Between COVID-19 and the economy, Jewish voters are bracing for elections

US POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Between COVID and the economy, Jewish voters are bracing for November 3.

Voters fill in their ballot during a period of early voting at the Board of Elections office in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S. March 14, 2020 (photo credit: BRYAN WOOLSTON/REUTERS)
Voters fill in their ballot during a period of early voting at the Board of Elections office in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S. March 14, 2020
WASHINGTON – In another five days, it will be all over. But will it?
After one of the most tumultuous presidential campaigns in American history, the world may go to bed Tuesday night not knowing whether US President Donald Trump will hang on to the White House for another four years or if his challenger, former vice president Joe Biden, will – as the latest polls suggest – wrest control from the contentious incumbent.
The two candidates will not be spending those five days sitting by idly on their quest for the coveted 270 electoral votes. Over the weekend, Trump will hold rallies in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. Likewise, Biden will focus on the Midwest with events in Wisconsin and Iowa – a state in which he holds a narrow lead over Trump. He’s also expected to bring out a secret weapon during a Michigan rally this weekend: former president Barack Obama for their first joint appearances of the campaign.
For Jewish voters, the sight of Obama and Biden together will be cause for celebration or alarm, depending on the enormous fissure that exists between ideologies in the American Jewish community.
Polls show Biden leading Trump among Jewish voters with between 70% to 75% of the vote, with most American Jews firmly ensconced in the Democratic camp. Jewish Republicans, on the other hand, hope that a higher share of Jewish voters would vote to reelect Trump given his record on Israel.
Whether the Jewish vote will be a factor in any of the key swing states is unclear.
“This year’s election will be decided in a few battleground states: Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, and Minnesota; Jews live in significant numbers in each of these states, especially Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia,” said Ralph Grunewald, the Chair of the Jewish Electorate Institute.  “In each of the battleground states, if Trump and Biden run close races in them, Jewish voters can absolutely make the difference in determining the winner.  Remember that Jews tend to vote at a higher percentage than other voters, plus Jews tend to vote Democrat.”
Grunewald noted that JEI polls do not indicate that Jews are more divided in 2020 than in previous election cycles.  “Our JEI polling does not indicate any significant wedge in the Jewish community, a finding supported also by polls that were released in the past few weeks by the American Jewish Committee, Pew Research Center, and J Street,” he added.
According to the polling average Real Clear Politics, a polling data aggregator and political news site, Trump and Biden are running neck and neck at 48% each in Florida, which allocates 29 electoral votes.
In that case, the Jewish voters – estimated by some at 750,000 out of 14 million voters, could make the difference in the ultimate swing state. Only once since 1972 has a presidential candidate won an election without taking Florida.
Kenneth Waltzer, professor emeritus at James Madison College and the Jewish studies program at Michigan State University, estimated that the Jewish vote might play a role in Pennsylvania and Florida, given the size of the Jewish population and the close race in both states.
Pennsylvania, another crucial swing state that allocates 20 electoral college votes, and according to Real Clear Politics, Biden is currently leading Trump by 3.8% there statewide.
Philip Rosenzweig, chairman of the Republican Committee of Lower Merion and Narberth, said that the area’s Jewish vote is significant.
“The counties surrounding Philadelphia have approximately 200,000 Jewish households of about 450,000 people. This is the third-largest suburban Jewish population in the US.”
According to Alan Kraut, a distinguished professor of history at American University, the concept of the “Jewish vote” is no longer valid as generational concerns emerge.
“There are many Jews voting, but I would talk more about ‘Jewish votes.’ The Jewish voters are divided much more decisively by age and class than ever before,” he said.
In Kraut’s opinion, it is mostly a generational gap between young, progressive Jews and older Jews who are more conservative. “I think that many young Jewish voters are committed to the new progressivism, to Joe Biden, to [Democratic vice presidential nominee] Kamala Harris, to the kind of agenda that [Sen.] Bernie Sanders advanced and are looking at it from that perspective and will support Joe Biden.”
He said that while Biden is moderate, his campaign was shaped by those to the Left of him. “I think there are many older Jewish voters who are not completely comfortable with Joe Biden and with the progressive agenda that is so important in his campaign,” he noted. “Moreover, many Jews are aware of how much Trump has done in the Middle East: his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital [of Israel], the negotiations that have gone between the Israelis and the [United Arab] Emirates and in Sudan and other countries. They are not as comfortable with Biden, feeling that many people who are part of Biden’s progressive wing would like to press Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians that the Israelis are not comfortable making. And so I think there’s a great deal of division.
“What I see happening is a Democratic Party that’s in transition,” he continued. “And I think Joe Biden represents an older take on the Democratic Party. He’s a moderate. But the sort of youthful thrust of the Democratic Party is far more progressive at the moment and far more to the Left of that. Many of them who I talked to are talking about a new deal in which there would be free education for some and there would be greater medical benefits.”
On the other hand, “Donald Trump is not a conservative,” Kraut added. “The truth is, he’s a pure political opportunist. But because he has power and influence at the moment, there are many Republicans who are afraid to speak out against him and his policies. In the coming election, if [Sen.] Lindsey Graham should lose, if [Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell should lose, their worst fears will have been realized, and that is that those folks couldn’t come in on the Trump coattails.”
NO MATTER who wins the election, it’s unlikely the divided Jewish community will move toward reconciliation, according to Kraut.
“For a while, there’s going to be a greater division within the Jewish community. I think that division has been building for a while. I don’t think it’s anything new that just happened,” he said.
“I think there were many Jews who voted for Trump last time. And even before Trump appeared on the scene, [they] were much more in the Republican orbit than ever before. So I think this is a continuation of something that’s already started. But what’s interesting to me is that there is a younger generation who is to the Left of their parents significantly, and way to the Left of their grandparents. And whether or not that will continue and maintain is not clear. We don’t know that yet. But what we do know is that their commitment to Israel is not as strong as their parent’s commitment.”
Kraut added that he would be surprised if Trump’s support among US Jews diminishes in this election.
“I think he’s going to get a greater share of the Jewish vote than many people anticipate. I think there’s a sense that many have that the Jewish vote will be primarily Democratic, that many Jews who supported Trump last time are disgusted with his behavior and won’t support him this time. And I think they are overestimating – I think Trump may get a Jewish vote [turnout] very similar to the one he got last time.”
Prof. Dov Waxman, director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, has an opposite understanding. He said he expects that an overwhelming majority of Jewish voters – around seven out of 10 – will cast their ballots for Biden in the presidential election. “This is consistent with the voting pattern of American Jews for decades, as the Jewish vote has barely shifted from one election to the next,” he said.
“In this election, there are numerous reasons why the vast majority of Jewish voters prefer Biden over Trump. Trump is probably more unpopular among American Jews than any previous president has been.”
Waxman noted that Trump’s policy on Israel has not changed the majority of American Jews’ views on the president.
“American Jews are not single-issue voters,” he continued. “They don’t simply vote for the most pro-Israel candidate. Although they care about Israel, this concern does not shape their voting behavior.”
According to Waxman, only a small minority of American Jews care more about Israel than anything else, most of them Orthodox Jews. “What matters most to American Jewish voters, like other Americans, are the economy, healthcare and other domestic issues. In this election, the top three issues for Jewish voters are the coronavirus pandemic, health care, and the economy. In fact, for most Jewish voters, Israel is near the bottom of their list of concerns.”