US elections: Who will get the American Jewish vote?

The long-held assumption about American Jews, that they always vote overwhelmingly Democratic, can be challenged historically.

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden debate in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday. (photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER / REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden debate in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday.
(photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER / REUTERS)
Pundits, pollsters and political addicts will all be carefully scrutinizing US exit polls in the days after Tuesday’s election to see what happened. Which demographic group tipped the balance in favor of the winner?
Did young black males break from the larger African American community and vote more heavily for US President Donald Trump? Did suburban women tilt as strongly in favor of Democratic nominee Joe Biden as expected? What about Hispanics? How big was their margin of support for Biden? And did Trump lose any ground among White Evangelical Protestants?
One line in all the polling data that is unlikely to attract that much attention among the general public is the Jewish vote. And there are two primary reasons for this: First, because the Jews make up only a small percentage of the population (2.1%, according to the 2019 American Jewish Yearbook), and secondly, because everyone knows that Jews vote heavily Democratic.
But for those for whom “Jews are news,” for those who carefully follow the American Jewish community, that line in the polling data – how the Jews voted – will be analyzed through a magnifying glass, with every percentage-point change weighed to determine whether it represents the beginning of a new trend.
Two major polls of Jews before the elections showed some discrepancies. While a Jewish Electorate Institute poll taken in the first week of September forecast that 67% Jews would vote for Biden and 30% for Trump, an American Jewish Committee poll published on October 19 had Biden garnering 75% of the Jewish vote and Trump only 22%.
In the last election, Hillary Clinton took 71% of the Jewish vote, compared with Trump’s 24%. If, as the Jewish Electorate Institute poll predicted, Trump gets 30% of the Jewish vote, that would be a significant increase – one that many will undoubtedly attribute to his strong pro-Israel positions.
Conversely, if – as the American Jewish Committee poll predicts – he wins only 22% of the Jewish vote, others will interpret it to mean that Israel has little impact on how the vast majority of American Jews vote.
Few can argue that at just over 2% of the US population, the Jewish vote is significant nationally – although it does have significance in certain swing states with above-average Jewish populations, such as Florida (9.2%) and Pennsylvania (4.3%).
But the second long-held assumption about American Jews, that they always vote overwhelmingly Democratic, can be challenged historically.
American Jews did not always favor the Democrats. From the days of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 through the 1912 election of Woodrow Wilson they voted heavily Republican, which during those years was the more progressive of the parties. The Jews themselves were split, with German immigrants and those in the north generally voting for the Republicans, and southern Jews as well as immigrants after the turn of the century from eastern Europe gravitating toward the Democrats or the Socialists.
Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, received significant Jewish support in the first decade of the last century. According to historian Gil Troy, in a 2017 paper called “Political Power and Identity in US Elections,” Roosevelt had a special relationship with the Jews, since he appointed the first Jewish cabinet member, supported the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine and protested to the czar after the Kishinev pogrom of 1903.
And while it is true that no Republican has won more Jewish voters than Democrats since Warren G. Harding in 1920 – 43% as opposed to 39% and 38% for the Democratic and Socialist candidates, respectively – the numbers of Jews voting for Democrats has not always been by an utter landslide.
For example, in 1980, Democrat Jimmy Carter, perceived by many American Jews as having an anti-Israeli bias, only won 45% of the Jewish vote, with 39% of the Jews voting for Republican Ronald Reagan and another 15% for the independent candidate, John Anderson.
That was the only time since 1920 that a Democrat won less than 50% of the Jewish vote. If the Jewish vote was knee-jerk Democratic, regardless of the candidate, Carter should have received a greater percentage of the vote (he won 71% of it in his 1976 race against Gerald Ford).
Reagan’s 39% of the Jewish vote in 1980 was the second highest for a Republican since 1920. The Republican presidential candidate who won the largest percentage of Jewish votes over the last century was Dwight Eisenhower, who won 40% in 1956 against his Democratic challenger, Adlai Stevenson.
The highest-percentage vote-getter among Jews was the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who won 90% of the Jewish vote both in 1940 and 1944 and was beloved by the Jews at the time. Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson also received 90% of the Jewish vote in 1964 when he ran against Barry Goldwater.
What will be interesting to watch this time is whether the Jews will reward Trump for his pro-Israel positions, as in the past they have punished presidents they deemed unfriendly to Israel.
For example, 26% fewer Jews voted for Carter when he ran (and lost) against Reagan in 1980 than when he defeated Ford in 1976, the largest differential in the last 100 years. A similar phenomenon occurred in 1992 when only 11% of the Jews voted for George H.W. Bush, who had a very rocky relationship with Israel and then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, as opposed to 35% who voted for him in 1988 – a net loss of 24%.
Barack Obama, who also had a difficult relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his tenure, saw his support among Jews slip nine points from 78% against John McCain in 2008 to 69% against Mitt Romney in 2012.
When the Jewish votes are dissected from Tuesday’s balloting, one thing to take notice of is whether Trump received a positive bump from the Jews for his positive relationship with Israel to the degree that Carter, George H.W. Bush and even Obama lost ground among Jewish voters because of their troubled relationship with the Jewish state.