The Emerging Debate about “the Jewish Vote”

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Over the past few days, in light of recent polling results, the election outcome in New York’s 9th Congressional District and a myriad of articles in such publications as New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, a national discussion has resurfaced related to the status of the Jewish vote. Are Jews likely to vote Republican in the 2012 election? One can track predictions of such a voting shift since the 1950’s. In past presidential elections, including the Carter-Reagan contest of 1980 and the Bush-Kerry race of 2004 as well as the 2008 Obama-McCain election, we were regularly introduced to this question.

Five elements ought to be considered in making any forecasts or projections about voter behavior within the Jewish community. First, Americans retain a very high degree of loyalty to their political values and party connections; the Jewish voting record seems to confirm this principle. Since 1916 Jews have inserted themselves into the ranks of the Democratic Party and without exception since 1932 have remained supportive of its national ticket.

Second, voter disenchantment should not be confused with expressions of unhappiness with particular candidates or Presidents as in the case of President Carter and now President Obama, as Jews have readily retained their ties to the Democratic Party.

Third, as we well know, these voters arrive at their decision based on an array of issues and political interests; the broader question for 2012 is what factors, beyond the current debate within the community regarding the President’s policies toward the State of Israel, will impact the Jewish vote? From past polling Jews have expressed an array of domestic and foreign policy interests that frames the basis of Jewish political behavior. It would be an error to view “the Jewish vote” as a “single-issue” constituency. More significant for such voters who are concerned with church-state issues, health policy, economic matters, among other considerations, is how effective will the President’s opponent be in convincing these voters to change their traditional political loyalties or to overcome their political fears when embracing a conservative Republican candidate? As important as the direction of the vote itself will be the pattern of Jewish financial participation within the 2012 campaign. Which Republican candidate(s) might benefit from any shift of campaign revenues? In the end, will the Democrats reclaim their base of Jewish donors?

Fourth, it is important to note a shifting set of Jewish demographic and social trends: among younger Jews one finds an increasing number of independent and Republican voters; newer American Jewish voters, especially from the former Soviet Union and Iran, who tend to identify with the Republican Party. A growing base of Republican Jewish support is represented by the active engagement of Orthodox Jews. The impact of the Tea Party ought not to be diminished as well, according to a recent Pew Foundation study; some 15% of Jews are inclined to support that movement and/or its candidates. A subgroup in this coming election that will draw a great deal of attention will be Baby Boomers, who may feel the anxieties of an uncertain economy as they plan or enter retirement, will they find reason to support a different philosophy of finance and governance? Mainstream Jewish Democrats have tended to cast their votes in national elections that reflect their liberal values; will this focus on the collective good continue in 2012, or are we likely to see a shift that resonates a specific focus on personal or self-interest concerns?

Fifth, there are different elements or groups that comprise the Jewish vote. If we are to truly understand voting behavior, we need to appreciate the various cohorts that define our community’s political base. Elsewhere I have written about these distinctive voices within Jewish life. The Jewish vote is more complex than the media often describes. A shift on the edge among specific sectors of our community could have profound implications for a national election outcome. A 20% shift of the Jewish vote could have an impact on the results in such states as Florida, Ohio or Pennsylvania.

I think it is health and essential for a community to examine its core interests and assess its political options.

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Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Additional publications of Steven Windmueller are available on thewindreport.