Given the amount of attention lavished on their role in last year’s presidential contest, one might easily conclude that American Jews—a mere 2.2 percent of the population—exert a disproportionate influence on the outcome of elections.
The beginning of the post-primary election season witnessed Al Gore’s selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, marking the first time in American history that a Jew had been invited to serve on a major party’s national ticket. This elicited a wave of discussion, not only about whether the presence of Lieberman would help or hurt Gore’s candidacy but also about Lieberman’s own, traditionalist brand of religion and how it might or might not impinge on the performance of his official duties—and it provoked an even larger wave of self-congratulation within the Jewish community about how far Jews had come in American life. Then, at the end of the campaign season, as the Florida imbroglio unfolded, Jews became something of a focal point once again as some Jewish voters claimed to have been disenfranchised by a poorly designed ballot and as media analysts wondered whether other Jewish voters—legal residents of Florida living temporarily or permanently in Israel—were numerous enough to tip the election balance. In between these two punctuating events, the major candidates addressed a variety of issues of direct concern to Jewish voters, from the pace of the Oslo “peace process” and the location of the American embassy in Israel to a pardon for the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
Yet if the 2000 election was a high-water mark for discussion of matters Jewish, it is by no means clear that it represented a positive mark of any kind for Jewish electoral influence; rather, if anything, the reverse.
For decades, politicians at every level have courted American Jews with extraordinary care. With their population concentrated in such key battleground states as Florida, California, Illinois, and New York, and with a proud history of turning out to vote in large numbers, they are said to be capable of tipping the outcome of closely fought races. Tipping them, that is, mostly toward the Democratic column: for, at least as far as presidential elections are concerned, the Jewish vote in the key states, as elsewhere, has seldom been truly up for grabs. Rather, the majority of Jews have almost always voted for the Democratic presidential candidate, they have done so by a far greater margin than the electorate at large, and they are exceeded in this only by one group—American blacks.
The Jewish community’s attachment to the Democratic party can be traced back to the New Deal and even beyond. In the days when there was still a substantial Jewish lower class, and when middle-class Jews were regularly kept out of private schools, country clubs, and even many residential neighborhoods, American Jews had no doubt that they were underdogs, and they embraced the party perceived as the champion of the underdog and of ethnic minorities. The Republicans, by contrast, who in their earlier days as the party of Lincoln had succeeded in attracting Jewish support, had by then come into their latter-day image as the champions of the complacent white majority and the complacent rich, and as harboring more than a fair share of anti-Semites. (Neither stereotype was altogether accurate, but that is another matter.)
After World War II, as American Jews became more integrated into American life both economically and socially, a new issue came to the fore: the survival of the nascent state of Israel. Beginning with the 1948 election of Harry Truman, who had earned the gratitude of the Jewish community for extending early diplomatic recognition to Israel, a predominant focus of Jewish political concern became a candidate’s position on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Here once again Democrats enjoyed an edge, often winning the trust of Jewish voters—and keeping it—no matter how frosty or indifferent they might become to Israel once they were actually in office. By this time, in any case—that is, the 50’s and 60’s—Jews were showing every sign of having become wedded to the liberal agenda in everything from race relations to economic policy, and it would have taken a major dereliction on the part of a candidate or officeholder to dislodge their allegiance to the Democratic party.
That dereliction came in the person of Jimmy Carter. In 1976, Carter had managed to unseat Gerald Ford with a respectable 65 percent of the Jewish vote. But in his re-election effort four years later, Carter succeeded in attracting only 45 percent of Jewish voters, while Ronald Reagan garnered 39 percent and the third-party candidate, John Anderson, picked up the balance.
Echoing the broader political sentiment, many Jews were aghast at the general disarray Carter had managed to engender in four short years. But on top of this, Carter was perceived as personally unsympathetic to Israeli leaders and to Israel’s strategic situation, and several months before election day the Carter administration compounded its difficulties by voting in favor of a flagrantly anti-Israel resolution in the UN Security Council.
And so the 1980 election became the only instance since the early 20th century in which the Democratic candidate failed to win a majority of the Jewish vote. At the time, some commentators viewed this as a sign that the Jewish attachment to liberalism in general might be weakening. And it is true that, first in 1984 and then again in 1988, Reagan and George Bush did better with Jewish voters—both managed to pierce the 30-percent mark—than had most of their Republican predecessors. But by 1992, in his race against Bill Clinton, Bush’s numbers had sharply declined.
