Even as the country handed President Bush and the Republicans a strong mandate, Jewish voters appeared to rally to the side of John Kerry.
Two national exit polls showed that Bush gained only slightly more than the 19% of the Jewish vote he scored in 2000: One, from The Associated Press, showed Kerry winning 77%-23%; another, from CNN, found that 76% voted for the Democrat, compared with 24% for Bush.
According to a phone poll by pollster Frank Luntz in Florida and Ohio, Kerry captured 72% of the Jewish vote in those two battleground states, with 25% going to Bush. But local networks found that Kerry captured 80% of the Jewish vote in Florida, about the same amount that Al Gore is believed to have won in the Sunshine State in 2000.
The results sparked an intense debate among Democrats and Republicans over what the Election Day results said about Jewish voters. Democrats stressed that the president made only minor gains, while GOP officials cast the increases as a good first step in their uphill battle for the Jewish vote.
“Bush has raised the bar,” said Luntz, who also has worked with Jewish organizations to gauge pro-Israel sentiment among Jews and other Americans. “The next Republican candidate will be expected to score over 30%.”
Kerry pollster Mark Mellman said the election underscored the long-standing attachment of Jews to the Democrats. “Three quarters of American Jews supported John Kerry, not substantially different from four years ago,” Mellman said. “He did about as well as Al Gore with Joe Lieberman on the ticket.”
Luntz’s survey was based on telephone surveys of 484 Jews on election night.
The pollster called Bush’s gains “significant,” noting his poll found that Florida’s GOP Senate candidate, Mel Martinez, received only 16% of the Jewish vote, compared with 23% for Bush.
“I see no indication that more Jews voted Republican than usual,” Luntz said. “I do see indication that Jews voted more for the Republican presidential candidate than usual…. It suggests that Bush made the case better than the typical Republican.”
Bush, he said, made his case on the war on terror — 55% of Jewish voters in Ohio — and Florida cited it as the top reason for their choice.
Luntz said the responses to his telephone survey suggested a new “sophistication” among Jewish voters and had ramifications for how candidates would appeal to the American Jewish community. “It’s not ‘Israel, Israel, Israel,’” he said of the Middle East issue. “They see a direct link between terror, America and Israel. People who pander with ‘Israel, Israel Israel’ will not do as well in the Jewish community.”
As expected, Bush did best among Orthodox Jews, pulling 69% of their votes, and poorly among the Conservative and Reform sects, winning just 23% and 15%, respectively.
Luntz’s poll found that in Florida 74% of Jews supported Kerry and 23% Bush, whereas in more-conservative Ohio the vote was 69% for Kerry and 27% for Bush. Echoing the gender gap in the general population, Jewish women voted more heavily for Kerry than did Jewish men.
Mellman painted the Bush-Kerry divide in the Jewish community as part of the national culture war between traditionalists and cosmopolitans. Republicans, he said, created an image of Bush after 9/11 that was “positive, strong and indelible,” which survived his problems in Iraq. “We should not underestimate the importance of personal image when people talk about values — who would make a decision as I would.”
Bush supporters said they were satisfied with the Jewish results. Tevi Troy, a Bush campaign aide, said that the campaign was “not looking for a massive realignment” because Jews remain “a reliable Democratic constituency.” He said Bush’s emphasis on the war on terror won him votes because “Jews understand we have a double bull’s eye on our backs as Jews and as Americans.”
Jay Lefkowitz, a former administration policy aide, said that while Jewish support had not risen to the mid-30% range that it was under Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan, Bush’s focus on international antisemitism and his efforts to make Palestinian reform a precondition for peace “bodes well” for Republicans.
Kerry aide Jay Footlik said Republican efforts to erode Jewish Democratic support were neutralized by the Kerry campaign’s attempts to highlight Saudi Arabia’s support for terrorism and Iran’s threat to Israel, as well as its pledge to wage “a more effective war on terror” and to rebuild American credibility and alliances abroad.
Footlik said these Democratic efforts were needed to stave off Republican attacks on Kerry that sought to deceive Jews about his record on Middle East questions and “instill a sense of fear.”
The head of Kerry’s Middle East task force, former congressman Mel Levine, echoed Footlik’s complaints about GOP tactics. “Some of the smears and attacks of the other side have been over the top,” he said. “They’ve made a concentrated effort to distort John Kerry’s record and overstated the value of the president’s record for Israel. I think it’s been an unfortunate aspect of the campaign.”