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Election 2012: Does the Jewish Vote Matter?

October 28, 2012 | by Shmuel Rosner

A non-partisan look at voting trends in the American Jewish community.

Excerpted from "The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney: A Voter’s Guide," a non-partisan look at voting trends in the American Jewish community.

No one really knows exactly how many Jews are there in the United States: too few to be reliably polled, too confusingly defined to be reliably counted. In the largest study of the American Jewish community of recent decades, the number was put around 5.2 million. Yet later studies repudiated that figure, putting the number higher – at 6.4 million (a Brandeis University team) or closer to 6.6 million (Ira Sheskin of Miami University and Arnold Dashefsky of Connecticut University). Of course, not all of them vote, but Jews do historically vote at a much higher rate than the rest of the American public, and the Jewish population is older than the rest of the general public. In other words, more Jews are eligible to vote, possibly close to 80%. That's 80% of the approximately 2% of Americans who are Jewish, of which many go to the polls come Election Day – maybe as many as five million Jewish voters across the country.

Jews tend to move to states with a high number of electoral votes: The top four states with the largest Jewish populations account for 127 electoral votes; the top 10 states with the largest Jewish populations account for 244 electoral votes. However, most of them cast their ballots in places where there will be no real competition between Obama and Romney. Four states have a Jewish population that accounts for more than half of all American Jews: New York, California, Florida and New Jersey. Eight states have a population of close to a quarter of a million Jews: New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland. In New York, Jews make up about 8% of the population. In New Jersey it is 5-6%. In Maryland and Massachusetts the percentage of Jews is also greater than 4%.

Those with the highest concentration of Jews are not battleground states.

Most of these are not expected to be battlefield states. In most of them President Obama is going to cruise to victory without having to invest much time campaigning among Jews and non-Jews alike. The notable exception is Florida – a toss-up state, and a must-win for Romney, in which Jews make about 3.5% of the population; Pennsylvania (2.3% Jewish) is a less probable exception – a state in which Romney is making an investment (albeit not a state that the Jews could reasonably deliver even if the vote were very close). The McCain campaign of 2008 also hoped for a while to take Pennsylvania, but didn't even come close; New Jersey is even less probable: It went for the Republican candidate from 1972 to 1988, but for the Democratic candidates ever since. Nevertheless, in almost every election cycle there's a point at which Republicans flirt with the idea of a New Jersey win.

Florida, and maybe, just maybe, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey – with so few Jews in so few states of consequence, one wonders, does the Jewish vote even matter? "With most elections being decided by 1-5 percentage points, even a small minority can influence an election, particularly in states with somewhat larger percentages of Jews," declares one researcher. "The Jewish seniors in South Florida always have disproportionate influence in an election year," points out another. Others are more skeptical. In reality, for Jewish votes to be of any significance come Election Day, the margin between candidates has to be very small – very, very small – and in very specific areas.

Take Ohio, for example. Jews in this state comprise 1.3% of the population and about 3% of the vote. In 2004, a very close election, George W. Bush took the state by 2.1% of the entire Ohio electorate. This means that even in the tightest of elections, you need every single Jew to vote as one bloc to make a difference. That is very unlikely to happen, as even the most optimistic (among Republican operatives) and the most pessimistic (among Democratic operatives) put the percentage of Jewish swing voters in play at no higher than 15% to 18%, which could potentially be added to the 24% of Jewish Americans who voted for John McCain in 2008.

Or take Florida, the most talked-about state of possible Jewish consequence, a state in which the Jews were allegedly responsible for a month-long lock on the presidential pick, following the 2000 elections, a state where Joe Lieberman was able to bring Al Gore very close to winning, thanks to, among others, Jewish voters. Florida has been for a number of years now the ground zero of American Jewish politics – from Lieberman of 2000 to the Sarah Silverman video supporting Obama of 2008.

The Lieberman Factor

Lieberman is the most demonstrable manifestation to date of American Jewish political prowess, having been the Democratic VP candidate. But in 2008 Lieberman was in Florida to support his good friend, Senator McCain (McCain would later even consider him as possible running mate). When I saw him there, trying to convince Jewish residents of the state, many of whom are of retirement age, to vote for the Republican candidate, I was reminded of an old story about the 1952 Adlai Stevenson campaign. When Stevenson was campaigning in California – the story goes – a woman asked him where he got his tan. "You been playing golf?" the woman asked. "No," responded Stevenson, "I got this tan making outdoor speeches in Florida." Well,” said the woman, "if you got that brown you talked for too long."

