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Of Democrats and Democratic Principles

Last week’s Aipac convention, where President Bush spoke to calls for “four more years,” left the impression that many of America’s Jews are moving away from their traditionally Democratic preferences to rally around a president whom they see as a strong friend of Israel. But is it really the case that American Jews on the whole are now likely to vote Republican in large numbers?

The possibility that American Jews might be migrating steadily from their historically liberal voting patterns was sufficiently provocative to launch a firsthand examination of the political outlooks of American Jews.

Your dogged trendspotter managed to obtain the dataset from the Annual Survey of American Jewish Political Opinion, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, fielded most recently in November 19-20, 2003. This study of 1,000 people is the only available source of data about the political views of American Jews. In interviews that tapped foreign and domestic policy concerns, voting preferences and Jewish involvement, the AJCommittee study asked respondents a series of polling standards: Suppose the elections were held today, would you vote for Bush or Dean? Bush or Kerry? Bush or Lieberman? Bush or Clark? Bush or Gephardt?

In November 2003, before Kerry was seen as a serious challenger to Bush’s reelection campaign, Kerry garnered 59% of the AJCommittee sample, with Bush at 31% and the remaining 10% undecided. In the ensuing six months this study has been cited as evidence of Bush’s 31% “lead,” up from Bush’s share of 19% of the vote among Jews in 2000.

But how robust are these AJCommittee data, bearing in mind that when the survey was conducted last November, the Democratic primary campaign was still packed with contenders and the current groundswell of doubt about the American war efforts in Iraq had not yet gained momentum? The answer is that it depends on what you want to learn.

To understand the Jewish electorate — as opposed to getting an accurate sense of how the actual vote will turn out — something useful can be discerned by analyzing the data more fully. Thus I identified three kinds of Jews: the people that consistently favored Bush (19%), those who were always against Bush (61%) and those who wavered between Bush and the various Democratic nominees (20%).

These numbers show that more than half of the sample of American Jews was consistently for Bush’s opponent — who ever it might be — challenging the impression left by the coverage of the Aipac meeting. Moreover, fully one-fifth of this sample wavers between supporting Bush or his opponents.

Typically the political “pros” divide the electorate into those who are really committed already and thus are unshakeable, versus those who waver depending on the issues before them. The campaigns then direct their efforts to reaching the voters up for grabs in the states that matter. In that spirit, what can be said about the 20% of this sample of American Jews that vacillates between Bush and his opponents?

More than half of them (55%) voted for Gore in 2000, 32% voted for Bush and the remaining 13% either voted for someone else, didn’t vote or wouldn’t say. More than two-fifths (43%) identify as Democrats, 19% say they’re Republicans and 37% describe themselves as Independents. Thirty percent preferred Kerry over Bush when asked in November. And more than 50% call themselves political “moderates” or “slightly conservative” compared to Bush rejecters, who lean liberal, and the more conservative Bush supporters.

Over-represented among this 20% are men, those who are younger than age 40, those who are married, people with 1-3 kids, people living in single-family homes and those who are the highest earners. All in all this profile of the “wavering 20%” has the feel of the affluent suburbs.

What kinds of Jews are these people in the middle? Nearly half (46%) of them say that the most important aspect of their Jewishness is “being part of the Jewish people,” while an additional 21% describe the core of their Jewishness as religious observance. Only one-tenth (11%) of the waverers frame their Jewishness in terms of “a commitment to social justice,” whereas among the Bush rejecters the percentage is nearly double that (23%). The middle position between Bush and his opponents is more likely to draw people who call themselves Conservative Jews — 38% of the waverers describe themselves that way.

Foreign policy forms the main fault-line separating the three groups, with Bush supporters the most hawkish, Bush opponents more skeptical about the Iraq war and its impact on terrorism, and the waverers wavering in between on the issues.

Israel-related questions elicited two different patterns. First, there weren’t many differences among these groups in terms of the relationship between American Jews and Israel. But various scenarios about Israeli-Palestinian relations did elicit divergent views: the Bush supporters were most hawkish, the Bush opponents much less so, and the waverers were midway.

Finally, the three groups diverge about the place of religion in America public life. The Bush opponents worry about the growing influence of the religious right, whereas Bush supporters favored government support for religious schools. The waverers were smack in the middle on these questions.

Now, analyzing datasets is not the same as handicapping elections, and this trendspotter is quite content to leave November forecasts to Frank Luntz. But if the numbers do not offer a clear verdict on American Jewry’s traditionally Democratic preferences, they do evidence the community’s grasp of democratic principles — the 5,000 delegates to the Aipac convention may have spoken in one voice, but come November, the one-fifth of American Jews who are wavering will let themselves be heard, and it anybody’s guess what they will say.

Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, is research director for the Mandel Foundation.

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