American Jews constitute only 3 percent of the voting public, and have cast a majority of their votes for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since 1916 (the first for which we have data). Yet, every four years, the minuscule Jewish vote generates a great deal of curious attention and analysis. Last year was no exception. Only days after the November election, Republican activists began pointing to a significant increase in Jewish turnout for George W. Bush over his first presidential run in 2000. Their counterparts in the Democratic party were no less quick to point out, despite Bush's undeniable gains, that not only did the majority of Jews remain in the Democratic column but the President's own level of Jewish support was significantly under the historical norm for other successful Republican candidates.
As with many claims rooted in statistics, both sides were right. While Bush did increase his share of the Jewish vote to 25 percent—almost a third higher than he had polled in 2000 and more than twice what his father accumulated in 1992—he still came in far below the 33 percent averaged by the four other postwar Republicans to have won the White House through 1988: Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, Sr. in his first race.
But why all the fuss? The central fact about the Jewish vote is, after all, not how changeable but how stable it is. American Jews do not merely favor Democrats; they are the second most reliable bloc of Democratic voters in the country, exceeded only by African-Americans. One has to go all the way back to the election of Warren Harding in 1920 to find a Republican who gained more than 40 percent of the Jewish vote.
Still, if there is little mystery about which party the Jews will support in any given presidential election—the range is consistently between 60 to 90 percent for the Democrat—what remains worth considering are the factors that trigger variations in voting patterns within that range, and what may be learned from this for the future. In that sense, the readers of post-election tea leaves have a point.
Although an oft-told narrative credits Franklin D. Roosevelt with forging the unbreakable bond between Jews and the Democratic party, the story actually starts four years earlier than Roosevelt's election. It was the 1928 candidacy of New York Governor Al Smith, an Irishman and the first Catholic ever to seek the nation's highest office, that initially galvanized the Jewish community on behalf of the Democrats.
The reasons seem plain for the time. The American Jewish community, which had increased by millions during the first three decades of the 20th century, consisted mostly of poor immigrants from Eastern Europe, where some had also swum in the currents of left-wing politics. In this country, like Smith's co-religionists, Jews had been excluded by the Protestant establishment from economic and educational opportunities. Jewish voters, therefore, felt an instinctive kinship with Smith, giving the Democrat more than 70 percent of their votes (a significant jump over any prior presidential election) in his losing bid for the White House.
What we see here is the first and still the bedrock determinant of Jewish electoral behavior—namely, an affinity for the liberal social and economic policies historically associated with the Democrats and a mistrust of the party linked with the country's Protestant “establishment.” But, although often and correctly adduced as a central issue for Jews, liberalism is not their only issue. Another came to the forefront in 1948, with the founding of the state of Israel.
Since that year, a key factor for Jewish voters in every election has been their perception of which candidate will best attend to the security of the Jewish state and best deal with the terrorism that has long been directed at it. Harry Truman, the Democrat who played a key role in the creation of Israel, got 75 percent of the Jewish vote in 1948. But in 1952 and 1956, Truman's Democratic successor Adlai Stevenson did not fare nearly so well among Jews; his opponent, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, received 36 percent of their vote that year and 40 percent four years later. Clearly, although a liberal social agenda was still key for the majority of American Jews, a new litmus test was also being applied: who seemed most likely to support Israel, with military force if necessary? Rightly or wrongly, the answer for a sizable minority was the military hero who at the end of World War II had liberated Jews from Hitler's death camps.
But the 1950's uptick in Jewish support for Republicans was short-lived. With the candidacy of John E Kennedy, the community returned overwhelmingly to the Democratic camp. Whether Israel's future did not seem so precarious as it had a decade earlier, or whether Kennedy had successfully positioned himself as another Irish Catholic “outsider”—or whether his opponent Richard Nixon simply seemed too antipathetic to their concerns—82 percent of American Jews went for Kennedy. In doing so, interestingly, they chose to overlook Kennedy's father's earlier lobbying against war with Nazi Germany as well as his own close relationship to Senators William Fulbright and the Republican Joseph McCarthy, two figures who were hardly friends of Israel. As for the two elections following Kennedy's assassination in 1963, the Jewish community, still in collective mourning, voted for Lyndon Johnson by 90 percent in 1964 and for Hubert Humphrey by 81 percent in 1968.
