Special To The Jewish Week
The 2018-midterm elections have left the country pondering how a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and even more Republican Senate will deal with the nation’s problems or whether the outcome have made it more or less likely that President Donald Trump can be re-elected in 2020.
But while voting patterns are undergoing some stark changes as a result of the sharp debate about Trump, that isn’t true about the Jewish vote. As the National Election Pool exit poll data revealed, voting patterns have been remarkably stable with Democrats getting the overwhelming majority of Jewish support since the late 1920s. But the real news isn’t about the vote; it’s the way red and blue Jews are becoming as foreign to each other as is the case with other Americans.
No other religious or ethnic group has been so reliably in the pocket of either major party over the course of the last century. During this period most American Jews saw the generally liberal policies espoused by Democrats to be most consonant with their religious beliefs and the needs of a community that was either composed of or dedicated to aiding immigrants.
Whether this is in the interests of the Jews is a matter of opinion, but it has proved largely impervious to the efforts of Republicans to change it.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan got 39 percent of the Jewish vote against President Jimmy Carter, a record that no other Republican has matched in a national election. Since then, Republicans have consistently scored in the teens or twenties with a showing like Mitt Romney’s 30 percent in 2012 against President Barack Obama demonstrating what might be the ceiling for the GOP.
Since 1980, many Republicans have believed their party’s increasingly lockstep support for Israel would win them more Jewish votes. But that was a delusion. The only Jews for whom Israel is a litmus test are the minority that is already either conservative in their politics or religiously Orthodox.
But while Republicans eventually learned that pro-Israel policies were not enough to win over most Jews, that is a lesson that has been made even more clear with respect to President Trump. The president’s record of support for Israeli policies — including his moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — is unequaled by any of his predecessors. But it did nothing to offset the community’s pre-existing partisan loyalties, let alone to mollify the disgust he inspires among the majority of Jews.
That isn’t surprising. But what is worth noting is that despite the general antipathy for Trump, with large numbers of Jews believing that he is either an anti-Semite or to blame for unleashing a wave of anti-Semitism that led to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting — conclusions that are either false or debatable — there was no dramatic shift this year against the GOP. The Republicans’ 17 percent of the Jewish vote was lower than the 24 percent Trump got in 2016 and half of what the Republicans earned in their 2014 midterm landslide. But it’s actually higher than their share of the vote in the 2006 Democratic landslide and not much different than what Republicans have gotten on average over the last quarter-century.
The conclusion we should draw from this isn’t so much that Jews are still loyal Democrats. It’s that the liberal majority and conservative/Orthodox minority are becoming as remote from each other in our opinions as is the case with other Americans. In an age of hyper-partisanship, the country has broken down into red and blue nations that regard each other with mutual distrust and loathing. Yet as perilous as that is for the nation as a whole, it is even more so for Jews.
It’s not just that pro-and anti-Trump Jews disagree. It’s that we aren’t listening to or understanding each other’s point of view. The debate is one in which red and blue Jews are seen as not merely wrong but supporting points of view that are antithetical to Jewish survival, with Republicans and Democrats accusing each other of either abandoning Israel or indifference to anti-Semitism.
Trump didn’t start this problem and he hasn’t cratered the Jewish vote for the GOP. But the polarizing impact of his presidency and the debate it has engendered is driving an already dangerously splintered Jewish community even farther apart. That’s something that should worry all of us no matter which party gets our vote.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. His Jewish Week column appears monthly. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.