In 2008 Florida, while Obama was struggling to convince Jewish voters that he will provide firm support for Israel, Lieberman talked too long about why the opposite was true. He told them that Obama's Mideast policy was going to hurt Israel and the United States. Following an Obama address to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, reporters were called in to see Lieberman. "I appreciate many of the very good intentions toward Israel that Senator Obama expressed today," the Jewish senator said. "But I also thought, respectfully, that there was a disconnect between what he said today, particularly in regard to Iran, and things he has said and done earlier.” Obama did not support the so-called Lieberman-Kyle amendment, which called on the U.S. administration to classify Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization.

Obama was angry with Lieberman, and at a meeting between the two expressed his disappointment at the tone and content of the assaults. He was a little worried at the time, early summer of 2008, because the polls were telling him that the Jews were less enthusiastic about him than they had been about previous party candidates. And such worries were especially evident in the Florida campaign.

But a summer-long battle ended decisively, when fall surveys put Jews right where they usually belong. A Gallup poll revealed that nationally, the "proportion of U.S. Jews backing Obama is identical to the level of support the Democratic ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards received in the 2004 presidential election – 74% – and was "only slightly lower than what Al Gore and Joe Lieberman received in 2000 – 80%. More specifically, a Quinnipiac University poll of the Florida vote gave Obama a 77% to 20% lead over McCain in the Sunshine State.

Calculations of doomsday scenarios keep appearing in the media.

As for 2012, calculations of possible doomsday scenarios keep appearing in the papers. "If Obama receives only 68 percent of Florida's Jewish vote, which is what a recent Gallup poll showed him earning nationally, it could mean 20,000 fewer Florida votes than he received in 2008,” warned the Tampa Bay Times in mid-summer.

So yes, one can imagine a Florida showdown in which every Jewish vote counts. But all in all, it is worth remembering that thus far no presidential election is US history has been determined by Jewish voters flocking to one side or the other. Counting Jews, counting them in the crucial states, counting those that can be swayed to the other side, counting those that can make an electoral difference – counting all those hardly explains all the coverage and noise associated with the Jewish vote. But if counting isn't the way to measure the importance of the Jewish vote, which way is the right way?

A Jewish GOP?

Over the last several decades, Democratic party identification overall has fluctuated both up and down, from 36% at the high points in 1988 and 2008 (according to Gallup poll tracking), to a low of 31% in 2010. Among many traditionally Democratic groups, such as white Southerners, Catholics and others, the trend has been fairly consistently downward, even as other groups, mainly Hispanics, have become more reliable supporters of the party. But while others were busy changing affiliation, the Jews' political leanings have remained largely the same. "Twenty percent of Jews line up with the Republican candidate, 60 percent with the Democratic candidate. About 20 percent are uncommitted to a particular party,” explained one writer. This is not exactly accurate today, but is close enough to make the point.

There are many explanations for the unique political behavior of the Jewish voter, most focusing on the relatively liberal views of Jews on almost all social issues, while others suggesting that the "rural, overwhelmingly Christian and Southern" nature of the GOP is a turn-off. The Washington Post's conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin framed it thus: "They don't sound like us, they don't talk like us, and they don't understand us." Whatever the reason, the outcome is quite clear, and the number of Jewish votes at play seems small.

Will 2012 prove to be any different? In August 2011, New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow – relying on data from the Pew Research Center – argued that "the number of Jews who identify as Republican or as independents who lean Republican has increased by more than half since the year [Barack Obama] was elected. At 33 percent, it now stands at the highest level since the data have been kept. In 2008, the ratio of Democratic Jews to Republican Jews was far more than three to one. Now it's less than two to one.”

