The 2016 Election Blog #9: Jews and Their Politics

Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.

Posted on February 8, 2016 / 29 Shevat 5776

Written by Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.


2016 Election

—Twelve principles of American Jewish political practice are introduced here as a way to provide a roadmap to understand the nature and character of the Jewish community in this election year.
—Jews provide significant financial support to both political parties and to many candidates. Some analysts project that as much as 50% of all monies raised by Democratic presidential candidates are from Jewish funders; similarly, 25% of the Republican donor base is comprised today of major Jewish contributors.
—Jewish voters enter the political fray with a broad range of interests. An AJC study of the major concerns of American Jews conducted in August 2015 found the “U.S.-Israel Relationship” scored fifth among the primary contending political and economic issues, noted by 7% of respondents.
—Every candidate seeking the presidential nomination has seen the need to reference his or her special connection to Israel, often invoking a reference to their personal relationships and/or political ties to the Jewish state. In each of the primary debates, candidates have taken the opportunity to refer to Israel as “America’s ally” or to acknowledge some other particular identification.
—In a close election the “Jewish vote” becomes significantly more important, and this factor is particularly true in such key “swing” states as Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. The Jewish community remains an important voting constituency in seven other states: New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, California, and Connecticut.
—In the 2012 election, overall voter turnout was only 54%, yet it is estimated that 85% of America’s Jews vote.

Every four years America goes through a civic ritual, the election of a President. Jews have become active participants in this political encounter as Jonathan Woocher observed, “Politics is the civil religion of American Jewry.”1

In 2016 Jews are once again embedded in this political drama of electing a new national leader. Twelve principles of American Jewish political practice are introduced here as a way to provide a roadmap to understand the nature and character of the Jewish community in this election year:

Principle One:

The deep ideological political divide within American society is also present within the Jewish community and this battle over ideas and personalities is being played out as part of the 2016 presidential campaign.

At the end of last year I wrote about the “state” of this Jewish divide:2

Jewish political frustration is broad and encompasses the perspectives of Jews both on the left and the right. For liberal Jews there is growing unhappiness over the absence of legislative initiatives dealing with immigration reform, gun control, and the protection of voting rights for minorities across the country. Jewish conservatives, who were already critical of the Obama Administration in its handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship, would become enraged by the Iran Nuclear Accord Agreement, the management of the American response to ISIS, and the general tenor of the nation’s commitment to security. The grievances and differences among Jews have created what some have framed as the “great divide,” where the political tension can be defined as deep and uncompromising. The degree of angry rhetoric and the heightened levels of communal tension serve to affirm this schism.

Just as Jews are caught up in the negativity of the campaign and its issues, Americans in general appear invested in finding an “outsider” who in their mind can break the “Washington paralysis” and will be responsive to the interests and needs of the middle class. A level of fear seems to also grip portions of the voting public who are uncertain about their own future and the country’s direction. The “political normal” at this point in this election marathon might best be described as an unsettled and angry electorate in search of the “ideal” candidate.

Principle Two:

The political behavior of American Jews while difficult to predict in this election year is partially reflected in this Survey of American Jewish Opinion (August 2015). In this study individuals were asked to describe their political identities:

Liberal 26.8
Lean Liberal 18.3
Moderate, Middle of the Road 33.8
Lean Conservative 13.0
Conservative 7.9

The participants in that study were asked to identify their party affiliation:3

Republican 19
Democrat 48.6
Independent 32.1

The individuals were randomly selected for this survey study but tend to reflect the general breakdown of the “Jewish Vote” as demonstrated by prior studies. In Mellman, Straus, and Waldman’s work4 from a few years earlier as well as the Pew Study of 20135 one finds substantial confirmation of the liberal orientation of the Jewish community. Indeed, most studies continue to show this general pattern, but it remains unclear at this point whether various recent events, involving global terrorism and domestic uncertainties, will alter the Jewish political mindset.

Jewish voters remain much more Democratic than the rest of the electorate. Since 1984, Jewish support for Democratic candidates has been 21-34 points higher than the support from the national electorate. Similarly, the Jewish percentage of the two-party vote has been 22-32 points more Democratic than the national electorate.

Jews have given even higher levels of support to Democratic congressional candidates ranging from 71 percent to 80 percent of the two-party vote between 1976 and 2000 and from 71 percent to 88 percent since 2002.6

“Liberalism” as a political notion is being reclassified, just as American conservative thought has taken on different dimensions. Liberals from 50 years ago, for example, would probably not recognize some of the characteristics and policy preferences that comprise the contemporary framework of American politics.7 Similarly, Barry Goldwater’s 1964 “conservatism” would not resonate with today’s politics.

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