Once again, the issue was Israel. Bush himself had engaged in what many Jews believed were unveiled and unfriendly references to Jewish voters, describing himself in the battle over loan guarantees for Israel as “one lonely man” up against “powerful political forces”; and James Baker, his Secretary of State, was widely considered to be inimical to the Jewish state. Still another disincentive for Jews thinking of pulling the Republican lever was the invitation extended to Patrick J. Buchanan, a spokesman for isolationism—and, many thought, anti-Semitism—to address the Republican national convention as a keynote speaker. In the end, very few did pull that lever; Bush received a paltry 11 percent of the Jewish vote.
Against this background, the contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush in November of last year merely extends a familiar pattern. According to exit polls, Gore received 79 percent of the Jewish vote, Bush 19. While this was better than the elder Bush had done against Clinton in 1992, or than Bob Dole had done against Clinton in 1996 (16 percent), the younger Bush’s relative “success” can be attributed partly to the fact that he was more popular with the overall electorate than either his father or Dole, and partly to the fact that in the 1992 and 1996 elections the third-party candidate Ross Perot siphoned off more Jewish votes than Ralph Nader (an Arab-American) did in 2000.
In one key respect, moreover, the Democratic lock on the Jewish vote may be considered even stronger than before. With the long-term decline in domestic anti-Semitism, concern for the security of the state of Israel had remained the single issue that could theoretically sway large numbers of Jewish voters from the Democrats. But in the 1990’s, thanks in large measure to the Middle East “peace process,” Israelis themselves would become bitterly divided over what their security demanded, and over what sort of political future they envisioned for their country. These deep political cleavages in Israel, which seem to have survived even the shock of the latest intifada, have also gone some way toward shattering the American Jewish consensus on the proper role of the United States in the Middle East, and in particular about which U.S. policies are “good” or “bad” for the Jewish state.
Thus, Bill Clinton, who already benefited from a reputation of friendliness to Jews and Jewish interests, remained immensely popular among American Jews even as his administration pressured Israel into making concessions that not so long ago would have been considered undiscussable and unthinkable. And this accumulated political capital, especially when put next to the longstanding Jewish devotion to the liberal agenda—and, on the other side, the lingering Jewish apprehensions concerning anyone carrying the name of Bush—certainly redounded to the advantage enjoyed with Jewish voters by Clinton’s Vice President.
In sum, absent the Israel issue—and even that is not so simple as it once was—Jewish voters seem as frozen as ever in their twin predilection for liberal positions and Democratic candidates. At least, so it would seem on the national level. On the local level, things are a little more interesting.
As Murray Friedman has documented in these pages,1 more than a few Republicans around the country have managed in recent years to gain office by forging coalitions that include significant elements of Jewish support. This is especially true in cities. Richard Riordan, for example, won 71 percent of the Jewish vote in his 1997 race for mayor of Los Angeles; Bob Lanier won 70 percent of the Jewish vote in his 1991 race for mayor of Houston; and Rudolph Giuliani won 75 percent of the Jewish vote in his 1997 race for mayor of New York City, defeating a Jewish opponent.
Friedman attributes this development to a variety of factors, socioeconomic and demographic at once, that have combined to render many Jews somewhat more conservative—i.e., more like other Americans of their general social and economic profile—on issues like crime, public order, and even affirmative action, while remaining quite unbudgeably liberal on such issues as abortion, gay rights, and the separation of church and state. What this adds up to is that, if Rudolph Giuliani had been able to complete his run for the Senate in New York against Hillary Clinton, we would have had an almost pristine laboratory contest pitting, in Friedman’s words, “a woman who embodie[d] many of the classical liberal ideas to which American Jews have long pledged their allegiance against a man who expresse[d] most saliently the particular combination of new ideas with which many of those same American Jews have recently become comfortable.”
