by Jeff Fleischer(World Jewish Digest, March 2008)
By the middle of February, more than two-thirds of Jewish Americans had been given the opportunity to cast ballots in this year’s primary elections.
And, as in years past, returns show that Jews voted primarily for Democratic candidates, splitting the vote between New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Jews made up only a handful of voters in the Republican primaries, with Senator John McCain faring well in states with larger Jewish populations.
The question now becomes how effectively the candidates will attract Jewish votes in the general election. “Will people target the Jewish vote?” asks Steve Rabinowitz, a Washington-based political consultant and former Clinton White House aide. “Sure. Because no base constituency wants to be taken for granted, and there will certainly be outreach from both parties. But it likely won’t make much of a difference.”
That’s because statistics show that since World War II, more than two-thirds of American Jews self-identify as liberal and about half of Jewish voters during that span have registered as Democrats (with between 30 and 35 percent Independents, and between 13 and 17 percent Republicans). This trend has produced expected results at the ballot box. In congressional races, Republicans’ best showing among Jews was 32 percent in 1988, while Democrats topped out at 82 percent in 1982.
As for the presidential race, Voter News Service exit polls began tracking Jewish voters in the 1972 contest, and every Democratic candidate since has won Jewish support – with Ronald Reagan’s 38 percent in 1980 the best showing for a Republican. But despite Jewish voters’ general patterns and their small numbers, both parties consistently make an effort to court them.
“Every two years, the Republican Jews predict this will be the year Jews trend Republican,” Rabinowitz says. “Every November they’re proven wrong, and every cycle it repeats itself.” He notes, however, that Orthodox Jews have been more likely to vote Republican, but mostly in the state and congressional contests, rather than the presidential ones.
Jews are an attractive voting bloc because they turn out at high rates on Election Day and donate disproportionately to political campaigns. And while most of America’s Jewish population is clustered in a few states, some that are gaining Jewish voters – Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina – have been competitive states in recent general elections.
On the Democratic side, the primary race between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton remained tight nationwide as of press time, with neither holding much of a delegate lead.
According to Super Tuesday exit poll data on Feb. 5, the Jewish vote among Democrats was split. Clinton won 65 percent in New York and 63 percent in New Jersey, while carrying both states by wide margins overall. Obama won the Jewish vote in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and finished much closer among Jews in California (48 percent to 44 percent) than among total voters. Both are turning out record numbers of voters in nearly every state, and the eventual winner will try to continue that trend in November.
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, says this year’s presidential contest showcases candidates with “strong” records on Israel. “The key is to demonstrate that their record is pro-Israel, and they will easily do that,” Forman says. “Because Clinton and Obama, and John McCain, assuming he’s the GOP nominee, have Senate records that voters can examine.”
In a race between Clinton or Obama and McCain, Forman says, the candidates’ pro-Israel voting records will mean Jews will focus on other issues, like the economy, Iraq and the separation of church and state.
Indeed, polls show voters are, overall, most concerned with the U.S. economy, the Iraq occupation, health care and the environment. Obama and Clinton support a phased withdrawal from Iraq, while Mc- Cain opposes any timetables. On the economy, McCain favors making President Bush’s tax cuts permanent, while both Democrats favor tax relief for the middle class and rolling back tax cuts on incomes above $250,000. All three favor a mandatory cap-and-trade policy on carbon emissions to help combat climate change. The trio’s health care plans have significant differences, with Obama and Clinton favoring a move toward universal health care and Mc- Cain favoring a market-driven approach toward making health care more affordable.
The Obama campaign has had an extra obstacle to overcome, as a series of anonymous e-mails being passed around the Web have falsely accused him of attending an Islamist school as a youth. Another controversy came late last year when the pastor of Obama’s church, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, praised Louis Farrakhan in the church’s magazine as a “giant” of the religious experience. In response, Obama condemned Farrakhan’s antisemitic statements. (He has also consistently criticized Farrakhan and called him antisemitic.)
In January, the leaders of nine major Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Jewish Congress, signed a letter urging voters to ignore these falsehoods. Still, pro-Republican groups outside the campaigns have set up Web sites with similar charges and other misleading claims about Obama’s record.
“It’s not just the anonymous emails,” Forman says, “it’s these Web sites. They can’t argue that Obama or Hillary are anti-Israel because they’re not. And they can’t talk about the issues because they’re on the wrong side of issues with the Jewish community. So they have to stoop to innuendo, guilt by distant association, holding candidates to double standards and omission of inconvenient facts. And shame on us as a community if we fall for these lies.”
The primary picture among Jewish Republicans is harder to quantify because of their smaller numbers even in the more populous Jewish states (about 4 percent of GOP voters in New York, 2 percent in California, 3 percent in Massachusetts and Florida). GOP exit polls don’t poll “Jewish” as a demographic category.
Arizona Senator John McCain is generally considered the favorite candidate of GOP Jews and won most of the states with larger Jewish populations. McCain also received the endorsement of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who became the first Jewish candidate on a major-party presidential ticket when Al Gore picked him for vice president in 2000. Like Obama and Clinton, McCain’s Senate record shows strong support for Israel. He also ended the February primaries with a commanding lead among Republicans in the delegate count, winning most of the biggest states. The other major GOP candidate still in the race, Mike Huckabee, is a former Arkansas governor who has never had to vote on foreign-policy issues. However, says Suzanne Kurtz, press secretary of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Huckabee has a “longstanding track record of support for Israel.”
Huckabee has been to Israel nine times and penned a Feb. 4 op-ed piece in The Jerusalem Post that outlined his views on Iran and policy toward terrorism – advocating an increase in defense spending and opposing any summit meetings with the Iranian government. A third Republican candidate, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, favors a non-interventionist foreign policy but has received little support among voters.
“We think it’s been pretty evident that there’s been a difference in the way the Democrats view issues of national security and the Republicans do,” Kurtz said. “We think Jewish voters who are concerned with issues of national security, who are concerned with Israel’s security, will be more likely to connect with the positions of the leading Republican candidates.”
The Republicans hope McCain, who has polled well among Independents and moderates in early primaries, can put a dent in the Jews’ Democratic leanings and that the Orthodox community will continue its recent shift toward the GOP. However, Rabinowitz explains, the differences in Jewish voting behavior are likely to be small.
“In Florida and Ohio, or even Nevada or Arizona, some of these swing states, the Jewish vote can make a difference. But only at the margins,” he says. “Any time an election comes down to a few votes, if a candidate does better with one group than expected, that can change the outcome, but that’s rare. Usually, the Jewish vote tends to be the same no matter who’s running. Even not knowing who the candidates are, I know that the Jewish vote in November will be more or less three to one Democratic. It almost doesn’t matter who the nominees are.”
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for Mother Jones, the Sydney Morning Herald, The New Republic, Mental Floss and Chicago magazine. He is currently a 2008 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.