In the 1964 election, as it happens, still another element was added to the calculus of Jewish voting behavior. In nominating Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater as its candidate, the Republican party had started down the path of cultural conservatism. In Goldwater's coalition were not only small-government libertarians but also a large number of Southern evangelicals worried both by the Democrats' racial agenda and by the advancing liberal culture of the early 1960's. Jews, in giving Johnson an even larger share of their vote in 1964 than had gone to Kennedy four years earlier, were in part signaling their own concern over the potential influence of these fundamentalist Christians. What particularly exercised them was the specter of a blurring of the strict separation of government and religion that had by then become a dogma of secular politics.
The calculus changed again in 1972. Richard Nixon, who swept to a landslide victory nationwide, increased his share of the Jewish vote from the approximately 17 percent he had won in both 1960 and 1968 to fully 35 percent. The reason? Once again, the military situation in the Middle East appeared threatening; Nixon's strong record of support for Israel, combined with a growing recognition among Jews of the critical link between a strong America and a safe Israel, played a significant role. Conversely, the Democrats in 1972 were plagued by anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic sentiments in the left wing of the party, while their candidate, George McGovern, was perceived as an isolationist. (As it turned out, increased Jewish support for Nixon in 1972 was well warranted: the airlift he ordered to resupply Israel during the October 1973 war may well have saved it from being pushed into the sea.)
The sense that Republicans were becoming more trustworthy on Israel than Democrats was underscored for many Jews by the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Shortly after his entry into the White House, Carter, who had captured 71 percent of the Jewish vote, called for a “homeland” for the Palestinians, and his UN ambassador, Donald McHenry, voted for a viciously worded resolution condemning Israel for settlement activity in Jerusalem. This was the same Carter whose response to the taking of more than 60 American hostages by Iranian fundamentalists in 1979 was widely condemned as ineffectual.
All this surely had something to do with Ronald Reagan's stellar performance with the Jewish community in 1980—39 percent for a conservative Republican with a reputation as a lightweight. In the same election Carter managed no more than 45 percent of the Jewish vote, with third-party candidate John Anderson getting the remainder.
Reagan's fierce opposition to the Soviet Union at a time when the Soviets were the leading sponsors of Arab terrorism, as well as his endorsement of a strategic relationship with Israel in 1981, reinforced his popularity with the pro-Israel segment of the community. In 1984 he won 31 percent of the Jewish vote running against a candidate, Walter Mondale, boasting his own strong record of support for Israel and social and economic views much more in tune with the Jewish community's. So deep were Reagan's reserves of good will among Jews that his Vice President, George H.W. Bush, came to office in 1988 with 35 percent of their vote. He did so, moreover, on a Reaganite platform that explicitly endorsed prayer in the public schools, called for a constitutional amendment banning abortion, and even advocated a daily Pledge of Allegiance—positions farther to the right than the previous (or the current) Republican platform. With the situation in the Middle East remaining perilous, concern for Israel was once again more pressing.
If the three presidential contests of the 1980's seemed to mark a high point in Jewish support for Republican candidates, the bottom fell out in 1992. Since then, even counting George W. Bush's 25 percent this past November, Republican candidates have averaged about 17.5 percent of the Jewish vote.
In that 1992 election, the elder Bush's Jewish support dropped from 35 to 11 percent, an unprecedented decline. Just as with Jimmy Carter in 1980, Jews turned against a sitting President in part for his performance on Israel. Not only did the elder Bush have a frigid relationship with Israel's then-prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, but his Secretary of State, James Baker, was regarded as overtly hostile to Israel. In one press conference, Bush dismayed the Jewish community by stating, in reference to support for Israel in the halls of Congress, that he was but “one little lonely guy” against “something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.”
If that were not reason enough for many Jews to desert the GOP in 1992, the church-state issue had again risen to the fore, this time with an anti-Semitic tinge. Pat Buchanan, in a now notorious speech at the Republican convention that year, railed against the counterculture and the triumph of liberal social policies, proclaiming that “there is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America.” Only a year earlier, during the debate over the first Gulf war, Buchanan, in words reminiscent of Charles Lindbergh's statements in the early days of World War II, had said: “[T]here are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in the Middle East, the Israeli defense ministry and its amen corner in the United States.” It was against this backdrop that the Democrat Bill Clinton proceeded, during his two runs for the presidency, to garner an average of 79 percent of the Jewish vote.
