Trends Among Young Jewish Voters

by Aaron Strauss

In their guide “How to Mobilize Young Voters,” Rock the Vote (a nonprofit that engages and builds the political power of young people) states, “Young adults are more likely than older adults to identify as independent, a commonsense [sic] situation for a group of voters new to politics.” Young Jews, though, seem to have seen enough of politics to know where to stand: In 2008, 62 percent of Jewish voters under the age of 35 identified with the Democratic Party; 22 percent eschewed a major party label; and 16 percent identified with Republicans. This breakdown is virtually identical to the Jewish electorate as a whole: 61 percent Democratic; 22 percent independent; and 17 percent Republican.

How will the Jewish vote – especially among young people – trend in the future?

Young American Jews (under 35 years old) are pulled in two different directions – not individually, but as a group. On the one hand, demographically, there are more young Orthodox Jews, most likely because their parents have children in greater numbers. Orthodox Jews are much more likely than other Jews to identify as conservative and vote for Republicans.

On the other hand, like younger voters of all religious backgrounds, young Jews tend to be more liberal than their parents or grandparents. These two tendencies – the fact that Orthodox voters (whose proportion grows faster than non-Orthodox) lean conservative and the fact that younger voters tend to be more liberal than their parents – balance the scorecard.

By aggregating publically available data from organizations(1) that conducted independent polling during the 2008 election, it is possible – with some margin of error(2) – to quantify these trends.

Here is what we know: Among young Jewish voters, those who self-identify as Orthodox (14 percent) and attend synagogue more than weekly (10 percent) are about double the analogous proportions for the Jewish electorate as a whole. (About 7 percent of all Jewish voters are Orthodox and about 5 percent attend synagogue more than weekly.) The American Jewish Committee confirms this two-to-one ratio in their latest survey, which includes nonvoters as well as voters.

Despite this sizable number of Orthodox individuals within the newest generation of Jewish voters, younger Jews are more liberal than their parents. A majority of younger Jews (57 percent) identify as liberal. This proportion dwarfs the much lower proportions of self-identified moderates (29 percent) and conservatives (13 percent). Among Jews of all ages, the difference between the percentages that identify as liberal vs. moderate is much less stark (47 percent to 36 percent), though self-identified conservatives are still a distinct minority (18 percent).

This tension between demography and ideology evens out when it comes to voting and party affiliation. Though the lack of data does not allow for precise analysis, the increasing number of young Orthodox Jews – who are more apt to be conservative – drives the aggregate young Jewish vote to the right with approximately the same force that increased liberalism among young people drives the vote to the left. Thus, the newest cohort of Jews appears to be as firmly a base for the Democratic Party as previous generations.

During September and October of 2008, of all Jewish voters who had picked one of the two major party candidates, 75 percent preferred Barack Obama over John McCain. This proportion was nearly exactly the same for younger Jewish voters (74 percent).

The enthusiasm for the 2008 Democratic nominee spread down the ballot as well. In the congressional races that year, a post-election survey indicates that Democrats running for Congress garnered about 78 percent of the two-party vote. This percentage is higher than the analogous number for the entire Jewish electorate (72 percent), demonstrating a strong commitment by young Jews to a variety of Democratic candidates.

Like the rest of the country in 2008, a large majority (61 percent) of young Jews thought the economy was the most important issue. One issue on which young Jews stood out is on Iraq – a higher percentage (7 percent) felt the war was the most pressing problem than did Jews of all ages (3 percent). But young Jews are hardly hawks on this issue – a super-majority thought the war was either a mistake from the beginning (48 percent) or too costly (14 percent).

The nonprofit Rock the Vote also comments, “Several studies and electoral history show that partisanship develops in early adulthood.” Thus, one may surmise that Jews, who reveal their political preferences at a younger age, are likely to remain Democrats. Young Jews have undoubtedly soured toward Obama since his inauguration, as have all demographic groups. The Gallup Poll has tracked Jewish approval toward Obama throughout his presidency and his approval among Jews has declined proportionately with the rest of the country. Nothing in the 2008 surveys, or the data since, suggests that Jewish voters (or younger Jewish voters) will swing more or less than other groups. Further, nothing suggests that Obama’s stances on Israel have disproportionately affected the Jewish vote. The data does suggest that a larger proportion of Jewish voters – young or old – are apt to support Democratic candidates and their issues.

To borrow from my fellow pollster Jim Gerstein, Obama’s problem with young Jews is the same as his problem with Jewish voters of any age: “There aren’t more of them.”

(1) The Pew Research Center, the National Annenberg Election Survey, and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study

(2) Combined, these surveys include 204 Jews under the age of 35, which translates to a margin of error of 6.9 percent.

Aaron Strauss is a senior analyst at the Mellman Group, a public opinion research firm that works with Democrats and progressive organizations. The magazine Campaign & Elections named him a 2011 Rising Star.

This article is reprinted with permission from the journal Sh’ma, January 2012, as part of a larger conversation on the Jewish electorate.