The debate over whether American Jews are turning to the Republican Party is not likely to be settled when the votes are counted on Nov. 5.
With midterm congressional elections just weeks away, Republicans cite a variety of reasons why this year’s polls may not show the political shift they have been predicting for the past year.
But Democrats say the election will be the best sign yet of where Jews stand on the political spectrum.
It’s hardly a new debate. For years, Republican Jewish leaders have touted increasing support from the Jewish community, while exit polls continue to show that most Jews vote Democratic.
Still, with a Republican president who is strongly pro-Israel and Republican voices in Congress taking the lead in support of Israel and the U.S. war on terrorism, the issue has garnered notice in mainstream media.
While several indicators hint at a trend, little information exists to make a definitive assessment. That makes Election Day an important test for both sides of the argument.
Any Jewish movement toward the Republican Party would strike at one of the Democrats’ strongest voting blocs at a time when Congress is almost evenly divided between the parties.
“The Democrats will have to spend time and money courting Jews,” said Ken Goldstein, assistant professor of political science and Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin. “Every day they have to focus on keeping Jews in line is a day they can’t focus on swing states.”
Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the American population, they are valuable in elections because of their high voter turnout and their geographical disbursement, said Norman Ornstein, an elections analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.
“You have a lot of Jewish votes in a number of pivotal states and ones that are contentious,” Ornstein said.
Plus, Jews often are political leaders who bring a lot to the discourse, and are key fund-raisers.
The habits of Jewish voters have been a curiosity for years.
“It’s a puzzle,” Goldstein said. “Given their education levels, income levels and color of skin, Jews should look like Republican voters” — but, historically, they haven’t.
During the 1990s, for example, Democrats won at least 73 percent of the Jewish vote in House of Representatives races across the country. Within the last two decades, Jewish support for Democratic congressional candidates peaked at 82 percent in 1982, according to The New York Times.
The high point for Republicans was the 32 percent of the Jewish vote they garnered in House races in 1988.
But Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, points to an RJC survey, produced by the Luntz Research Companies in April, showing that 48 percent of Jews surveyed said they would consider voting for President Bush for re-election in 2004.
The poll also found that Bush’s performance moved 27 percent to say they were more likely to vote for Republicans for other offices.
Despite such figures, and numerous articles over the past year describing a Republican tilt in the Jewish community, Jewish Democratic leaders say the perception is wrong.
At the least, Republicans and Democrats agree that Jewish voters look closely at the candidates and no longer support Democrats automatically.
In the past, Jewish voters have feared that voting Republican would mean embracing a conservative domestic agenda such as opposition to abortion and support for school prayer. Now, some say, closer ties between the Jewish community and right-wing Christian supporters of Israel has opened some doors.
“The fear factor that has for years been the barrier for a large scale” movement of American Jews to the Republic party “is going to be cooled down by the working relationship between the Jews and Christian evangelicals,” Brooks said.
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, says that — especially during times of crisis in the Middle East such as the two-year-old intifada — Jewish voting patterns reflect concern for Israel more than domestic agendas.
Given the strong support for Israel from Bush and congressional Republicans, that has created a perception of a Jewish-Republican embrace.
“If American Jewish voters have a choice between someone who is anti-Israel and left of center and a pro-Israel person who is right of center, most Jews will hold their nose and vote right of center,” Forman said.
But, he contends, Jewish voters most often don’t have to make that choice. More often, he says, they’re deciding between pro-Israel Democrats and pro-Israel or neutral Republicans. When both candidates are either pro-Israel or neutral, Jews lean toward the Democrats because of domestic issues.
Forman also says that votes for Jewish Republican candidates don’t necessarily reflect a communal shift rightward.
For example, a Marist Poll last month found that New York’s Republican governor, George Pataki, was locked in a dead heat with Democrat Carl McCall among Jewish voters, 47 percent to 46 percent. But do Jewish votes for Pataki signal support for his Republican policies, or for his leadership after the Sept. 11 attacks?
Similar speculation surrounded the New Jersey Senate race, where Jews might have voted against Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli — because of his ethics scandals, not his politics. In any case, Torricelli dropped out of the race Monday.
For his part, Brooks says it is not fair to focus on certain races and then try to divine a trend. The fact that Jewish voters are picking Republicans for any reason is significant, he says.
“The traditional instinct of the Jewish community to vote lockstep with the Democratic Party has eroded,” he said. “Election by election, race by race, the Jewish vote is up for grabs.”
For Jews to pick a Republican candidate, he says, there must be a credible alternative to the Democrat, and that candidate must seek out the Jewish community and emphasize the issues of importance to them.
A recent report by the independent Gallup Organization found that the partisan slant of the Jewish vote has remained stable over the past decade.
No poll has enough Jewish respondents to mark a trend. But, extrapolating from its surveys during the past 18 months, Gallup determined that some 50 percent of Jewish voters are Democrats, 32 percent are independent and 18 percent are Republicans.
That mirrors responses from Gallup polls taken between 1992 and 2001.
“The patterns of party identification are very stable,” said Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief.
The Democrats rallied around those results, issuing a news release declaring the end of the “fiction” that more Jews are voting Republican.
“It’s been said before, time and time again, for the last 30 years,” Forman said. But “the numbers for the last 30 years have said the opposite.”
But Brooks notes that party identification may not be the best way to measure voting shifts. People frustrated with Democratic politics are more likely to vote for individual Republican candidates than to change their party affiliation.
Democrats are looking toward Election Day, when voters across the country will answer exit polls about their religion and party identification.
Forman claims Election Day will show that most Jews still vote for Democrats. But Brooks says that November’s results won’t change his thesis.
With many Democratic representatives in heavily Jewish areas running unopposed, this year’s vote will not be an accurate reflection of Jewish attitudes, Brooks says. He would prefer to wait until 2004, when President Bush runs for re-election.
The University of Wisconsin’s Goldstein also says this election day may not resolve the question of Jewish voting habits, since many of the important races are in states with small Jewish populations. He, too, believes the presidential race in 2004 will be a more important indicator.
But Democrats counter that even that won’t be a fair judge, because Bush’s Mideast policy and his handling of the war against terrorism have made him popular with Jewish voters. Jews may support Bush, but not other Republicans, Forman says.
All of which means that the debate is likely to go on after November, come what may at the polls.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.