10 takeaways from the election

Larry Levin, CEO and Publisher of the Jewish Light. 

By Larry Levin

So much has been written about the results and implications of the elections Tuesday that I’m not wholly sure what to add, other than this:

Almost everything everyone says will be either meaningless or wrong.

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Harsh words? Nah, not so much. It’s just that there is so little access to the new data that now becomes critical — internal political machinations, policy priorities, what’s feasible, what isn’t — that the chances of hitting any predictions with a high level of certainty are relatively low.

I’ll try to start with the most self-evident things and branch out from there, with more speculation involved as we go.

1. There was little surprising from an overall Jewish vote perspective. Polls told us earlier this fall that the national Jewish vote would track at between 65-70 percent, and neither that result nor the specific Florida vote, considered so important before the election, showed much in the way of surprise. And in most states, the Jewish vote did little differently from any other segment of the economy that’s typically left of center.

2. Israel remains important but hardly the only driving force explaining Jewish voting habits. Health care, other social agenda items and  the economy continue to strongly shape Jewish voters’ decisions.

3. While there were loud voices about which party would better partner with Israel, that noise did not seem to have much stroke with the Jewish electorate.  While more info is needed, at least one early exit poll, conducted by J Street (http://goo.gl/BPyRA) showed support for President Barack Obama’s handling of Israel tracking fairly consistently with Jews’ political support for him.

4. Money didn’t seem to make a great deal of difference. A tremendous amount of money was utilized to try to influence Jewish voters, particularly on issues pertaining to Israel. But in the end, while the Jewish vote was a bit lower for the president than in 2008, there is not nearly enough data to presume any kind of trend. This was true of the election overall as well (http://goo.gl/rGLyW).

5. Data made a great deal of difference. Traditional punditry, about predictions at least, has been shoved to one side to make room for analytical, data-driven election forecasting. New York Times blogger Nate Silver and others have figured out how to read the polling results well, ascribing various biases and historical inaccuracies or trends to different polls, to put together a pastiche of highly useful predictive tools. Not perfect, but way better than folks like Dick Morris, George Will and Michael Barone, who as late as election day were calling a hundred electoral vote victory for Governor Mitt Romney.  

Now here are some things that are worth watching very closely on politics and policy:

6. It’s not hard to read the tea leaves on where election demographics are generally going in the nation. The white vote has gone from 78 percent of the electorate in 2004 to 74 percent in 2008 to 72 percent this year. The core of the conservative voting bloc is become older and the left-leaning coalition is either sustaining or growing among females, young adults, non-whites and a variety of constituent issue groups.

7. It’s a little harder to read the kosher tea leaves. J Street claimed in its press release about the polling data that the results present a rebuke to conservative efforts to change the behavior of the Jewish voter. Whoa, not so fast. The Jewish vote was indeed down from the 74-78 percent claimed in exit polls from 2008, and the reasons are not at all clear. Trying to interpret this data is no better than looking in the mirror. There have been historic fluctuations in the Jewish vote for president, and to extrapolate from this one result, when it falls squarely within the range, is both foolish and perilous. One thing seems pretty clear based on recent trends; watch for the rapidly growing Orthodox community in this country to have a more conservative influence in politics on issues surrounding religious freedom and Israel. While the concentration of these populations will make it difficult for them to have much influence at a national or electoral college level, local races could indeed see some effect.

8. The Jewish vote could be influenced by the administration’s efforts, or lack thereof, on tackling Israeli-Palestinian politics. There’s already a hue and cry for Obama to name a heavyweight envoy to try to revive the Quartet’s efforts to push a solution in the Middle East (see Bob Cohn’s related commentary on page 9). But if intentions were successes…you get the idea. Obama will by definition throw a lot of political capital into the mix should he decide on an active intervention.

9. The Jewish vote could be influenced by the administration’s efforts on Iran, which won’t be nearly as much a matter of choice as investing in Israeli-Palestinian solutions. Facts on the ground and repercussions to the world will play a far more immediate role in how Obama and the United States must respond to the growing threat of a nuclear Iran. It is highly likely, given past rhetoric and political will in the U.S. that if  there’s either more certainty about the level of Iranian enrichment nearing bomb quality, or any movement toward an attack on Israel, that a coordinated Israel-U.S. military effort will be seen.

10. Identity and religious politics in America could ultimately play a large part in the makeup of the Jewish vote over time. At first glance, the rise of minorities as a majority bloc might seem to favor a tiny minority like Jews. But that’s a pretty shallow analysis, as a number of issues will factor into the equation. Church-state separation issues, for instance, have cut a variety of ways recently, with school vouchers and Obamacare’s effect on religious institutions’ coverage raising myriad opinions in the court of public opinion. There are also ethnic considerations, as Jews at a macro level have had a mixture of strong and weak relationships with different ethnic and religious groups that present growing population segments.

The level and kind of changes are almost impossible to predict, so being a good data-driven doobie, I won’t try to and we’ll leave it there for the moment.