Op-ed: Why Jews Voted for Obama

This year, once again, the Jewish community overwhelmingly supported the Democratic nominee for president. With the election of Barack Obama, Jewish voters selected a candidate who, despite an unprecedented smear campaign, represents the values of our community.

This year, we also heard the all-too-familiar claims that the Republican nominee would receive a record amount of the Jewish vote. Again, however, this prediction came up woefully short.

In every election cycle for the past 36 years, Republicans offered “sky is falling” predictions that Jewish voters would give significant support to the Republican nominee. A typical claim was when President George W. Bush’s campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, predicted in 2004 that Bush would garner between 30 and 35 percent of the Jewish vote. Despite the Republicans’ history of failed forecasts of the Jewish vote prior to 2004, their delusional claims persisted.

In 2004, the media largely bought into the argument that Bush would receive a significant portion of the Jewish vote. A New Republic piece by Lawrence Kaplan titled “Kerry’s Jewish Problem” typefied the media’s fascination with the prospect that Sen. John Kerry would receive an unusually small portion of the Jewish vote. The media frenzy led many to give credence to Republican claims about the Jewish vote four years ago.

Despite the Republican theory about Jewish voters, results from Election Day 2004 showed the usual overwhelming Jewish support for Kerry. In fact, since 1972, when exit polls were first instituted, the Republican nominee has averaged only 27 percent of the Jewish vote. In recent elections, the Republican nominee has received even less, with Jewish support at 22 percent for Bush in 2004 and 19 percent in 2000, and 16 percent for Bob Dole in 1996. In 2006, the Jewish support of Democratic congressional candidates reached 87 percent.

Nonetheless, the media remained enticed by persistent Republican claims about the Jewish vote during this election cycle. The endless attempt by the media to report the “man bites dog story” led to news articles such as “Obama’s Jewish Problem” (Politico, March 13, 2007) and “Obama’s Struggle to Secure the Jewish Vote” (NBC, May 23, 2008). Again, this year’s supporters of the Republican nominee and members of the media prematurely reported that John McCain would receive a dramatically increased percentage of Jewish support with Obama as the Democratic nominee.

In the early months of the election campaign, the polls projected Obama would receive about 60 percent of the Jewish community’s support. Sensing an opportunity to capture a sizable number of Jewish voters, McCain supporters engaged in an unprecedented campaign in the Jewish community. This campaign not only included efforts to paint Obama as an anti-American Muslim, but it also implied that an Obama presidency could bring a second Holocaust. The campaign was widely criticized and outraged many in the Jewish communities they targeted.

As Election Day drew closer and the Jewish community learned more about the two candidates, polling showed that Obama’s support in the Jewish community increased to between 70 and 74 percent. Ultimately the Jewish community supported the Democratic nominee in overwhelming numbers. According to exit polling from Tuesday’s election, Obama received 78 percent of the Jewish vote – about 25 percent greater than Obama’s percentage of total support nationally. That exceeded everyone’s expectations.

There are two reasons for this performance. First, Jewish voters took a very close look at both candidates in the final 10 weeks of the campaign. Obama’s performance in the debates belied the GOP narrative that he could not be trusted, while McCain’s pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate undermined his Jewish support.

Second, Jewish Democrats — the National Jewish Democratic Council, along with the Obama campaign and other independent efforts — were better organized than ever.

Every four years, like a broken record, we are subjected to the refrain from Republicans that “this is gong to be the year the Jewish community votes Republican” — but it never proves true. Somewhat prophetically, Ethan Porter of The New Republic got it right last week when he reported that “the fear that Jews might desert the Democratic Party comes up every four years” but “this theory might finally be put to bed.”

Indeed, as it has for the last three decades, the theory that Jewish voters would significantly support the Republican nominee again has been discredited.

(Marc Stanley is the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council.)

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