Taking Another Look at the American Jewish Voter
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
Jews Vote! But there are many other critical ingredients that define the American Jewish electorate that maybe as important.
We are One, But we are Many: American Jewish voters are overall more liberal than other white groups, yet we represent a very diverse voting constituency. From Libertarians to Independents, from Conservatives to Progressives, as with other voters, Jews today cover the political roadmap of political thinking and behavior. Jewish liberalism, as an example, should be seen as a moveable feast of choices and ideas, based on specific elections and particular emerging concerns. Within the past few days, as an example, we have garnered additional data on Orthodox Jewish voting patterns.
Parallel to the political wars within the general culture, there is a deep values divide within the Jewish community, encompassing fundamentally different expectations about the role of government and the more defining questions associated with the American character, what type of nation do we envision? Within our community, an array of domestic and foreign policy (including Israel) items contribute to these intra-Jewish tensions.
Old and Getting Older: Jewish voters are older than any other religious or ethnic constituency. Even though Jews vote in much higher numbers than other constituencies in this nation, the percentage of Jews voting in comparison to other groups continues to decrease. Today, our community comprises 1.8% of this nation’s population. In the United States, 20.6 percent of the population is 65 or older, yet among Jews, 26 percent are part of this cohort. And while 45.8 percent of all Americans are aged 18 to 44, among Jews the figure is 41 percent. Within that group, only 10.5 percent of Jews are 18 to 24. The demographics suggest that Jewish voting influence will continue to diminish.
Reshaping the Jewish Political Voice: Among the more than 10 percent of American Jews who are not white, 2 percent are black, 5 percent are Hispanic and 4 percent are another ethnicity. In a more recent LA County Survey of Jewish Voters, some 13% described themselves as “other than white.” The impact of intermarriage on Jewish voting patterns represents another striking feature in measuring Jewish voting performance. The changing composition of American Jewry will impact its political performance and practice!
Give and Get: As I have previously written, the Jewish political story is increasingly about the high profile roles Jews are playing as “funders” of candidates and causes. As a result “the Jewish vote” is far less important today than Jewish giving! Jews donors remain significant players in national as well as local elections, supporting candidates on both sides of the aisle! Responding to the heightened levels of political engagement, Jewish organizations and political campaigns have created various funding pathways for their supporters to assist candidates, thereby creating additional opportunities to use campaign dollars to re-enforce particular policy priorities.
We are not all the Same: Jewish voters living in “purple states” have become high profile targets for both political parties. In close elections, “the Jewish vote” in these battleground states and in highly contested Congressional Districts become particularly important. Jewish population centers in such states as Florida and Ohio have drawn high profile attention.
“Intensity” is another significant marker in understanding the level of emotional engagement that a voter may have in connection with supporting a candidate or in participating in an election. Based on polling data, there has been a spike this year among both pro and anti-Trump voters in wanting to express their political support or opposition. This heightened level of activism is likely to produce a larger voter turnout, even within the Jewish community that generally records significantly high numbers!
Carry a Big Stick: Politics appears to be part of our American Jewish DNA. Many reasons have been put forth to explain why Jews are so politically active. Jewish political engagement, however, must not be seen as a recent phenomenon. From the outset of this republic, Jews have been a part of the American political story. Jewish involvement transcends our numbers; as candidates, commentators, and consumers, Jews are deeply embedded within the political culture.
Israel or Bust: Yes, Israel remains an important consideration for Jewish voters, but it represents but one of many competing elements in understanding Jewish political behavior! While some are seen as “one-issue” voters, most American Jews report having a broad array of domestic interests and foreign policy concerns. Every study confirms the range of policy concerns that help to define the Jewish voting public.
Health care, immigration, education, gun safety measures and economic justice concerns join other policy matters for Jewish voters. Personal rights questions, best framed around marriage equality and a woman’s right of choice, represent other considerations for this voter sector. Many Jews see the composition of the Supreme Court as particularly reflective of the society’s long-term social priorities and cultural values. As a result, voting for a president is by extension a statement on the part of voters concerning a broader national vision, as represented by the actions of the federal courts.
On Both Sides: There is particular strategic value for a minority community to be seen as a significant presence within both political parties. Such access lends influence in connection with shaping party platforms, determining policies, speaking to critical votes, and most importantly in endorsing candidates.
Political Bosses! Unlike the old school of Tammany Hall political machines, the contemporary Jewish community is a wash in competing political organizations, fund-raising mechanisms, and policy groups that embrace specific political causes, candidates and campaigns. Similarly, this is a community with many political news sources willing to provide information of specific interest to Jewish voters. Over the past several years there has been a sharp rise in the number of on-line policy voices available to Jewish constituencies.
On the Street: Jews report that they are “very engaged” with politics, discussing political issues with family and friends (96%), attending political functions and rallies (44%), making contributions (62%), and sending letters and signing petitions (77%). Indeed, “politics” can be found everywhere within the Jewish community! Political discussions and disagreements have radically reshaped communal discourse and even dinner table conversations!
These factors, among others, describe Jewish voter participation. As the 2020 campaign moves forward, other dimensions in connection with Jewish political behavior will be introduced on these pages.
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. His writings can be found on his website: www.windreport.com.