In response to criticism from some quarters, Blow repeated his claim a few weeks later in another column, in which he argued that "Obama's approval rating among Jews in 2010 averaged 58 percent. This percentage was the lowest of all those representing his enthusiastic supporter groups except one, the religious unaffiliated.” Blow's claim that Obama's loss of support among Jews should be attributed to the president's positions on Israel was furiously debated (many of Blow's critics were associated with the dovish J Street lobby, and relied on many polls in which Jews rank the topic of "Israel" as fairly low in their voting priorities). Nevertheless, the question remains: Are Jews – as Pew researchers argue – "the only religious group analyzed in which the percentage who identify themselves as Republican (as opposed to leaning toward the GOP) has risen significantly"?

Studies suggest that the GOP is gaining somewhat among Jewish voters.

To help make all this a numbers-based type of discussion, we pulled together and analyzed data available from four sources: The annual survey of American Jewish opinion by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Gallup polls, the study on Jewish Distinctiveness in America by Tom W. Smith (from 2005 – we needed those to get a glimpse of previous decades) and the Pew Research Center studies. The result was quite revealing: Pew studies definitely suggest that the GOP is gaining somewhat among Jewish voters (that was the basis for Blow's argument), and the other data is more nuanced, but as we kept tracking it pointed at similar numbers.

Having said that, and knowing that party identification is the best projector of voting behavior, the picture is quite clear: On a good day, Mitt Romney has a glass ceiling of 35%, on not as good a day, he will outperform McCain by 1% and get to 27% of the Jewish vote. Pollster Jim Gerstein, simulating an Obama-Romney race in November of 2011, predicted an Obama lead among Jews 63% to 24%. And when Gerstein – a Democrat – allocated "the undecided voters by party identification – a common practice among political pollsters when trying to map out the outcome of a race" he split the vote 70% for Obama to 27% for Romney.

Other pollsters had somewhat rosier predictions for Romney. According to the AJC survey, he could get as much as 33% of the Jewish vote. But since we've already showed how small the number of undecided Jews is, it is clear that the number of voters that could still be transferred from one candidate to the other is miniscule. Just calculate: If the Jewish swing votes in play are no more than 8% percent – Romney's ceiling is close to the mid-30s. But for him to get to that number, one needs to give him the votes of every single undecided Jewish voter. And that's not quite realistic. If Romney gets half the votes of undecided Jews, he'll be around 30%. This means 4% more than McCain's 2008 vote, and in places like Ohio might mean a four-percent addition within the 3% Jewish vote. A tiny fraction of voters. So – again – why even bother?

Long-term Investment

Yet interestingly, in this election cycle a lot of fuss has been generated about the highly publicized investment by Las Vegas casino magnate, philanthropist and billionaire Sheldon Adelson. An investment that targets Jewish voters. With the Adelson money, the Republican Jewish Coalition, headed by Matt Brooks, initiated an advertising campaign in some of the battle states in which Jews live in high proportions, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and, of course, Florida. It is a series of ads entitled "My Buyer's Remorse": Jewish Obama voters are shown switching sides because they are disappointed with the economy, or with his other policies, notably relations with Israel. A $6.5 million campaign – and for what? To get the 4% of 3% to switch sides?

Probably not. It is hard to imagine people as smart as this wasting money on a campaign of no likely consequence. There must be another reason – or reasons. And since the number of voters we're talking about is fairly small, the explanation must be to do with a small number of people making a big enough difference to matter.

Three such reasons are worthy of mention.

The first one – call it the "every-vote-counts" explanation – is the one relevant primarily to Florida votes in a very tight year. That Jews haven't yet tipped an election doesn't exclude the possibility that one day they might.

Jewish mega-giving is playing a large role in Election 2012.

The second reason – the one that is mentioned by the experts more than all others – is Jewish money. Jews have high incomes compared to other American groups, and are a highly engaged group politically. This includes donating to political parties and causes. One 2011 study of the Jewish electorate found that "one in two respondents had given money to a political party.” And the givers, says veteran columnist Jim Besser, are of a very certain type: "While Jewish voting isn't very Israel-focused, Jewish campaign giving is – and especially the mega-giving that is playing a bigger role than ever in Election 2012.”

In other words, if Besser is right, then the money Adelson is giving is really more an investment than a gift: He is giving his good Jewish money to the Republicans to bring on board more Jews who will give them even more money and more importantly not give to the democrats who heavily rely on it. According to some reports, "campaign donations from Jews or Jewish and pro-Israel groups account for as much as 60 percent of Democratic money.” That's reason enough for both parties to court the Jewish vote.

