Close look at voting trends shows more nuance to ‘Jewish vote’

Larry Levin, CEO and Publisher of the Jewish Light. 

By Larry Levin

A lot has been made of the so-called “Jewish vote” in the 2012 presidential election. The description is an odd one, and makes me think of some poor soul who’s been tabbed to step into the ballot box and cast his vote on behalf of all American Jews.

Kind of like the Verizon Guy of the Jewish world.

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That’s silly, of course, but the topic of how Jewish Americans vote and why we do what we do is a fascinating one.  Let’s look out there and see some of the history and trends.

1. Have Jews always voted heavily on the Democratic side?

No. The Republican Party under President Abraham Lincoln was the mover for emancipation and many Jews favored that side. However, during the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant issued the infamous General Orders No. 11, claiming Jews had been involved in wartime smuggling. The order resulted in a small number of Jews being expelled from the warzone but when Lincoln learned of it a couple weeks later, he rescinded the order. This posed a sticky wicket for Jewish voters when Grant ran for president in 1868. Scholar Jonathan Sarna has written about General Orders No. 11 in his book, “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” Schocken Books, 2012.

2. There are spikes up and down in the vote. What happened?

In the 20th and even the early 21st century, the Jewish vote in presidential elections largely aligned with progressive social causes — immigrant policies, labor, the New Deal — which over time became to be identified more with the Democratic Party than its opponent.

The chart, from the Jewish Virtual Library (www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org) accompanying this article shows how Jewish voters cast their ballots during every election from 1916 to 2004.  The overall curve remained squarely on the blue side for most of the century. While the norm was about two-to-one in favor of the Democratic Jewish vote, there were some notable blips up and down, among them:

• Strong attachment to Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and their social agenda in the 1960s.

• Relative antipathy to Democratic President Jimmy Carter and higher Republican totals for Republican President Ronald Reagan and Independent candidate John Anderson in 1980.

• Concerns about Republican President George H.W. Bush’s Israel stance and a generally favorable view of Democratic President Bill Clinton.

The last 20 years of presidential elections has shown a fairly consistent level of support for the Democratic side between 70 to 80 percent. There are a number of analysts, however, who contend that the 78 percent figure oft cited from exit polls in 2008 in favor of President Barack Obama (in the context of what turned out to be a relatively weak Republican opponent in John McCain) was overstated by 4 to 5 percent or so.

3. What’s happening this time and why?

The very few relevant polls have been showing somewhat lower totals for Obama than in 2008.  A fall Gallup poll weighed in at about 70 percent for Obama and an American Jewish Committee poll had the Obama tally at 65 percent. The figures for Republican Mitt Romney in each were in the 25 percent range, higher than McCain received, with the remainder largely undecided.

If the Obama/Democratic vote has diminished, what are the reasons? There have been a variety of items cited and speculated upon, including: Obama’s record generally and on Israel; the slow pace of the economic recovery; a relatively affluent Jewish population; and Orthodox Jewish voters breaking toward the Republican side. But this information is anecdotal and not well correlated with statistical outcomes yet.

4. Will the Jewish vote matter in the outcome of this presidential election?

It’s really hard to say. Because the Jewish voting population is so heavily concentrated in certain geographic areas, some of the impact of the overall numbers will be mitigated. For instance, because New York, Illinois, California and to a slightly lesser extent Pennsylvania are heavily in the Obama camp, and Texas, Arizona and others are equally strong on the Republican side, those Jewish voters will play little part in swaying the Electoral College outcome.

The two most sensitive states are Florida and Ohio, the former with its heavy Jewish population and the latter because of the importance and tightness of that race. Still, one must be very careful in not jumping to generalized conclusions on those populations. Factors such as turnout, age, income, gender and regional issues can play a significant a role in causing independent Jews to vote a certain way, and these factors vary considerably from place to place.

The outcome of this election among Jewish voters may portend a great deal about how political behavior will be shaped in our community in the future. So after the election, stay tuned! And whatever your preferences….vote on Nov. 6.

For a great treatise on the Jewish vote, look at the Jewish Data Bank’s Rock the Jewish Vote!, by Ira Sheskin, Director of the Jewish Demographic Project at the University of Miami (the author of an op-ed for the Jewish Light appearing on page 9). It can be found at jewishdatabank.org/Archive/N-Jewish_Vote_2012_Slide_Set.pdf. For the positions of the parties, go to www.democrats.org/democratic-national-platform and www.gop.com/2012-republican-platform_home/. For the positions of the candidates, go to mittromney.com/issues andbarackobama.com/issues?source=primary-nav