Everyone says that it remains to be seen whether the 1980 election was a watershed in American politics. It also remains to be seen whether 1980 was a watershed in the politics of American Jews.1

In 1972 Nixon got more than 60 percent of the vote to Reagan’s 51 percent in 1980, and Nixon’s margin over McGovern was more than 20 percent to Reagan’s 10 percent over Carter. The difference between 1980 and 1972 lies in the new Republican majority in the Senate, in the reduced Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, and above all in the victors’ promise and determination to change course. If the Republicans do well again in congressional 1982 and presidential 1984, a new direction and outlook will have been confirmed.

For Jews it might seem overdrawn to speak of 1980 as a possible watershed. What makes 1980 so different from 1972? In 1972 Jews gave about 35 percent to Nixon, in 1980 between 35 and 39 percent to Reagan.

The last figures are from exit polls conducted by the three networks. An exit poll is not the same as an opinion poll. In an exit poll, eight, ten, twelve thousand people are asked to fill out a questionnaire as they leave their voting places, whereas in a typical opinion poll no more than fifteen or sixteen hundred fill out a questionnaire or talk to interviewers. An exit poll includes hundreds of Jews among its respondents, a typical opinion poll only thirty to fifty.

According to the CBS-New York Times exit poll, 689 Jews—5.4 percent, twice as many in proportion to voters as in proportion to population—gave Carter 44 percent, Reagan 39 percent, and Anderson 15 percent. (The Times reported 45, 39, and 14 percent.) Joining ABC and NBC’s polls to CBS’s, we get 1,580 Jews, or 4.7 percent. The 1,580 gave Carter 45 percent, Reagan 37 percent, and Anderson 17 percent.

In 1980, therefore, for the first time since 1928 at the latest, most Jews did not vote for the Democrat. In fact, more Jewish men voted for Reagan than for Carter. It was the women’s majority for Carter that gave him his Jewish plurality.

In 1972 Jews voted for the Republican about 30 percent less than white Gentiles, in 1980 under 20 percent less. In 1976 NBC reported Jews giving Carter 72 percent—confirmed by ABC in 1980—and in New York State 80 percent. If the Jews of New York State had voted like other whites, let alone other whites of similar age and income, Ford would have taken New York and the Presidency. Black leaders kept reminding Garter that blacks had elected him, but did blacks have a real choice between Democrat and Republican? Jews had a real choice, and they chose the Democrat. By 1980 many were sorry. According to ABC, more than half of the Jews who voted for Reagan had voted for Carter in 1976, if they voted at all in that year. The corresponding fraction of all voters was a quarter.

In 1972 about 15 percent of Jews who usually voted Democratic switched to the Republicans. In 1980 the rise in the Jewish Republican vote would have been greater still if Anderson had not run. White Gentiles, who in the eight presidential elections since 1952 have given a majority to a Democrat only once, in 1964, in 1972 voted two to one for Nixon. In 1980, even without Anderson in the race their Reagan vote would not have reached three to two. No other group changed so much in 1980 as the Jews.

When Jews are set on liking a candidate they know how to forget that not once or twice but three times he proposed in the House a Christian America amendment to the Constitution. One of every six voted for Anderson.

Which Jews voted for him most, and which least?

High Anderson Voters (CBS)
  Proportion of all Jewish voters Anderson vote
$25,000-$49,999 31 23
30-44 years old 26 22
18-29 years old 19 21
College graduates 44 21
Low Anderson Voters
Did not complete high school 6 0
60 years old & older 26 6

Of all independents who told CBS that they were worse off than a year earlier, 65 percent voted for Reagan, while of independents who said that they were better off, 36 percent voted for him.

How did economic interest affect Jewish voting? As income rose, so did the Reagan vote, from the poorer Jews’ 30 or 34 percent to the richer ones’ 47 percent.

  Percentage of Jewish Voters Percentage for Reagan
$10,000 or less  8 11 34 30
$30,000 or more 44 41
$50,000 or more 19 47

John Stuart Mill respected philosophical conservatism but could not respect what he called practical conservatism. A practical conservative was the passenger in a warm coach who would not let a poor wretch in from the cold. For some years now our preachers have accused American Jews of practical, selfish conservatism.

Poets have their poetic license, and preachers their homiletic license. From CBS’s figures we can calculate that while Jews with income of $50,000 or more voted 47 percent for Reagan, others with that income voted 69 percent for him.

