Reflections on the 2020 Election: Takeaways, Questions, and Uncertainties
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
What does a Joe Biden victory mean for Jewish America? This past Shabbat brought with it the news that the major media outlets had confirmed the election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as this nation’s 46th President.
For many American Jews this would represent a transformative moment, a type of political liberation seemed at hand. Across social media over the hours following this announcement, such phrases as the “lifting of an emotional heaviness” would be employed to describe the mood in this moment. Others defined this day as “awesome,” just as some acknowledged this historical setting with the breaking of the “glass ceiling” when referencing Senator Kamela Harris, as the first woman, Asian and African American elected as “Vice President.”
Yet, for others, this Shabbos news was more disconcerting, even unsettling. Some defiantly defined this action as premature, even a distortion of the truth. For these Jewish voices, the battle ahead will be to limit the Biden Presidency, which they label as promoting a “radical leftist agenda.”
As Jews increasingly reflect the American story, this Jewish political separation and these alternative scenarios would define the partisan character of the nation, even as it might characterize the 2020 election. We remain a divided constituency.
The post-election outcomes seem to emerge in distinctive moments, as the vote count process unfolds, trying to make sense of an election turnout involving approximately 150 million citizens. In this article we will explore some of these defining new realities, based on the data currently available, as more questions than answers clearly remain before us.
Biden Claims the Leadership Mantel: No doubt, a different type of political culture and social tone will be present with a Biden-Harris Administration. Our 46th President will face a massive set of institutional, policy and structural challenges. Yet, will the President-elect be able to frame a bipartisan agenda, and can he maintain some degree of control over his own party, especially its progressive wing?
Trumpism Lives: Even as Donald Trump may fade from the political stage, his imprint is very much affixed to the millions of Americans, Jews amongst them, who were drawn to his voice and message. His base, many rural and white, are committed to his message as 93% of registered Republicans turned out for him. His sustaining influence may possibly be enough to return him in four years as a presidential candidate.
Based on exit polling data, “Law and Order” worked for the President, as Republican voters ranked “Crime” as a high indicator of their support for this President, just as they embraced his economic agenda. By contrast, Democratic voters saw the “pandemic” and its handling as the critical measure in this campaign, while viewing racial justice as a key priority as well.1 We need to remind ourselves that more than 70 million voters embraced his message, a profoundly significant statement. No Republican candidate, since Richard Nixon, would also draw the levels of support from minority voters as did the 2020 Trump campaign. Beyond his personal fate, the Republican Party successfully contained the “Blue Wave.”
The Polling Wars: With the election now behind us, many are asking, so how could the polling industry yet again misread the American political mindset. Pollsters overestimated the Democratic “Blue Wave.” Were Americans unwilling to share their true sentiments? Is this misreading of the American voter connected in part to a loss of trust in government and the political process by our citizens?
If in the past only Trump folks identified polling data and other information as “fake” news, then today, many others may be describing the pollsters and the political analysts as suspect! The impact here is potentially damaging as more Americans question “what can we believe?” especially after experiencing a similar misread in 2016. Here, one may need to ask, what is the possible long-term impact of these statistical limitations to accurately read voter preferences?
Inside the Jewish world there has already emerged a post-election political war, as the exit polling data reflects a wide discrepancy over how American Jews performed in the 2020 election. We should note that a number of pre-election studies generally confirmed the same numbers, namely that Joe Biden would receive 75% of this community’s vote, while the President was likely to garner 22%.2
Yet, following this contest we have a set of political exit polls. From J Street’s political account to the RJC (Republican Jewish Coalition), one can see the shades of these differing assessments.
Here, then, are some of the results:
In their exit poll, J Street reported that Joe Biden secured 77% of the Jewish vote to Donald Trump’s 21%.3
Of the 600 Jewish voters polled, the RJC found that 30.5% cast their ballots for the Republican president, compared to 60.6% who supported Joe Biden.
