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America Decides 2004 Despite Republicans’ Best Efforts, Jews Still Vote Strongly Democratic

The past four years have seen a defining terrorist attack, a divisive war and a radically different economy, but at the ballot box, it seemed, not much had changed: Election night produced pretty much the same electoral map, pretty much the same angry, polarized nation and pretty much the same anxious obsession with a single state and how it counts its ballots.

And Jews, for their part, voted pretty much the way they did four years ago.

Expectations that Republicans would make inroads into decades of Jewish support for the Democratic Party ran into a wall of Jewish votes for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic candidate.

President Bush’s unprecedented closeness to Israel and his reputation for toughness on terrorism did little to shake the traditional 3-1 Jewish break for Democrats.

Two national exit polls showed that Bush gained modestly over the 19 percent of the Jewish vote he scored in 2000: One, from the Associated Press, split Kerry-Bush 77 percent to 23 percent; another, from CNN, went 76 percent to 24 percent.

A phone poll by pollster Frank Luntz in Florida and Ohio, two battleground states, split the vote 72 percent to 25 percent in Kerry’s favor, suggesting that the Bush campaign’s blitz in those states in the final days might have had a small degree of success.

But local networks said both Florida and New York split the Jewish vote, with 80 for Kerry, 20 for Bush.

Luntz’s poll also showed a strong Orthodox trend toward Bush, with 69 percent of Orthodox respondents in Florida and Ohio saying they voted for the president. That conforms with earlier data in American Jewish Committee polling.

Despite the unprecedented resources — by both campaigns devoted to swaying the Jewish vote, in the end, it was doubtful that Jewish voters played a central role in determining the outcome in any of the swing states.

Republican jubilation at Bush’s showing — he led the popular vote and was close to winning the overall electoral vote Wednesday morning, though counting in Ohio could take weeks — was more muted among his Jewish supporters.

“It’s not adequate from my point of view,” said Ed Koch, a former mayor of New York City who stumped hard for Bush among Jews from Iowa to Florida.

Koch, a Democrat who said Bush deserved Jewish votes because of his unstinting support for Israel, sounded a familiar Republican Jewish theme: The president deserves Jewish gratitude.

“I’m glad it was an improvement,” Koch told JTA, but added, “I think he deserved much more.”

It was a theme that played itself out in a flurry of Op-Eds targeting Jewish readers in the final days of the campaign.

“I believe that more Jews than expected will vote for President Bush,” conservative Jewish scholar Dennis Prager said in his column last week. “There is no trait as ugly as ingratitude.”

Others said that expecting any voter to cast a ballot in thanks was unrealistic.

“Jews are multi-issue voters,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for local community relations groups.

Rosenthal cited as an example the strength that evangelical Christians enjoyed in the Bush administration and in the Republican-controlled Congress.

“There has been a nervousness on the part of the organized Jewish community, not just at the national agency level, but also at the community level, at the close association with evangelical values,” she said.

“It is perceived by many in this country as intolerant, and Jews as a people, as a religion and as voters look toward tolerance, big-tent pluralism and outreach.”

Concerns about keeping the church out of state affairs figured large in questionnaires returned to American Jewish Committee pollsters in four swing states where both parties had targeted the Jewish community in an ad blitz.

“People voting for Kerry cited domestic policy, church-state separation, abortion, stem-cell research, Supreme Court nominations and President Bush’s leadership qualities,” said David Harris, the AJCommittee’s executive director.

The increasingly tangled Iraq war and an economy dogged by joblessness also figured in the pro-Kerry vote among Jews.

“Where the Bush campaign failed with the Jewish vote was to swing the undecided, because the Bush campaign had not tacked to the center,” Harris said.

Jews supporting Bush cited his support for Israel and his tough stance against terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, Harris said.

Those were the themes Republicans hammered in advertising and campaign blitzes in swing states.

The campaigning might have made a difference. Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who conducted the phone survey in Ohio and Florida showing a 72-25 split in Kerry’s favor, said the improvement from 2000 helped put Bush over the top in both states.

“It wasn’t the margin of victory, but it contributed to the margin of victory,” he told JTA.

Still, in some cases it might have backfired.

Koch’s ubiquitous campaigning for Bush as the best choice for Israel “really annoys the hell out of me,” said Maury Shulman, 62, a longtime registered Republican who cast his vote for Kerry at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, Pa., another swing state.

“I don’t think any American president would abandon Israel.”

Harris said the small minority of voters who changed their vote from 2000 tended overwhelmingly to switch from Kerry to Bush — and also tended to cite terrorism and Israel as reasons for their switch.

Republicans were especially determined in Ohio. Party activists urged fervently Orthodox Jews to get out the vote, knowing that the community trends heavily to Republicans.

Yehiel Kalish organized babysitting and bussing for fervently Orthodox communities in Cleveland and Cincinnati.

“The turnout was phenomenal,” he said.

He said that most of his community probably voted for Bush, but said that wasn’t the main consideration in his organization.

“In Ohio, we knew it was going to be looked upon who voted and who didn’t, and if the haredi community was looked upon as to who voted and who didn’t, it would be a ‘hillul Hashem’ if we didn’t,” Kalish said, using a Hebrew expression meaning sacrilege. “Our ultimate goal was whatever would be best for our community.”

Another community trending strongly to Bush was the Russian Jewish community, Harris said.

An AJCommittee Election Day survey among Russian Jews in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey showed a 75-25 split for Bush. Respondents tended to explain their vote by citing Bush’s strong leadership qualities.

Such trends, buried in statistical data, encouraged Republicans to look beyond their disappointment at what was only a small Jewish shift toward Bush. “We know the demographic shift favors us: The more senior are more loyal to the Democrats, but the younger have open minds,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

He said the comparison should not be to the 19 percent of the Jewish vote that Bush won in 2000, but to the 11 percent his father won in 1992.

Luntz agreed, saying his polling showed higher Republican support among younger Jews.

“The Republicans will need to be patient, but their outreach strategy will pay off — it already did tonight,” he said.

Democrats scoffed, noting that the results fell well short of the 30 percent Luntz had predicted just months ago, and the 40-plus percent that Brooks had predicted three years ago.

They said Bush’s performance was especially weak considering that he did not face a Jewish vice presidential candidate, as he did in 2000 with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).

“Last time, we had the first Jewish candidate on a national ticket, and this time there’s no statistical movement?” Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council said, noting that Bush’s 22 percent performance in one exit poll on Tuesday was within the statistical margin of error of the 19 percent he polled in 2000.

“It’s embarrassing, like the boy who cried wolf.”

Forman said it had been a hard-fought battle with Jewish Republican activists — one that saw both sides spending unprecedented cash to target Jewish voters.

“There is no automatic Jewish majority for the Democratic Party,” he said. “We’ve got to work every election.”

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