Washington Watch: Are Jewish voting patterns changing?

Orthodox Jews are far more likely to put Israel as a top priority in making choices at the polls.

Paul Ryan R370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
Paul Ryan R370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
Some recent news articles remind us why most American Jews consistently vote Democratic, but they also offer a warning of how that could change in another generation.
That has less to do with how the political parties will change but how we as a community are changing.
Israel’s security and well-being have long been important to Jewish voters, but Republican efforts to make that a partisan wedge issue have consistently failed. That reflects the broad consensus among Israel’s supporters that both parties are equally committed to our special relationship with the Jewish state, but even more, it reveals the dearth of issues on which the Republican Party appeals to Jewish voters.
That was brought home again last week in a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report of extensive Jewish support for President Barack Obama’s gun control initiatives to ban assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines and to toughen background checks on gun purchases. Most Democrats share that view while most Republicans, in lockstep with the National Rifle Association, are opposed.
The Reform, Conservative and Orthodox umbrella organizations, along with the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and a number of other Jewish organizations have expressed strong support for the president’s proposals.
NUMEROUS RECENT polls and, more important, elections consistently have shown Jewish voters siding with Democrats on a broad menu of issues, including immigration, reproductive rights, gender rights, civil liberties, gun control, global warming and government regulation of big business.
Republican efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits in order to finance tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent didn’t help either.
Those issues were on clear view in the 2012 presidential campaign and can be expected to reappear in 2016.
Already, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), Mitt Romney’s running mate last year and a leading contender for the next GOP presidential nomination, has chosen as one of the first bills to support in the new Congress legislation that would bestow full constitutional rights – “personhood” – on a fertilized human egg in the womb.
Another early contender, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), is seeking to do damage control on an issue that did considerable harm to Republicans last year: immigration reform. The stridently anti-immigration and xenophobic tea party wing of the GOP and its allies last year cost the party dearly among Hispanic voters, who are the nation’s largest and fastest growing minority.
Rubio and others in the leadership recognize that unless they back meaningful reforms they will continue to lose elections.
REPUBLICANS LOST the presidency, lost seats in the Senate and saw their majority in the House shrink.
Many of those losses were attributable to extremist candidates both in the presidential primaries and some key Senate races (remember “legitimate rape”?).
The GOP ticket got more Jewish votes than in the past several elections but still failed to make serious inroads despite vastly outspending Democrats in its bid for the community’s support. Its single-issue approach failed because it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how American Jews vote.
The Republican assumption that Israel is paramount is contradicted by survey after survey showing Israel is a relatively low priority with most Jews as they make their electoral decisions.
And there are indications the issue is becoming even less important to many as a strong, secure Israel pursues policies most Jews reject.
The Romney-Ryan ticket won about 30 percent of the Jewish vote, according to exit polls, which is an improvement over the previous five elections but still below 1980s levels. The 70/30 split also was seen in House and Senate races overall.
INDICATIONS OF how that could change could be seen in another news story in the JTA and The New York Times about dramatic growth in the Greater New York City Jewish population.
A study done for the UJA-Federation of New York found a 10% increase over the past decade, with two thirds coming in a pair of ultra- Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhoods, Williamsburg and Borough Park.
There was also considerable growth in Manhattan and The Bronx, bringing the total to about 1.54 million Jews in the nation’s largest Jewish population center.
The survey also showed that 40% of Jews in the New York area identify as Orthodox, up from 33% a decade ago, and today three in four Jewish children there are Orthodox.
Orthodox Jews are more likely to vote Republican than other Jews because they identify with the party’s more conservative positions on samesex marriage, abortion, church-state separation and other social issues.
And Orthodox Jews are far more likely to put Israel as a top priority in making choices at the polls.
Last year Orthodox Jews voted 86% Republican compared to 28% among the non-Orthodox. By comparison, 72% of non-Orthodox and 14% of Orthodox Jews voted for Obama.
A poll last month by the Pew Research Center showed support for Israel is stronger among Republicans than Democrats by a margin of 70 to 41, when asked which they side with in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A major factor in the gap is white evangelical Protestants, who vote overwhelmingly Republican.
Alongside the growth of the Orthodox population, with its higher birth rate, is an increase in non-Orthodox intermarriage and the number of unaffiliated Jews, all of which suggest an increasingly conservative Jewish community. It is not a radical change because the concentration of Orthodox Jews in the New York area is out of proportion to the rest of the country, but similar trends in other communities also are being reported.
THE ORTHODOX community has become increasingly affluent and politically active over the past decade and is much more attuned to Israel and is more hardline than the non- Orthodox majority, which is more focused on domestic issues. Groups like Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union have become influential players in Washington.
Currently about 12% of America’s approximately six million Jews identify as Orthodox. It will probably take another generation for any significant change to be felt.
Overall, Jews are a shrinking segment of the American populace – down from 3.7% in the 1930s to 2% or less today – because of lower fertility among most Jews, an aging Jewish population and greater immigration among other groups.
Anyone talking about a dramatic sea change in Jewish voting coming any time soon is deluding themselves, but make no mistake, change is coming.
©2013 Douglas M. Bloomfield bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/douglas_ bloomfield