An AP exit poll provided these findings: VoteCast showed that Trump won 30% of the Jewish vote, compared to 69% for Biden. Similarly, a Florida-based poll showed that the former Vice President won 58% of the Jewish vote, compared to 41% who voted for President Trump.4
Jewish Political Behavior in 2020
“Gilded” Jewish Voters:
In October of 2019 on these pages, I posited that there may also be some movement of Jewish voters away from their traditional Democratic base, here was my take at the time:5
As a result of the current economic boom, a group of political scientists are positing that some voters, including a segment of Jews, who might normally embrace Democratic candidates are currently “leaning Republican.” Known as “closet voters ” these individuals are experiencing the benefits of this economy and remain nervous about any political change at this point that might curtail the economic benefits accrued to them and their friends under the Trump Presidency. Regardless of their personal views concerning this President or any disagreements that they may have with some of his actions, these voters are expressing confidence in the state of this nation’s economic wellbeing. These “Gilded Jews” are enjoying the benefits of this economic expansion.
I noted at the time that this voter transition was not specifically tied to the President’s pro-Israel agenda, reflecting far more on his economic policies, his commitment to American nationalism, and his attention to the preservation of law and order.
Jews and the 2020 Campaign
House Races: Some 29 Jewish House members were seated in the 116th Congress. At this point, despite the presence of some 47 candidates on the November ballot, it would appear that one or more Jewish House members may have lost their seats. With reference to the 117th Congress, new Jewish House members will include Sara Jacobs (D) California, Kathy Manning (D) North Carolina, and Jake Auchincloss (D) Massachusetts.
Senate Races: None of the four Jewish senatorial candidates (Alaska, Wyoming, Georgia(2)) were successful. However, Georgia’s Jon Ossoff (D) is headed for a January run-off election against the Republican incumbent, Senator David Perdue.
Jewish Campaign Funding: As I have documented elsewhere Jews have and continue to play a significant role as key funders in critical election campaigns. More directly, Jews were among the most significant donors to both presidential candidates and to key Senate and House races across the nation. The press continues to report on the high profile and impact of Jewish political giving.6 Five senatorial campaigns, where Democrats were seeking to unseat Republican incumbents received significant funding, including the broad involvement of Jewish donors. Some analysts believe that voters rallied to support the incumbent, as an expression of their anger and resentment concerning the presence of outside financial influence.
The State of the Republican Party: Prior to this election, analysts forecasted that the GOP would be the party requiring an internal reorganization, suggesting that its short-term political fortunes would be seriously comprised in a post-Trump era. This projection appears to have been a serious miscalculation. Rather than experiencing a “Blue Wave,” we would see a “Red Cushion” that sustained and advanced Republican interests in this election, beyond the presidency.
In fact, Republicans doubled the number of GOP women elected to Congress while also picking up additional House seats (8 at this point). They also appeared to have pushed back, the “Blue Wave” in connection with the Senate, and in the process maintained key State Houses and Governorships. Heading into the 2020 elections, Republicans held majorities in 59 state legislative chambers while Democrats controlled 39 legislative bodies. This November, the Republicans won control over both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature.7
Along the way key Republican states were successful in passing various ballot measures dealing with abortion, promoting “voter accuracy” standards, and expanding religious rights provisions.
The political results we are monitoring remind us that the Trump imprint was clearly evident in this campaign, as we identified at least two new personalities who embodied the residual nationalism that has come to define this presidency. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R) (Georgia) campaigned promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory. The youngest Republican elected to the House, David Madison Cawthorn (25) in 2017 posted an Instagram picture of his visit to Adolf Hitler’s vacation residence Eagle’s Nest, which he said had been on his “bucket list.” In that post, Cawthorn called Hitler, Fuhrer.
The Democratic Party in the Aftermath of this Election: Biden inherits a party that indeed is celebrating his victory but must now contend with its failure to hold the broad majority it had achieved in House races just two years earlier and may fall short to achieve control over the Senate in the forthcoming term. Outside of Kamala Harris’ presence, this party’s public face reflects an old political leadership image. Will House and Senate Democrats decide to anoint a new generation of Congressional leaders?
How the party analyzes its 2020 performance, will be a critical test for both re-defining what messages it seeks to transmit and what types of candidates it will field moving forward. In many ways this election was less about the success of the Democratic Party and more about an effort to unseat a sitting president!
Israel and Beyond: It is important to note that Israel was not a defining issue in the 2020 campaign for most American Jews. Where Trump’s Jewish supporters rallied around his pro-Israel policies and contributions, Democratic Jewish voters were clearly more focused on domestic issues in 2020, than foreign policy considerations. Various studies confirm this finding.8
Pollster Jim Gerstein provided some context to this matter, when he noted:9
“You can see that 6% in Florida, and 4% in Pennsylvania cite Israel as one of their top two issues determining their vote, at the bottom of the list. This is not to say Jews don’t care about Israel, they do …In other surveys that we’ve asked, there’s a strong emotional attachment to Israel. But when it comes to voting, it is not at the center of what they’re voting on.”
