Why all the emphasis on the Jewish Vote?

By Ira M. Sheskin

Every four years, like clockwork, as the nation gears up for a presidential election, much is written about the impact of the Jewish vote. Yet, only 2 percent of Americans are Jewish. All the other groups we hear about who will supposedly determine the election — from soccer moms, to Hispanics, to Midwestern Catholics, to suburbanites — are much, much larger percentages of the population. So, why is there so much emphasis in the media and elsewhere on the Jewish vote?

It’s because of the geographic concentration of American Jews and tikkun olam, the Jewish directive to “repair the world.”

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Jews’ geographic concentration  

While Jews are but 2 percent of all Americans, six states — New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, and Pennsylvania — contain about 70 percent of American Jews. These six states control 167 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

Nowhere is the Jewish vote more important than in Florida, which is only 3.4 percent Jewish (639,000, excluding 77,000 snowbirds who spend three to seven months of the year in Florida, although some snowbirds do vote there). Because Jews tend to have fewer children than others, Jews comprise a larger percentage of the population age 18 and over. In fact, about half of Florida’s Jews are age 65 and over. Since well over 90 percent of Jews in Florida are registered to vote and (nationally in 2008) about 96 percent of registered Jews claim to have voted, Jews may actually constitute as much as 6 to 8 percent of Florida’s electorate in 2012.

Most elections are won by tiny margins: 51 percent to 49 percent, 52 percent to 48 percent. Thus, even a population group that is a small percentage of the electorate can impact the outcome of an election, particularly in a state like Florida in which only 537 votes determined the winner of the 2000 presidential election.

Or even in a state like Missouri.

Missouri, with its 10 electoral votes, according to CNN at the time of this writing, is leaning toward GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney with the HuffPost Model Estimate showing Romney at 50.7 percent of the vote and President Barack Obama at 42.9 percent. In 2008, Missouri’s then 11 electoral votes went to Republican presidential candidate John McCain by 49.4 percent to 49.3 percent, a difference of 3,632 votes. The vote in Missouri was so close that it was the last state to be called in the 2008 election. In 2008, St. Louis County, where the vast majority of Missouri’s Jews reside, was won by Obama with almost 60 percent of the vote.

Missouri is only about 1 percent Jewish (60,000, 54,000 of whom live in the St. Louis area), but by the same logic as applied in Florida, perhaps 3 percent of the Missouri electorate is Jewish. Should the race tighten toward the type of results evidenced in 2008, the Jewish vote could help to determine the outcome in Missouri, particularly if the margin of victory is anywhere near the 0.1 percent it was in 2008.

Nationally, Jews are about twice as likely to be Democrats and significantly less likely to be Republicans than Americans in general. Of the 38 Jews elected to the current Congress, only one (Eric Cantor of Virginia) is a Republican. The latest polls at the time of this writing show Obama with about 70 percent of the Jewish vote nationwide.

So, the geographic concentration of the Jewish vote in a small number of states and the fact that elections are often won by such tiny margins elevate the importance of the Jewish vote.

Tikkun olam

One of the guiding principles of Judaism is that humanity is God’s partner in repairing the world. This implies a necessity for Jews to be involved in activities that heal, repair and transform the world. Thus, not only do Jews vote in large numbers, but they also participate in the electoral process well out of proportion to their numbers, both with their money and their time.

Estimates of the amount of money donated to the Democratic Party from Jews range from about one-third (Jonathan Tobin in Commentary) to 60 percent (Thomas Edsall and Alan Cooperman in the Washington Post). Jewish money donated to the Republican Party, even without the millions donated by Sheldon Adelson, is also significant.

And Jews are also involved in political activity in large numbers. In the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, 33 percent of Jews responded affirmatively that, in the past year, they “attended any political meetings or rallies, contributed money to a political party or candidate, or contacted or wrote a government official.” The same question of Jews in the Washington, D.C. area in 2003 resulted in 45 percent responding affirmatively.

Thus, it is not just the fact that Jews are a large enough group to impact the election in various states, but the fact that Jews also impact the electoral process through their donations of both money and time that results in the influence of the American Jewish community on the U.S. presidential election.