Jews Choose

Will George W. Bush get their vote come November?

Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, has been riding high lately. Who can blame him? After toiling away as the leading spokesman of Jewish Republicans for more than a dozen years, he’s finally starting to see signs that the tiny interest group might be growing.

When the American Jewish Committee released a poll last month showing that as many as 31 percent of American Jews would vote for President Bush if presidential elections were held today, Brooks could hardly contain his glee. In fact, he didn’t seem to try at all.

“It [is] now undeniable that there is a major shift taking place among Jewish voters,” Brooks trumpeted in a press release commenting on the poll.

Considering that Bush drew just 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000, it wouldn’t take much of a shift for the numbers to rise. But the RJC shouldn’t pop the champagne corks prematurely; Jews may have some very good reasons to shift their allegiances, but they also have strong motivation to stay within the Democratic fold. November is a long way off, and there’s plenty of time for people to think and rethink the question of which candidate to choose.

A few days ago, I spoke with a woman in Chicago who could have been speaking for many Jews I know. “What am I supposed to do in November?” she asked. “Bush has been so good for Israel, and that’s so important to me.”

“So, what’s the problem?” I asked, even though I knew exactly what her problem was. I hear it every day.

“I’m a lifelong Democrat,” she said. “How can I vote for Bush?” She is gratified by Bush’s support for Israel in the post-9/11 era, and she believes he’s right to pursue the war on terror. But she disagrees with just about every plank of his domestic agenda, and she can’t conceive of casting a vote that might mean further weakening the separation of church and state or an end to Roe v. Wade.

It’s long been said that Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans. Hundreds of thousands of poorer Jews don’t fit this stereotype, but for the majority who are members of the upper-middle and upper-socioeconomic classes, these tendencies have been fading in recent years. Still, if Jews were guided solely by their pocketbooks, they’d have shown much stronger pro-Bush sentiment in the AJC poll. After all, the wealthy have benefited disproportionately from two rounds of Bush tax cuts. Wouldn’t any normal person want to reward the president who helped him keep more of his earnings in his own pocket?

Not necessarily, if they’re Jewish. Even in the Reagan years, when tax cuts were the order of the day, most Jews stayed loyal to the Democrats. With 38 percent, Reagan drew more Jewish support than any other Republican running for president since early in the 20th century (and double what George W. Bush drew), and many of those who voted for him subsequently swung back to Democratic candidates.

Many would ask why the Jewish vote is so important—Jews comprise less than 2 percent  of the country’s population. But their significance comes from three key factors:

First of all, Jews tend to vote in larger numbers than other ethnic groups. Secondly, their concentration in urban areas in high-population states means their votes help determine the allocation of large numbers of Electoral College votes. And finally, they don’t limit their political activism to Election Day; Jews have been among the most generous supporters of political campaigns, especially those of Democratic candidates.

While the high Jewish turnout is likely to continue, the largest concentrations of Jewish voters may not help the president, even if they do swing to his side. New York and California, home to the country’s two largest concentrations of Jews, account for 86 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win, but even if Jews turn out for Bush, it’s unlikely their votes will be enough to tip the balance in these two states. In swing states such as Florida, however, a change of Jewish heart could mean the difference for the Bush campaign.

Much depends, of course, on who ends up running for president in November. To date, we know the identity of only one party’s candidate, and like many other Americans plenty of Jews are waiting to see who will face him before they make their final choice.

If Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry maintains his lead and wins the Democratic nomination, the Bush camp will have even more of an uphill battle to win Jewish voters. While former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean worried many Jews, Kerry has a long, positive record on Israel and is far more in step with mainstream Jewish ideas about foreign and domestic issues.

If we’re to believe the recent studies, many of the traditional reasons Jews vote Democratic are less compelling than they once were. As Jews grow more assimilated into general American life, some of the values and ideals that shaped earlier generations resonate less.

Orthodox Jews—a small but growing group—tend to back school vouchers and other domestic agenda items that are anathema to what used to be considered “traditional” Jewish positions. Increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews identify as Republicans but, unfortunately for the RJC, their largest concentration is in New York State, where even a surge in Jewish Republicans isn’t likely to tip the balance in favor of Bush.

Jews would have to overlook major points of contention on domestic issues in order to reward Bush for standing by Israel. Some of the most vocal in the community may do so, but it’s unlikely that large numbers will follow. Nonetheless, the RJC’s Brooks need not despair just yet: If we’re in for a tight race in November, even a few thousand Jewish votes for Bush—especially in a swing state like Florida—could be the key to a second term in the White House.