Which brings us at last to George W. Bush. In 2000, this Republican candidate faced an especially uphill battle in appealing for Jewish votes. On the three or four critical indicators—social and economic policy, Israel, religion/anti-Semitism—the first President Bush had already soured American Jews on the family name. As for then-Governor Bush himself, he had little record of his own to counteract this: no foreign-policy experience to speak of, lots of connections to the traditionally pro-Arab oil industry, and little personal exposure to the organized Jewish community. To top it off, he was running against two Democrats with long and deep pro-Israel records, one of them a sitting Vice President to a man immensely popular in the Jewish community and the other an Orthodox Jew.
As things turned out, the surprise was not that George W. Bush received only 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000 but rather that, in a race against Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman, he actually did receive 19 percent—3 points over Bob Dole four years earlier and almost double what his father had polled eight years earlier. From that base, Bush proceeded four years later to make still more significant inroads—this, despite the fact that American Jews as a whole are still about as far as one can get from the traditional Republican profile, live predominantly in the large cities of the Northeast and the West Coast, tilt significantly to the secular end of the religious divide, and remain very liberal on social and moral issues, from prayer in the schools to abortion and gay marriage.
At first glance, it would appear that Bush's increased support from Jews was due to his exceptionally strong record of support for Israel. Many freely acknowledge that he has been a better friend to Israel than any of his predecessors; even Joseph Lieberman, while campaigning for John Kerry in Florida a week before the election, made a point of this. But while this was certainly a factor for some Jews, it does not seem to have been the dominant one.
According to a survey in Ohio and Florida on election day, only 20 percent of Jews voting for Bush said his relationship to Israel was the primary reason for their choice, while 55 percent cited his efforts against Islamic terrorism. What this suggests is that, for a significant number of American Jews, concern over Israel's security has merged with terrorism and anti-Semitism into a single broad issue. And here a major shift in perception must be acknowledged. Whereas the threat of anti-Semitism was once almost universally perceived by American Jews as stemming from the Right, and in particular from fundamentalist Christianity, now a portion of the community has come to understand both contemporary anti-Semitism and the threat of physical violence against Jews and Israel as deriving from a very different source: not just Islamism but also the international Left and its supporters in the liberal media.
Bush did particularly well in three segments of the Jewish community: the Orthodox, recently arrived Russians, and younger men.
Of the three, the Russians appear to have been motivated especially by Bush's record on Israel. That is not so surprising: nearly all of the newly arrived Russian Jews in this country have relatives who live in Israel.1 Little known outside their own communities, these Russians comprise nearly 10 percent of the total Jewish population in the United States, with a very large concentration in New York City and sizable representation in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. Only four years earlier, this sub-group had thrown its support to Al Gore, which makes them that most desirable of electoral commodities: swing voters.
Bush also did well among Jewish men between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine, winning, according to the veteran pollster Frank Luntz, an estimated 39 percent of their votes. That is certainly a good sign for Republicans going forward—perhaps as good a sign as the fact that quite a few Jews gave generously to the President's campaign. A number of “Rangers” and “Pioneers”—those raising more than $200,000 and $100,000, respectively—were Jews, and several of these had been large Gore-Lieberman givers in the previous election.
But the biggest story of 2004 may be that in one salient respect, the Jewish community started voting like the rest of America. In the general population, individuals who attend church more than once a week voted for Bush by a margin of 65 percent to 35 percent, while the figure for those who never attend church was almost directly the inverse—36 percent to 62 percent. An analogous pattern was evident among Jews as well. According to Luntz, Orthodox Jews voted 69 percent for Bush, while Reform Jews gave him only 15 percent and Conservative Jews 23 percent. Bush did well among Jews of all denominations who attend synagogue on a weekly basis, winning 40 percent of their votes compared to just 18 percent for those who rarely or never attend. As with the Russian Jews, the Orthodox, too, changed their vote from 2000, when they went for Al Gore by 64 percent.