Jews are older than others: of all CBS’s voters 18 percent were sixty or older, and of its Jews 26 percent. Older people suffer most from inflation, and voters generally thought Reagan the likeliest to tame it. All older voters gave Reagan 54 percent, older Jewish voters 33 percent.

Again, because of the Jews’ average age and income, unemployment is less of a problem for them than for others. Yet 41 percent of CBS’s Jews, to 39 percent of all its voters, said unemployment was more serious than inflation.

Selfish conservatism? Rather, philanthropic liberalism—which helps to explain why, as in California and New York, many Jews who voted for Reagan also voted to elect liberal Democrats to the House and Senate.



In party affiliation and political philosophy little was new. ABC and CBS reported 27 or 28 percent of all voters calling themselves Republicans, and 12 or 13 percent of Jews. Among all voters, for every five calling themselves conservatives there were three liberals. Among Jews, for every five conservatives there were ten or fifteen liberals.

  All Voters Jews
Liberal 24 19 45 43
Moderate 37 51 29 43
Conservative 39 31 23 14

Let us test the Jews’ asserted liberalism by their stand on the Equal Rights Amendment.

  All Men & Women All Women Jewish Men & Women
Pro-ERA 45 45 69 70
Anti-ERA 36 31 17 18
No answer/not sure 19 24 14 12

Jews favor ERA much more than women do.

Similarly, in sources as diverse as NBC, the Minneapolis Star for the Twin Cities, and A Profile of the Jewish Freshman, 1980, drawn for the American Jewish Committee by David E. Drew, Margo R. King, and Gerald T. Richardson of the Higher Education Research Institute, we find substantially more Jews than others approving abortion.

Of all CBS’s conservatives 4 percent voted for Anderson, of its Jewish conservatives 9 percent. (Caution: this means that 8 people checked the boxes for Anderson, conservative, and Jewish.) On the other hand, CBS’s 26 percent of Jewish liberals voting for Reagan is indistinguishable from its 27 percent of all liberals voting for him. Jewish liberals may be more like other liberals than Jewish conservatives are like other conservatives.

More than anything else, foreign and military affairs determined Jewish voting in 1980. CBS asked: “Agree or disagree: ‘We should be more forceful in our dealings with the Soviet Union even if it increases the risk of war.’”

  Agree Disagree No Answer
All voters 54 31 15
Jews 46 41 12

Excluding those who did not answer, we get:

All voters 64 36
Jews 53 47

Though Jews still were for forcefulness less than other Americans, more of them were for it than against.

  Be More Forceful Don’t Be More Forceful No Answer
All Jews 46 41 12
  Carter voters 37 53 10
  Reagan voters 61 26 13
  Anderson voters 41 43 16

Of those who answered:

All Jews 53 47
  Carter voters 41 59
  Reagan voters 70 30
  Anderson voters 49 51

The seven-to-three hawkishness of Jews who voted for Reagan offset the three-to-two dovishness of those who voted for Carter. Anderson voters divided evenly.

One out of eight Jews did not answer: one out of ten Carter voters, one out of eight Reagan voters, and one out of six Anderson voters. Why was the Jews’ no-answer percentage almost as high as that of all American voters, and why was the Jewish Andersonians’ percentage even higher?

Normally it is the uneducated who do not answer pollsters’ questions. Yet Jews are among the best-educated Americans, and Anderson voters were the best-educated Jews: of all CBS’s Jews 74 percent had gone to college, of its Jewish Anderson voters 90 percent. When people like these are silent, they do not fail to answer, they refuse to answer. The question about greater forcefulness must have been too painful. But the very painfulness is instructive, because two or three years earlier their answer would have been easy, and dovish. Their refusal to answer may cover movement toward supporting American forcefulness in foreign affairs.



Cbs’s Jewish men and women differed startlingly.

  Carter Reagan Anderson Reagan Minus Carter
Men (51%) 37 54 7 17
Women (49%) 45 46 7 1
Jewish men (56%) 38 44 16 6
Jewish women (44%) 52 33 13 —19

Reagan’s excess over Carter was 16 percent greater among all men than among all women, 25 percent greater among Jewish men than among Jewish women. Jewish men were less different from all men, with a Reagan excess 11 percent smaller, than Jewish women from all women, with a Carter excess 20 percent greater.