It was not to be; instead, Hillary Clinton’s opponent was the lackluster Rick Lazio. Even so, however, she faced some seemingly formidable obstacles in New York. For one thing, over the years she had acquired a reputation as a supporter less of Israel than of a Palestinian state, a reputation that was reinforced just as her campaign was getting under way by the kiss she bestowed on Suha Arafat after listening to her deliver a speech accusing Israel of employing toxic gas against Arab children. For another thing, even though New York is among the more liberal states in the nation, it contains several sizable pockets of very religious Jews who tend to be conservative on the very social issues where their fellow Jews (and Mrs. Clinton) are most liberal, and who therefore seemed unlikely to support her no matter what her position on Israel. And for yet another thing, in the closing weeks of her campaign, it was disclosed that Mrs. Clinton had received large contributions from an American Muslim group with ties to Middle East terrorism. (Her campaign returned the money.)
Just to complicate matters, Mrs. Clinton proceeded to defy a piece of political wisdom in New York that has long had the status of an article of faith. This is that, with Jews comprising some 14 percent of the state’s electorate, a Democrat who fails to carry the Jewish vote by a large margin cannot win. Former state attorney general Robert Abrams, for example, lost a Senate race to Al D’Amato in 1992 when he managed to take “only” 59 percent of the Jewish vote. Charles Schumer, by contrast, unseated D’Amato by garnering 76 percent of the Jewish vote. Daniel P. Moynihan, for his part, amassed huge margins among Jewish voters over the course of his four terms in the Senate (reaching 87 percent in 1994), making his seat exceedingly safe.
As for Mrs. Clinton, though she made all the requisite campaign appearances and appeals for support, especially financial, her strategy was never really directed at the Jewish community, except in the limited sense of engaging in damage control. Instead, it was aimed much more directly at energizing the Jesse Jackson-Al Sharpton coalition—and with impressive results. She garnered 90 percent of the black vote, 84 percent of the Hispanic vote, and 95 percent of the Muslim vote. In the event, these margins were large enough to outweigh the relatively pallid 53 percent she gained from Jews, surely a record low among successful Democratic Senate candidates from New York.
What is the lesson? In part, it is that Jews are not needed for political victory. But in part, it is also that their reflexive liberalism, especially on the social issues, will lead sizable numbers of them to vote Democratic no matter what. For the most striking fact of the New York vote is not that so many Jews deserted Hillary Clinton but that despite her liabilities she still ended up with more than 50 percent of their ballots. A good many Jews still see themselves as committed first and foremost to the liberal agenda, and will support a candidate who speaks for that agenda even if her attitude toward Israel may be suspect, and even if she discounts the significance of Jews themselves as a voting bloc.
And that brings us to the larger point. Although individual Jews may continue to play a big role as donors to and fundraisers for political campaigns, Jewish voters, far from exercising a disproportionate influence, are increasingly less important to the outcome of elections in this country, and hence to the politicians vying for office.2 That this is so can be confirmed by a glance at the attention being paid to another, emerging group in American politics—namely, American Arabs.
Like American Jews, Arab-Americans, who number approximately 4 million, are concentrated in key electoral-college states, including New York, New Jersey, and Michigan. Unlike American Jews, however, Arab-Americans have demonstrated a willingness and an ability to swing from one party to the other in pursuit of their political interests. It is thus by no means an accident that Arab-Americans were courted assiduously by both Bush and Gore in the course of the 2000 election campaign, with Bush even making an explicit bow to them during one of the prime-time televised debates.
Though the Arab-American vote broke for Clinton in 1996 by a margin of 52 to 32 percent, things were different this past November. Facing, on the Democratic line, a Jewish vice-presidential candidate, and, on the Republican line, a presidential candidate who might plausibly be perceived as friendly to Arab interests, many Arab-Americans shifted allegiances and voted for Bush. In the end, exit polls showed that among Arab voters, Bush beat Gore by a margin of 46 to 38 percent.
While the Arab-American vote cannot be said to have helped elect George W. Bush—Gore won handily in New Jersey and New York and managed to eke out a narrow victory in Michigan—it is clear that Arab-American voters increasingly occupy a place on the political map that will ensure them the careful solicitude of both parties. This stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly marginal position of American Jews, a group that both parties may conclude can more or less be safely ignored—the Democrats because they know the Jews are securely in their pocket and the Republicans for the same reason.
1 “Are American Jews Moving to the Right?,” April 2000.
2 The Jewish role in fundraising may also be in for a decline, especially if campaign-finance reform—ironically, a favorite cause of Jewish liberals—is passed.