The 2004 results were not entirely a matter of chance. Anticipating the role that religion would play in the election, the Bush campaign worked hard to turn out the vote in observant communities, including several large Orthodox Jewish ones. The Orthodox were targeted for two reasons. First, while pro-Israel sentiment is strong throughout the Jewish community, Bush's pro-Israel record could be expected to resonate especially among the Orthodox, who tend to make regular visits to Israel and among whom the hard-line policies represented first by Menachem Begin and later by Ariel Sharon have been most vocally supported. Second, the Orthodox are the one sector of the community that is not alienated by Bush's embrace of the religious Right and its social agenda. Orthodox Jews are opposed to gay marriage; they generally favor vouchers for parochial-school education; and, unlike Reform and Conservative Jews, for whom abortion rights are a political imperative, they are generally untroubled by the Republican party's pro-life stand.
Little wonder, therefore, that pro-Bush fervor among Orthodox Jews rivaled that in the evangelical community. In the heavily Orthodox Flatbush and Boro Park sections of Brooklyn, Bush won about 30,000 more votes in 2004 than in 2000, and in Boro Park alone he received 82 percent of the total votes cast. In one Brooklyn precinct, Bush increased his total by over 106 percent from the previous election, helping to tip that precinct from the Democratic to the Republican column.
The same pattern was seen in New Jersey suburbs like Englewood and Teaneck that contain large Orthodox communities. In Ocean County, New Jersey, home to the ultra-Orthodox Lakewood Yeshiva, Bush came close to doubling the number of votes he had won in 2000. Out in Michigan, another large pro-Bush shift was seen in the Oak Park section of Detroit, where most of that city's Orthodox Jews reside.
In the two swing states of Ohio and Florida, where the GOP campaign mounted an intensive get-out-the-vote drive in Orthodox neighborhoods, it was rewarded with a move toward Bush that was far more consequential for the outcome of the general election than any comparable shift in safely Democratic New York or New Jersey. In Beachwood, a suburb of Cleveland with a vibrant Orthodox community, the President jumped from a 5,500-vote deficit against Gore in 2000 to a 2,200-vote margin over Kerry—an increase of more than 73 percent. In South Florida, several precincts in Broward, Palm Beach, and Dade counties showed increases of more than 30 percent over 2000.
What, then, can we conclude about the Jewish vote today? George Bush has clearly made real progress, largely thanks to his strong pro-Israel record and his prosecution of the war on terrorism—a war against the biggest enemies of both America and Israel. He has also been outspoken about the rising anti-Semitism pervading the European continent. In a presidential election where every ballot really did count, his achievement of 25 percent of the Jewish vote should not be minimized.
As far as the Republican party is concerned, Orthodox Jews clearly hold the greatest potential. Even though they make up only a tenth of the Jewish community, they are growing much faster than the secular branches, which are shrinking due to assimilation, intermarriage, and lower birth rates. As Orthodox Jewry increases its numbers, we may conceivably see a softening of the once unvarying commitment of Jewish voters to an impermeable wall of separation between church and state and a greater receptivity to the “values” positions associated with the GOP. Electorally, in swing states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Jersey, this small fraction within a small American group could make a difference in close races.
Still, a major realignment of the Jewish vote seems highly improbable. In the broader Jewish community, the cultural and religious agenda of the Republican party continues to exercise little or no appeal; indeed, other things being equal, most American Jews are likelier to vote for a candidate whose key issues are abortion rights and no prayer in the public schools than one who vigorously defends Israel's right to use force to protect itself or who denounces anti-Semitism in the UN. Despite the clear evidence that the main source of hostility to Jews and Israel today is the political Left, American Jews in their majority still believe that the Right is more dangerous to them. As long as they continue to place secular liberal values ahead of Jewish interests, it will be hard for Republicans to do much better than the 25 percent received by George Bush, a man whose record of protecting Israel and Jewish interests may be unparalleled.
In short, Republicans have a long way to go if they are to reach, let alone surpass, the levels achieved among Jews during the Eisenhower and Reagan years. For that to happen, either the Orthodox and Russian Jewish communities will have to increase their numbers exponentially or the Democrats will have to nominate a candidate who is explicitly anti-Israel. In the foreseeable future, neither appears likely to happen.
1 Indeed, they voted for Bush in roughly the same proportion—70 percent—as did the more than 40,000 Americans living in Israel who cast ballots in the election.