Will American Jews Continue to Vote Democratic in 2020?

By Herbert Weisberg

My essay on “The Presidential Voting of American Jews” in the 2019 American Jewish Year Book documents considerable complexity in Jews’ voting patterns. It relies both on historical data and on several large-scale post-2010 surveys of Jews that are archived at the Berman Jewish Data Bank.

Explanations of Jewish Voting

The standard set of explanations of Jews’ liberal politics that were offered in the 1950s – which included such factors as their marginality, alienation, and status inconsistency – seem less relevant today. Two 2019 books propose alternative explanations. Kenneth Wald’s The Foundations of American Jewish Liberalism emphasizes the importance to Jews of the state refraining from limiting individual autonomy. Jews view the alignment of the Republican Party with conservative Christians as threatening this classical liberalism that has served Jews well, while they view the Democrats as defending the separation of church and state. My book, The Politics of American Jews, argues that Jews partisanship and liberalism have become embedded in their “social identity.” Jews’ Democratic voting is resistant to change because most Jews have incorporated being Democratic as part of their identification of being Jewish, though being Republican is part of the social identity of some other Jews.

Complexity of Jewish Voting

The usual finding is that Jews register and vote at a much higher rate than non-Jews. However, examining survey data shows that Jews vote only a few percentage-points more than non-Jews who are similar in terms of education, income, and other social demographics

Jews’ voting history is usually summarized as having generally voted for Republican presidential candidates until the mid-to-late 1920s, when they switched to the Democratic Party. Reviewing studies of predominantly Jewish voting districts in my Year Book chapter instead shows their voting was not unified before the New Deal era. Most northern Jews who immigrated to the United States in the mid-1800s from Central Europe were voting Republican. Eastern European Jews who immigrated around the turn of the century, however, were voting for the more progressive presidential candidate, or were sitting it out, or voting Socialist when neither major-party candidate was progressive.

Furthermore, there has been more variation in Jews’ presidential vote than is usually recognized. After voting about 90% Democratic from 1936 through 1944, their Democratic voting fell in 1948-1956, increased in the 1960s, dropped again in the 1970s and 1980s, and then went back up in the 1990s and early 2000s. Most recently, Jews’ votes for Democratic presidential candidates decreased from an average of nearly 80% in 1996-2008 to about 70% in 2012-2016.

Factors Affecting Jewish Voting

The Year Book chapter focuses on three important factors that affect Jews voting: ideology, partisanship, and Israel. Analysis of the 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews shows that about half of Jews are liberal on both cultural/moral issues (such as accepting homosexuality) and economic matters (such as favoring more government programs), less than a tenth are conservative on both issues, and about a third are “Libertarians” who favor minimum government regulation in both the cultural/moral and economic realms. Non-Jewish Libertarians tend to be Republicans, but Jewish Libertarians tend to be Democrats. Still, these Libertarians are not fully satisfied with either major party. It remains to be seen how the slowing of the economy due to the pandemic will affect their 2020 voting.

Denominations and Voting

An important exception to Democratic voting among Jews involves the Orthodox. The 2013 Pew survey, which phoned randomly selected respondents repeatedly until they were interviewed, found that nearly 60% of Orthodox Jews are Republican. Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz has shown that, as compared to other social divisions, religious denomination is the strongest predictor of Jews’ party identification as well as of their attitudes across a variety of political matters. As demonstrated by Ira Sheskin’s Jewish community surveys, there is also meaningful political variation across American cities, with greater Republican identification in cities with larger Orthodox communities.

Israel and Voting

There is an on-going debate as to the importance of Israel in Jews’ voting. For example, was the decline in Jews’ votes for Barack Obama from 2008 to 2012 due to his treatment of Israel, or did it just correspond to a similar drop among the general American public? While that change was minimal, my analysis of available surveys in The Politics of American Jews finds that attitudes on Israel’s policies were among the top five statistically significant predictors of Jews’ voting. Israel was not one of the top two predictors; but it mattered in voting along with views on partisanship, ideology, and economic and moral/cultural issues.

Antisemitism and Voting

The increase in antisemitic incidents also has the potential of affecting Jews’ political views. In analyzing surveys conducted through 2016, I never found views on the seriousness of antisemitism to be related to Jews’ politics. That shifted after the threats to Jewish community centers in 2017, with the threat of antisemitism becoming politicized in the Jewish community. For example, analysis of the 2017 American Jewish Committee (AJC) autumn survey finds that Jews who saw antisemitism as a very serious threat were significantly less likely to approve of Donald Trump’s performance as president, even with statistical controls on other variables. Antisemitism from the left has received considerable attention recently, but analysis of the autumn 2019 AJC antisemitism survey shows that 64% of Jews consider antisemitism from the extreme political right the more serious threat versus just 16% seeing antisemitism from the extreme political left as more serious.

President Trump and the Jewish Vote

Jews realigned their voting behavior in the late 1920s and the 1930s to support the Democratic Party. At several times since then, political analysts considered Jews’ voting to be at a crossroads. The controversy over the Iran nuclear accords could have sparked further movement in the Republican direction in 2016; but Trump’s election has, at least temporarily, slowed down such movement. While his Middle East policies may have brought some Jews to the Republican side, polls consistently find that most Jewish Americans do not approve of his handling of relations with Israel. Indeed, surveys suggest that most Jews’ disapproval of the Trump administration is causing a hardening of their opposition to the Republican Party.

Jews’ voting is unlikely to change in the 2020 presidential election, but that will depend on such factors as the decisions of Libertarian Jews, attitudes on Israeli policies, reactions to antisemitism from the political left and right, and the impact of the pandemic crisis.

Herbert Weisberg is an emeritus professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University.  He specializes in American politics, voting behavior, survey research.  He is coauthor of The American Voter Revisited and author of The Total Survey Error Approach and The Politics of American Jews. He is currently working on a book manuscript on the political history of American Jews.