influence and power? Does this signal as well the end of “the Jewish vote”?
 Some of the material in this section has been taken from previous articles published on this site, http://ejpprod.wpengine.com/the-changing-jewish-political-roadmap/
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.