NASHUA, New Hampshire – Bernie Sanders is not afraid of adopting labels controversial in American politics. On the contrary, he has embraced them, self-identifying as a socialist and revolutionary to the surprise and joy of legions of young and disaffected voters nationwide.
And yet one identifier the Independent senator from Vermont has shed throughout his insurgent presidential campaign is precisely the one that will make his expected New Hampshire victory historic: Sanders is poised to become the first Jew ever to win a US presidential nominating contest.
Over the weekend, Sanders – who has long distanced himself from organized religion – characterized himself as both “religious” and “spiritual” at a town hall hosted by CNN.
“It’s a guiding principle in my life, absolutely,” he said. But the senator has not mentioned that religiosity unprompted while campaigning through the Granite State – ranked among the 10 least religious states in the Union, according to a 2014 Gallup Poll, behind his home state of Vermont, which ranks as the 49th-least religious state.
No more than 15,000 Jews reside in those two states combined – not enough to collect accurate data on their preferences in this year’s Democratic primary fight, said Mark Mellman, CEO of the Mellman Group and one of the US’s leading pollsters.
But historically, he said in an email interview, Hillary Clinton – Sanders’ sole opponent – “has had a very strong relationship with the Jewish community – perhaps paradoxically, much stronger than Senator Sanders.’” “I would expect her to be doing quite well among Jews,” Mellman added.
Clinton maintains strong support among the country’s Jewish political establishment.
In New Hampshire, former governor Madeline Kunin, who is Jewish, supports the former secretary of state; and in a rebuke of Sanders, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has also endorsed Clinton.
“On some level, it’s very cool. It’s nice as a proud Jew, I like to see Jews succeed, even if I was rooting for somebody else,” said Steve Rabinowitz, president of Bluelight Strategies and a prominent consultant at the intersection of Democratic and Jewish politics. But he added: “Except among the 20-something crowd, you just don’t see any Jewish support for Bernie Sanders.”
Rabinowitz noted that virtually every Jewish member of Congress – save for one senator, Rep. Susan Davis, Rep. Alan Lowenthal and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who chairs the Democratic National Committee – has endorsed Hillary Clinton.
“He just doesn’t identify,” said Rabinowitz, himself a Clinton supporter. “He doesn’t deny, but he just doesn’t care. It isn’t part of his life. He never talks about Israel.”
Paul Hodes, a former congressman from New Hampshire, said in a phone interview that he identifies with Sanders’s experience as a secular Jew.
“I’m on similar footing with Senator Sanders,” Hodes said. “When I ran in New Hampshire, no one ever brought it up. It’s one of the more secular states in the United States.”
The senator’s Jewish faith has featured in headlines over two recent events: The time he spent at Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim, near Haifa, in the early 1960s, and his remarkable likeness to unabashed Jewish comedian Larry David, who has repeatedly impersonated the senator on Saturday Night Live.
At a rally on Monday in Nashua, several of his supporters told The Jerusalem Post
that the candidate’s religion was not a factor in their decision to support him.
“It doesn’t make that much of a difference, really. I think it would be cool,” said Harriet Kuzdrall, a Sanders volunteer and a longtime New Hampshire resident. Her husband, James Kuzdrall, also said he “liked the idea.”
“Oh hey, we’re going to have a woman president?” James said. “How about a Jewish socialist? Now that’s progress!”
Zack Larose, a 21-year-old student at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, said that Sanders’s perceived lack of interest in organized religion was part of what makes him so attractive.
“All the problems of the world always focus on religion. I’m a Christian, but I personally don’t disrespect anyone because of religion,” Larose said. “That’s what [Republican presidential candidate Donald] Trump does. I’ve never heard Bernie say anything about that – he supports all religions.”
Whether his religion becomes a factor in the campaign may come down to the success of that campaign – determined by the states he reaches, and the extent he chooses to campaign in more religious regions.
“I think that she’s [Clinton’s] seen as a stronger supporter of the State of Israel and its policies than people see Bernie,” Hodes added. “I cannot help but think that in other parts of the country, Bernie’s Brooklyn Jewish background isn’t going to be a factor.”
Sanders enters Tuesday's contest with a double digit lead in statewide polls.