View from America: Reversal of fortune still possible

Exit polls leave Republicans just enough hope to encourage them to keep fighting for Jewish votes.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
The pundits and journalists who peddle post-election analyses generally run in packs. Once a catchphrase is put about as the conventional wisdom of the day on any issue, most of the chattering class of scribes quickly latches onto it. After the 2004 vote, the spin du jour was about so-called "values" voters who had turned out for the Republicans. This year the theme most writers seemed to pick up on was a shift to the center. Democrats won independent voters over with candidates who couldn't be pigeonholed as liberals. So centrism - rather than an anti-Iraq war trend that clearly hurt Republicans - has been anointed as the trend by which we ought to remember 2006. But even if we assume that it's true - and there are good reasons to believe that the fear of being labeled an extremist will play a role in much of what happens in the next two years - there is one slice of the political demographic to which it cannot be said to apply: American Jews. In national exit polls, the Jews gave African-Americans a run for their money for the title of the most one-sided sector of American politician life. According to the poll conducted by the National Election Pool that was published in The New York Times on November 9, Jews gave a whopping 88 percent of their votes in congressional races to Democrats. African-Americans topped that total by just one percentage point. So despite a concerted campaign by Republicans to showcase the president's support for the Jewish state and the prominence of some anti-Israel elements within the Democratic Party, nothing has changed. Indeed, Democrats can crow that exit polls show that, if anything, Jewish support for Republicans declined this year from 2004, when President Bush got nearly a quarter of Jewish votes. MOST AMERICAN Jews are still likely to see Judaism as more or less synonymous with a vision of social justice that vaguely resembles the liberal political agenda. Conservatives may argue that this is a slanted interpretation of Jewish teachings, but it is the way most Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews see their religion. Jokesters can dismiss this as liberal Jews interpreting their faith as being the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in, but there's no use denying that this is how many of us see the world. Many Jews, especially the elderly, also tend to see the world through the prism of their youth, when Republicans were viewed as a country-club party that tolerated anti-Semitism. Republicans can argue that this not a rational way to look at Jewish interests more than 60 years after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, but so what? That American Jewry remains a bastion of liberalism is a fact that must be acknowledged. That said - and with due respect given to Democrats' constitutional right to spend this week performing their end-zone victory dances - it would be a mistake to dismiss the Republican effort as completely futile. First, the 88% is a national figure that takes into account a great many congressional races that were not competitive. Indeed, the largest concentrations of Jewish life tend to exist in urban "blue" areas where Republicans provide a serious challenge. In those places where Jews form a significant slice of the population - and where the GOP did put up a fight - they did tend to do better than that abysmal 12% figure produced by the national exit poll. But not by much. The Republican Jewish Coalition conducted its own poll of Jewish voters in New Jersey (where Republican Tom Kean fell short in his effort to topple Sen. Robert Menendez), Florida's 22nd Congressional District (where Jewish Democrat Ron Klein unseated Republican incumbent Clay Shaw) and Pennsylvania's 6th District (where incumbent Republican Jim Gerlach beat the national trend and won reelection over Democrat Lois Murphy). The Jewish vote in these races wasn't all that encouraging for Republicans. Even in just these competitive districts, the average Jewish total for Republicans was just 26.4%. But the survey did show, as previous polls have tended to illustrate, that the younger the Jewish voter, the more likely he or she is to vote Republican. The same factor applies to synagogue attendance. Like cheese on a mousetrap, those figures probably leave Republicans just enough hope to encourage them to keep fighting for more Jewish votes in the future. LET'S HOPE they do, since the worst thing that could happen to Jewish interests would be if Democrats come to treat them with the same ill-disguised indifference and contempt that they often dish out to loyal African-Americans. While they may not have garnered the GOP the Jewish votes they hoped to win, the RJC ad blitz on the Israel issue did force the Democrats to play defense in the waning weeks of the campaign. Cynics can dismiss pre-election pledges on Israel as pandering, but that's the way democracy is supposed to work. But if there is anything that might aid Republicans in their quest for a more respectable share of the Jewish vote, it is that national trend toward moderation. Contrary to the idea that the key to gaining control of each party is for candidates to veer hard to the Left or Right, polls are consistently showing that presidential aspirants who hew to the center are the most likely nominees in 2008. Right now, the most popular Republican in the country seems to be ex-New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who's been the candidate of choice for almost half of all Republicans polled. There are those who still refuse to believe that GOP primary voters will ever back a man who has a record in favor of abortion rights, gay rights and gun control. But if he runs - and last week he gave the first official inkling that he will do so - the security-minded Giuliani will be a formidable match for any darling of the Christian Right. Jewish Democrats currently celebrating should fear a Republican ticket with Giuliani, whether he leads it or shares billing with Sen. John McCain, the other leading Republican candidate. McCain is also not identified with a right wing whose influence is clearly ebbing. Giuliani's identification with pro-Israel sentiments, as well as his moderate stands on social issues, would present a challenge to Democrats that might dwarf the record Jewish vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980. Thus, even amid the rubble of a smashing Democratic victory, and a humiliating outcome for Jewish GOP stalwarts, the seeds of a reversal of fortune may have already been planted. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.