A generation ago Jewish men voted less than Jewish women for Adlai Stevenson. The explanation offered was that the women, isolated at home and in their Jewish neighborhoods, and therefore more insulated against Gentile influence, remained more traditional, so to speak, more unquestioning of the commandment to vote for Mrs. Roosevelt’s protégés. Less traditional now, and less confined to home and neighborhood, Jewish women nevertheless again seem isolated, only this time among the feminists. Like women generally, feminists tend to be dovish, so they opposed Reagan not only as anti-ERA but also as hawkish. CBS’s Jewish women look the same as its pro-ERA women.

  Carter Reagan Anderson
Anti-ERA women 29 66  4
Pro-ERA women 54 32 11
Jewish women 52 33 13

Why were women only nine out of every twenty Jewish voters? The ratio should have been higher—higher even than the half of all voters represented by women. Because women live longer, there are more of them who can vote. That is especially true of Jews, with their high median age. Again, educated people vote more, and Jewish women are educated: 65 percent of the Jewish freshmen’s mothers went to college, and 36 percent of the other mothers. Yet Jewish women voted less.

Just as the silence of so many Jewish Anderson voters about forcefulness in dealing with the Soviet Union may have covered movement from an earlier dovishness, so the abstention of so many Jewish women from voting may also have covered the beginning of political movement. Democrats who stay away from the voting booth help the Republicans. Perhaps those women boycotted the election because they were not yet quite ready actually to pull the Reagan lever.

In 1976 NBC reported 20 percent of the voters in New York State to be Jews, but in 1980 NBC’s Jewish percentage was 16 and ABC’s lower still, 14. More New Yorkers voted for President than for Senator, as is normal, but in Long Island and Brooklyn more Jews voted for Senator than for President. Were the presidential abstainers mostly women, like the non-voters?



The count in predominantly Jewish voting districts was in line with the networks’ national estimates. In Brooklyn, Long Island, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles the Jewish vote was more Republican than usual, with poorer Jews voting Republican less than richer ones.

Two exceptions stand out. Contrast three election districts in prosperous, somewhat radical-chic Great Neck, Long Island (the 10th, 12th, and 14th of the 16th Assembly District), with two election districts in middle-income, heavily Orthodox Borough Park, Brooklyn (the 27th and 28 th of the 48th Assembly District).

  Carter Reagan Anderson
Great Neck (1877 voters) 55 32 13
Borough Park (775) 21    76(!)   3

Though the Moral Majority is strongly pro-Israel, most Jews seem to be scared of it. Borough Park is different. Borough Park, insofar as it turns its attention at all to the Moral Majority, must like what it sees. Many Jews are in the synagogue on Yom Kippur when Leviticus 18 is read, but it is the Jews of Borough Park who take Leviticus 18—I do not go so far as to say Leviticus 20—seriously.

Invoking a First Amendment that James Madison would not recognize, our courts forbid the Ten Commandments to be exposed to children in public school and then allow the children to be exposed in vile movies. For the Moral Majority that is secular humanism. For Borough Park it is ‘avodah zarah, paganism. Borough Park would have voted mostly for Reagan in any event. Still, 76 percent?

In foreign affairs, Borough Park has no great fondness for the Soviet Union. But that comes second. What comes first is worry about Israel.

Worry about Israel came first for many other Jews as they decided whom to vote for—or against. In New York the Democratic presidential primary was held soon after some particularly egregious shenanigans about Israel. Jews, three out of every eight voters in that primary, repaid Carter by going four to one against him. Kennedy won.

On election day many Jews interviewed by the networks must have used questions about foreign and military affairs to express their anxiety about American support for Israel. When Carter conceded defeat on television that evening, there, right behind him, stood Jesse Jackson, the PLO’s friend. Whether Gentile or Jewish, much of the vote for Carter was not pro-Carter but anti-Reagan. For some Jews, seeing Jackson there must have tempered disappointment over the victory of the man they had voted against. It may even have brought to mind someone they had high-mindedly determined to ignore, Jimmy’s brother Billy.

That Jews worried about Israel does not mean they wanted Israel to tell them how to vote, or listened if they were told. In 1972 a Labor government in Israel signaled that it preferred the Republican, and most American Jews did not vote for him. In 1980 a conservative government in Israel signaled, less clearly, that it preferred the Democrat, and most American Jews did not vote for him.



Moshe Dayan said that during the Yom Kippur War the Israeli army fired in the afternoon the shells offloaded from Flying Boxcars in the morning. If there had been no American shells, and no Flying Boxcars, Israel would have perished. To survive, Israel needs the American arsenal full.