The Biden Presidency and the Jewish State: No doubt, the new administration will project its own foreign policy agenda in connection with Israel. Among the considerations here will be the return to a two-state solution, re-engaging with the Iran Nuclear Accord Agreement, and challenging the Netanyahu government around settlements. Regardless, with the broad agenda facing this administration, Israel is likely to play a minimalist role over the years ahead.
Personal Ties and Beyond: Beyond his family’s personal Jewish ties, over his nearly 40-year career in government, the President-elect has developed a broad and significant set of friendships, institutional associations, and cultural linkages with the Jewish community. In addition to her marriage to Doug Emhoff and her links with his family, Senator Harris has established extensive ties to Bay Area Jewish leaders over the course of her political career.
The Five Unknowns: Moving Forward
- How will Donald Trump govern over the next ten weeks?
- What role will the Supreme Court play in the American political story moving forward? How will a Biden Administration deal with the conservative-bent of the existing Court?
- What roles will the Democratic progressives play in the composition and policy priorities in a Biden Presidency?
- How will the incoming President manage his relationships with Republican leadership? Will we be in a holding action until the 2024 election, or can we frame a consensus agenda?
- How will this new administration engage with Israel? Where are we likely to see areas of shared agreement and potential flash point disagreements?
A Shared Agenda: Beyond Israel, Jewish Democrats will be looking to this new administration to address a broad set of issues, including those identified here:
- Manage the pandemic
- Rebuild the economy
- Re-engage the nation in a global response to climate change
- Focus on racial and criminal justice issues
- Protect and advance the religious and civil rights of citizens
- Revisit US immigration policies and practices
- Strengthen our foreign/diplomatic services
- Give support to our civil service personnel
- Repair our diplomatic and military partnerships with allies
- Engage appropriately with China, Iran, North Korea and Russia
- Restore pride and prestige to the Office of the President
Each of these issues Jewish Americans share with the general populace as part of their expectations for this new administration. Yet, Jews appear to be specifically concerned about the rise and presence of anti-Semitism driven by right wing movements. Every recent study of Jewish sentiments points to an increased expressed anxiety about the politics of hate, the presence of overt anti-Semitic messages and actions, and the rise of racial and ethnic tension. Correspondingly, there has been a growing concern about the presence of anti-Israel sentiments, identified both inside the Democratic Party and beyond.
Writing in the Atlantic, Gary Rosenblatt concludes:10
Jews are contending with a growing effort on university campuses to demonize Israel as a racist, illegitimate state, and thus define Jewish students who support Israel as untouchable. As a result, such students are frequently excluded from liberal groups that support causes such as Black Lives Matter, gay rights, and combatting climate change. To distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and racism, … Natan Sharansky applies ‘the three D’s’: delegitimization, demonization, and subjecting Israel to a double standard.
This new normal of hate comprised of a vocal and hostile anti-Semitic assault by the right and correspondingly, by a growing anti-Israelism of the far left, may represent the defining self-interest issues for the American Jewish community as it encounters the Biden White House.
Beyond this epidemic of hate expression, many American Jews worry about their political future inside the Democratic Party. Just as they have observed what transpired with the British Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, mainstream Jewish Democrats remain uncertain and troubled about the progressive wing of the party with its specific anti-Israel rhetoric and its growing threats to single out Israel, for both what the Jewish State represents and how it has performed. Even beyond Democratic Party politics, the broader assault on mainstream liberalism and its adherents is creating a type of political isolation. Intersectionality, cancel culture and other such trendy political notions seek to redirect and minimize political discourse and alter historic realities. As Jews comprise a significant voice within the liberal political establishment, how these messages are received moving forward, may be the emerging Jewish political story.
As this election story continues to unfold, the narrative will inevitably need to be updated and reframed. We come away from this election affirming that the value of our democratic institutions and the need to remain vigilant in preserving and strengthening them are core to our shared political identities. We are likewise reminded of the deep commitment of Jews to the American political story. Regardless of our individual political affiliations, we hold an abiding love for this nation and are joined to its future.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com