There were two big myths that dominated public discussion of the Jewish vote during this election season, and both of them proved in the end to be wrong. One was that the Jewish vote no longer existed, that Jews had become either too divided, too few in number or too distant from Jewish group concerns to remain an electoral bloc worth considering. The other, paradoxically, was that the Jewish vote would figure decisively on November 2.
Both assertions have it backward. Jews are indeed a significant voting bloc, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But they didn’t make a critical difference this year. Other factors loomed much larger this time around, rendering the Jewish vote marginal in ways that deserve careful scrutiny in the months and years ahead.
The easiest way to recognize a voting bloc is by the politicians who court it. The first known effort to court the Jewish vote was in the presidential election of 1800, when Aaron Burr’s Federalists tried to woo Jews away from Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans by arguing that the secularist Jefferson was an “enemy of religion.” There’s no evidence that anyone was swayed; Jews turned to Jefferson’s party then, as they have with few exceptions ever since, because it has usually presented itself as the party of church-state separation, minority rights and the poor, facing an opposing party — Federalist, Whig or Republican — that represented a majoritarian, Christian morality.
Then why do politicians bother to come courting? Because there is a Jewish swing vote to be won. Most Jews’ votes will nearly always go to the Democrat, but the Republicans’ share varies from a low of 10%, as in 1944 and 1964, to as much as 40%, the share won by Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. That potential Jewish swing vote, a full quarter of the total, can mean as many as 1 million votes up for grabs, enough to turn most elections. Concentrated in the seven or eight elector-rich states where most Jews live, the Jewish vote is a very tempting prize for either party.
What issues turn that Jewish swing vote? Israeli security is one of them, but not the only one. Jews, like other Americans, make their ballot-box decisions first and foremost around questions of their own families’ welfare and security. Those questions can push them rightward, over questions of terrorism and public order, or leftward, over fears of majoritarianism and intolerance.
Not surprisingly, the Bush campaign played its best hand this year, appealing to Jewish voters on questions of terrorism and Israeli security. Republicans argued that the sense of minority insecurity still felt by many Jews in a mostly Christian America is simply an anachronism. The pitch wasn’t entirely unsuccessful; it won Bush 25% of the Jewish vote, a credible increase from the 19% that he won in 2000 and smartly up from the 12% his father won in 1992. It may have been a factor in the GOP’s narrow win in Ohio.
Still, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Bush appeal fell flatter than Republicans had hoped. Despite the real threat of terrorism and the president’s genuine friendship for Israel, the great majority of Jews flocked to the Democrat. Some were doubtless deterred by a sense that the president was mismanaging the war, but we suspect most were moved by more basic Jewish fears at home. Most Jews continue to view Christian majoritarianism as a threat to their interests. The calculus hasn’t changed much since Jefferson’s day.
Given current political trends, there’s plenty of room for alarm. An America divided permanently into red and blue states, with Jews firmly planted on the blue side and a red side that’s intent on imposing its values, is a recipe for defeat. No one, least of all Jews, should welcome a war — cultural or otherwise — in which they’re going to be on the losing side.
The map poses a stark challenge to the leaders and organizations that speak for American Jews on the national stage. They’ll need to be listening closely to their constituents in the coming years, understanding their fears and translating them into strategies for security. They’ll need to form alliances with politicians and activists on both sides of the aisle, aiming not to defeat red America but to redefine the debate in a way that makes America whole again.
It’s pointless to tell Jewish liberals and moderates, as neoconservatives like to do, that they ought to change their core belief systems in order to accommodate the majority. Jews have been getting that advice from their neighbors for 2,000 years. It’s no less offensive when it comes from other Jews.