Survey Sees Historic Shift to the Right; The Elephant’s New Clothes

Younger Set Spurns Dems

By Steven M. Cohen

Published January 17, 2003, issue of January 17, 2003.
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American Jews may be poised on the edge of a historic shift to the right in their political views, according to a new survey of Jewish opinion released to the Forward this week.

As they have for most of the past century, Jews identify themselves overwhelmingly as Democrats, and liberals outnumber conservatives two to one, according to the survey, which I conducted in November and December. However, younger Jews are far more willing than their elders to identify as Republicans and to approve of President Bush, suggesting that the Democrats’ advantage among Jews will shrink during the coming decades. Republican identification also increases markedly among the growing number of Jews who are in the highest income brackets, something that has not been shown in previous surveys, including my own.

Most striking, almost half the Jews who voted in 2000 for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore over Republican George W. Bush are uncertain they would make the same choice today. Jews in this sample supported Gore over Bush in 2000 by a margin of 71% to 21%. The survey, conducted when Gore was still considered the Democratic front-runner for 2004, showed just 37% saying they would now vote for Gore, 22% backing Bush and 41% uncertain.

A Joseph Lieberman candidacy, however, would bring Jewish support sharply back into the Democratic column. In a hypothetical Lieberman-Bush match-up, 57% said they would vote for Lieberman and 14% for Bush, with 29% uncertain. If the uncertain voters split as expected, the Lieberman vote would easily match that cast for Gore in 2000.

The survey also showed a marked gender gap in Jews’ political views, with women decidedly more liberal than men in most categories. Men in our survey were twice as likely as women to call themselves Republicans and to vote for George W. Bush in 2000. Overall, Jewish men said they approved of Bush’s performance as president by a 44% to 38% margin, while Jewish women said they disapproved, 32% to 45%.

The survey, conducted by a mail-back questionnaire, included a statistically representative sample of 1,386 Jewish adults nationwide, drawn from a consumer opinion panel of the research firm Synovate. It was funded by the Jewish education department of the Jewish Agency for Israel in cooperation with the Florence G. Heller/JCCA Research Center. The margin of error due to sampling variability is less than 3%.

In most respects, including region, education, income and religious behavior, the survey’s sample bore a close resemblance to other representative samples of Americans who identify Judaism as their religion. As in other surveys, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by more than four to one, or 66% to 15%, with 19% calling themselves Independent. Liberals outnumbered conservatives by roughly two to one, or 46% to 24%, with 30% calling themselves moderates.

However, there are clear suggestions that future surveys will look very different, since Jews’ identification as Democrats decreases markedly with age. Among Jews aged 65 and older, 71% call themselves Democrats and just 11% Republicans. Among those aged 35 and under, Democrats dropped to 52% while Republicans more than doubled to 26%.

The political impact of that shift is apparent already. While Jews over 65 said they would have voted for Gore over Bush last month by a margin of 40% to 15%, with 46% undecided, Jews under 35 would split their vote evenly at 33% to 33%, with 35% undecided. Indeed, while 48% of Jews over 65 disapprove of Bush’s overall performance as president, with 26% approving, his showing is reversed among Jews under 35, with 46% approving and 31% disapproving.

In one of the survey’s few hopeful signs for liberals, the political shift among younger Jews was not matched by a shift in ideological self-identification. While younger Jews are moving toward Bush and the Republicans, they continue to identify as liberals by nearly the same two-to-one margins as their elders.

Overall, Jews disapproved of Bush’s performance, but only by a slight margin — 42% disapprove, against 37% approving — considerably lower than the 60% approval ratings the president enjoys in the population at large, but far from the popular image of Jews as militantly partisan Democrats. That close margin, combined with the sharp drop in overall support for a hypothetical Democratic presidential candidacy as represented by Gore, indicates that the shift to the right is in some respects across the board and not merely age-specific.

There are indications, too, that much of the shift may be closely associated with Bush’s performance as a wartime president and ally of Israel. Indeed, support for “the way George W. Bush has been dealing with Israel and the Middle East” was strong across the board, with 43% approving and just 29% disapproving. There was little variance by age.

Where sharp variations did appear was in gender. Jewish women were far less likely to approve of Bush’s Israel policies — 36% approved, 32% disapproved — than were men, 54% of whom approved, against 24% disapproving. That was just one example of a political gap of significant — and increasing — proportions between Jewish men and women.

Curiously, the gap seems to be magnified by an unexpected and paradoxical education gap. Higher education exerts a clearly liberalizing influence on women, but has a slightly conservatizing influence on men. Among both men and women, those with a bachelor’s degree are more liberal than those with just a high school education. But men with a graduate degree are more conservative by most measures than men with just a bachelor’s degree, while women become decidedly more liberal with a graduate degree — possibly a factor of gender differences in choosing fields of study.

The gender gap is not limited to the most educated. At every level of education, Jewish women are more liberal and less conservative than their male counterparts. The gap is greatest, however, among the best educated. Among those with just a high school education, the liberal gender gap amounts to just 5 percentage points, growing to 15 points among the college-educated. It leaps to a full 24 points among those with a graduate degree, where just 39% of the men call themselves liberal as opposed to 63% of the women. With respect to married Jews with professional degrees, it may be said that these bedfellows have some pretty strange politics.

Income, too, emerged in this survey as a factor in Jewish political leanings for the first time. Previous studies of income and political inclinations among American Jews, including my own, failed to detect the association between affluence and conservatism that characterizes other groups. Indeed, this study showed almost no variation in political measures as income rose from the poorest households to those earning up to $150,000. However, at $150,000 a major break in political preferences emerges. This most affluent group — amounting to almost one-fourth of American Jews — expressed markedly more support for Republicans, conservatives and President Bush.

The comparison between those earning more than $150,000 and those earning between $100,000 and $150,000 is striking. Among those earning less than $150,000, the balance between Democrats and Republicans is 67% to 17%, but as income moves above $150,000 the balance shifts to 53% Democrat and 25% Republican. Even more dramatic were differences in the 2000 presidential vote: Those earning below $150,000 preferred Gore over Bush by a margin of 71% to 21%, but those earning more than $150,000 voted for Bush over Gore by a 53%-25% margin. As for Bush’s overall performance rating today, 46% of those in the lower income group disapproved, while 37% approved. Among the most affluent group, 54% approved of his performance against 31% disapproving.

In summary, American Jews’ political leanings do seem to be shifting to the right, as evidenced by the views of younger versus older Jews, and with the apparent influence of significant affluence and the emergence of a gender gap separating more rightward-leaning men from more leftward-leaning Jewish women.

Even the hypothetical Bush-Lieberman race illustrates the patterns of variation among groups of Jews. The Connecticut senator does better among older folks, 64%-9%, than among the younger adults, 47%-22%; he does better among highly educated women, 66%-8%, than among equally educated men, 54%-20%. He fares more poorly among those earning over $150,000, 48%-24%, than among the next income group of $100,000-$150,000, 57%-13%.

The Lieberman candidacy, then, figures to bring back many Jews to the Democratic voting column. However, it will do so in a way that underscores the emerging political-demographic fault lines among American Jews, which correspond to age, gender, education and affluence. Some of those fault lines, including age and income, suggest a Jewish community that will become increasingly more conservative over time, putting pressure on Democrats who have relied on this voting bloc in the past. Other fault lines, including gender and the curious gender-education variable, suggest a different sort of pressure: a growing political strain within Jewish households.

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