From Franklin D. Roosevelt to Hubert H. Humphrey, if you were a liberal you were for American strength and resolve. Then Vietnam did Humphrey in, and everybody who was anybody said that if you were for strength and resolve you were a conservative. Jewish liberals in Congress would vote against a full arsenal and then complain that the United States was not giving Israel enough military aid. Their Jewish constituents let them get away with it.

In New York, in 1980, Representative Elizabeth Holtzman contested the Democratic nomination for Senator with the more centrist Bess Myerson (and two others). Adapting to the anxieties of 1980, Holtzman tried to rewrite her record on miltary budgets. She did not persuade even the New York Times, which endorsed her while admitting that “her votes against every major military appropriation cannot be defended as mere opposition to ‘waste.’”

In the primary, Jews alone preferred Holtzman to Myerson, but so massively—two to one—that they nominated her. They thought her more serious and deserving. Since they worried about a threatened Israel that had become a pariah among the nations, why did they tell pollsters that in foreign and military matters there was no significant difference between Holtzman and Myerson? Myerson is said to have run a poor campaign, which failed to bring the difference home. No doubt. But the difference was there for all to see, campaign or no, provided they wished to see.

In the election, Jews—including many who voted for Reagan—voted for Holtzman almost three to one over Alfonse D’Amato and Senator Jacob Javits combined. You could tell which Long Island towns had a significant Jewish population by going down the returns in Newsday and noting where there was a very low D’Amato and high Holtzman vote. Even conservative Borough Park voted almost five to one against D’Amato. But Borough Park was different to the last. It gave its majority to Javits, who ran as a Liberal.

The Jewish vote against D’Amato was unrelated to the presidential vote. NBC’s New York and nationwide Jewish percentages for Reagan were the same, 36. D’Amato and Reagan won by narrow pluralities, Reagan leading D’Amato by only 1 or 2 percent. With Jews, Reagan led D’Amato by 29 percent.

Neither was the Jewish vote anti-Italian. If the Republicans had nominated a President Giamatti of Yale, or a Joseph A. Califano, many more Jews would have voted for him. D’Amato did not appeal to a Good Government constituency—the League of Women Voters, for instance, or Jews. Like political scientists in the universities, writers in the Times can lament the weakened party system and discover unsuspected merit in political machines. But that is in the abstract. Concretely, how could the Times say anything good about a machine politician, especially a Republican, suburban one?

D’Amato ran as a conservative (and Conservative). Most of the Jews who voted for Reagan did not vote for him because he was a conservative but because they thought America, and Israel, would be better off if he were in charge of foreign and military affairs. Foreign and military affairs have less weight, and domestic affairs more, in voters’ assessment of candidates for the Senate and House—that is, until anxiety about foreign and military affairs gives way to alarm. Then, FDR said, Dr. Win the War takes over from Dr. New Deal. In 1980 Jewish voters were still only anxious.

For years, Jewish Democrats in New York had voted for Javits, depending on Gentile Republicans to nominate him. In 1980 the Gentiles did not oblige. If more Jews had been registered as Republicans they might again have had an electable Javits to vote for. Anyway, the Republican party is no longer a kind of Bronxville or Darien. Three of the six Jewish Senators are Republicans.



In sum, what was old about 1980 is that Jews as a group are still unassimilated politically, still unlike Gentile neighbors and colleagues. They are still on the liberal side of the political terrain—which, however, has shifted to the Right. And they still worry about Israel.

What was new was very new: fewer than half voted for the Democrat. The most important cause of this change was the desire for a strong, resolute America and a secure Israel.

Newest, and most unexpected, was that Jewish men and women seem to be electorates so distinct that Disraeli would have called them two nations. This needs thinking about, beyond politics.

On reconsideration, it may after all not be too soon to declare the 1980 election a watershed for Jews. No matter what happens in 1982 and 1984, for the first time most will have experienced in their own flesh that the right hand need not wither if it strays from the Democratic lever.

1 For help and information I owe thanks to Kathleen Frankovic of CBS; to my colleagues Geraldine Rosenfield, Jeffrey Ellis, Howard Yagerman, and Adam Simms; to Professors Andrew R. Baggaley of the University of Pennsylvania and William Schneider of the Hoover Institution; and to Linda Cranney of ABC and Patricia McCann of NBC.

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