For final numbers from the 2012 campaigns, one will have to wait a little longer, until all races are concluded. But some numbers from past years are available for those interested in tracking Jewish funds. One example: Pro-Israel political contributions (including funds to Political Action Committees, or PACs) – almost $14 million in 2008, close to $13 million in the 2010 midterm cycle – about 35% goes into GOP-leaning organizations and 65% to Democratic organizations. Republicans, then, have a long way to go if the goal is to take money away from Democratic-leaning organizations. They might be trying to do it based on identification of a "distinctive Jewish conservative voice emerging on Israel-related matters and an array of domestic social issues.”

Outperforming Expectations

Apart from the more tangible votes and money, though, a third factor seems to be in play as the significance of the Jewish vote is hyped time and again, and as the level of coverage of Jewish voters and analysis of Jewish calculations far outweigh its significance compared to other American sub-groups. One would say it's the influence that Jews have in the media and their solid presence in notable positions. Others would point to their presence in celebrity circles and the arts, while still others would look to the over-representation of Jews in American politics, as advisors, consultants, pollsters, analysts and elected officials.

But you can really just call it the bellwether factor. Jews are seen as major political players because they believe that their vote really counts, because they project self-importance. They might not tip elections, but they appear as if they can. "Focusing on presidential elections since 1980,” wrote historian Jonathan Sarna, "it appears that about 30 percent of Jewish voters may be characterized as swing voters, swayed by general as well as Jewish issues, particularly the economy, Israel, and church-state issues. When the majority of these voters swing toward the Republicans, it sends a warning to the Democratic Party.”

Politicians understand pressure and make the necessary adjustments.

Such "warning" might come in many guises. In a post-2008 election conference call with Jewish Republicans – who had to face the undeniable truth that a vast majority of Jews, yet again, had voted for the Democratic candidate – the RJC leaders had an interesting case to make. Because of our fierce campaign to sway Jewish voters, they said, the Democrats had to invest much more effort on the Jewish vote this time. Moreover, the concerns the Democrats had about Obama losing Jewish voters made the candidate more prone to give pro-Israel speeches. In essence, the Jewish Republicans were trying to take some of the credit for the making of the pro-Israel Obama. And that's not as preposterous as one's initial gut response might dictate: Politicians understand pressure – Obama was pressured, he made the necessary adjustments; namely, he was more attentive to Jewish concerns – or at least more attentive to the need of voters for him to reassure them.

Obama could have easily won the 2008 election without the Jews, but losing Jewish voters would have projected badly on him, would have raised doubts, would have provoked unnecessary negative attention. Obama wanted to get the Jewish vote – all candidates want to outperform expectations with Jewish voters. The Jewish vote is a symbol. For Democrats, who get the majority of it – it is a symbol of tradition and well being. For Republicans, struggling to increase their share – a symbol of possible success with the general public.

In the 1988 race between Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush, polls were highly inaccurate, or perhaps it was the public that was very confused. During the summer prior to the election, Dukakis seemed for a while as the very likely victor against Bush. And it was only after the GOP convention did reality start to sink in. Bush was running against a candidate who was never very popular with Jewish voters, and was the successor of a president who was (relatively speaking) popular among Jews. Reagan got more than 30% of the Jewish vote on two occasions; Bush, running on Reagan's coattails has crossed this threshold once. The second time, he lost the Jews – and lost the election.

That is not to say that where the Jews go America also goes. But it is interesting to note that when it comes to the Jewish vote, there's a big difference between 30% of Jews voting for a losing GOP candidate, and 30% of Jews voting for a winning GOP candidate. With winning candidates, it does happen from time to time: The 1988 Bush, the 1980 and 1984 Reagan, the 1972 Richard Nixon, the 1952 and 1956 Dwight Eisenhower. However, the last losing GOP candidate to get more than 30% of the Jewish vote was Charles Evans Hughes, in 1916. So you see, there's a good reason for Romney to invest in the Jewish vote. If Romney gets 30% or above of the Jewish vote – not an easy benchmark – it is almost like getting insurance policy against losing.

Or it could be the end of a very long political tradition.


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