Why Did the Jewish Vote Go From Strongly Democratic to Almost Entirely Democratic?

About every six months, for many years, Republicans would make a big deal claiming they were competing seriously for the black vote. The point wasn’t that they were, in fact, sincerely appealing to black voters. Rather, it was to assuage the concerns of non-racist swing voters reluctant to support a party they perceived as racially intolerant or divisive. Obama’s election obviated that storyline, and it appears that in its place we are now subjected to repeated stories about how Republicans see evidence that “Jews are abandoning Obama for the Republicans.” These stories have all been ridiculous. And now that Ben Smith has left Politico, they have given us a reasonable and empirically grounded analyses on Jewish voting that shows there’s no evidence that Jews will be joining the Republicans anytime soon:

Authored by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman and DCCC Director of Targeting Aaron Strauss with an assist from Kenneth Wald, a University of Florida professor who co-authored the book “Jews in American Politics,” the study is designed to push back against the notion that American Jews are beginning to switch their allegiance to the Republican Party.

The authors identify two distinct eras of Jewish presidential voting – from 1972 through 1988, when Republican candidates for president attracted between 31 and 37 percent of the Jewish vote, and from 1992 through 2008, when the GOP share dropped to between 15 and 23 percent.

Democratic congressional candidates have received an even greater share of the Jewish vote— ranging from 71 to 80 percent of the two-party vote between 1976 and 2000 and from 71 to 88 percent since 2002.

What would explain the shift from strong support of Democrats in the 1970’s and 1980’s to overwhelming support over the last few decades? I have a few ideas.

First, it would be great to know what the voting patterns were prior to 1972. My guess is Jewish voting for Democrats was higher from FDR through Kennedy, but dropped a bit in the late sixties and early seventies, primarily over issues related to race. Many people today think of Jews as mostly middle class or wealthier, and that’s probably a reasonably accurate assumption. But in the 1960’s and 1970’s there was still a large Jewish working class, especially in the greater New York City area, in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit. Many working class Jews lived in neighborhoods that were being integrated, or that they feared would be integrated. The racial tension of the time probably led some of them to do as white ethnics did in urban and working class suburban neighborhoods on the East Coast and across the industrial Midwest: as the New Deal voting coalition broke apart, they became less influenced by questions of economic security and solidarity between the working class and the middle class to which they aspired. Instead, they came to view the Democratic party as unreliable on national defense, overly permissive on crime and social order, and beholden to racial minorities at the expense of “everyone else.” And increasing numbers of them voted Republican.

Thomas Edsall describes the breakup of the New Deal coalition as a “chain reaction” resulting from the effects of “race, rights and taxes” on working and middle class Southern whites and Northern ethnics, primarily Catholics and Jews. Before he was a Democratic pollster, Stan Greenberg did groundbreaking research in the Detroit suburbs on voters who became known as “Reagan Democrats.” These voters were up for grabs throughout the 80’s and 90’s, but after Obama’s victory in 2008 Greenberg declared that the battleground of American politics was shifting from the Reagan Democrats who were no longer as easily moved to vote for Republicans on matters of race, to more upscale voters, “a more tolerant and culturally liberal population, uncomfortable with today’s Republican Party.”

Jews have always been more tolerant and culturally liberal than most other groups in America. Race and integration tested the limits of that tolerance, but the racial tensions of the 1960’s and 1970’s are no longer as tribal, as the conflicts over neighborhoods have mostly played out and in many areas of the country upscale neighborhoods are among the least racially segregated.

Racial tolerance is no longer a strain between Jewish voters and the Democratic party. Racial tension no longer pulls Jews in to the Republican coalition. And over the last 25 years, the social intolerance of the Republican party has pushed the straying Jewish voters even more strongly in to the Democratic coalition.

Ronald Reagan’s sunny (even if destructive) conservatism was appealing to enough Jews that he managed to get over 30% of their votes. But Reagan’s cultural politics were less overtly Christian and Southern-based than has prevailed in the GOP in the years since. George H.W. Bush’s campaign was led by Lee Atwater, one of the most brilliant and gleefully amoral political dividers in American electoral history. Atwater and others certainly campaigned on race, but they also emphasized an element that has gone on to become fundamental to the national Republicans’ actions and character: an overtly fundamentalist and socially conservative Christian identity.

Jews obviously have much to lose as Christian practices increasingly suffuse public and civic life. As Sarah Silverman cheekily described them, “Jews are the most liberal, scrappy, civil rights-y people there are.” Their religious traditions generally do not see abortion as an evil; in fact, in the religious tradition of many Jews it’s an obligation to perform an abortion if it’s needed to protect the life of the mother. They’re obviously not too keen on official prayer in school, since they’re a minority and the majority would probably demand it be a Christian prayer. And since they do not adhere to a literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, are rooted in a tradition of tolerance, and have probably been influenced by their concentration in socially and culturally diverse urban centers like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, on matters related to sexual orientation Jews are more tolerant than any other ethnic or cultural group in America.

What hasn’t been mentioned is Israel. It’s not because Israel isn’t important to Jewish voters. But contrary to the storyline passed through Ben Smith and others, few Jews perceive Barack Obama in particular or Democrats in general as anything other than strongly supportive of the state of Israel. In the past, race was a somewhat effective wedge the Republicans used capture some of the Jewish vote. Now they try the same thing with Israel, but it appears that even if some Jewish voters have doubts about Democrats’ fealty to Israel, their stronger impulse is to vote against the social and cultural intolerance of the Republican Party.

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2 Responses to Why Did the Jewish Vote Go From Strongly Democratic to Almost Entirely Democratic?

  1. Pingback: Remainders: Apology | The Penn Ave Post

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