By Richard Friedman
Political data is valuable, but accurate predictions are tough, especially when the target keeps moving. This came through clearly in an Oct. 19 online program hosted by the New Orleans Jewish Community Center. It featured noted Jewish political scientist Steven Windmueller, who walked his audience through Jewish involvement in the American political system from Colonial times to today.
A major takeaway was that the Jewish vote, which most recently has gone Democratic by a significant margin, is still an important factor in American politics, though that could change in the years ahead. For decades, Jews, who make up a tiny percentage of the overall U.S. population, have played a disproportionately important role in American politics, particularly in presidential elections.
The reasons, Windmueller suggested, are because voter turnout among Jews tends to be extremely high; Jews are a presence in many of the battleground states, and Jews are among the leading donors to both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Over the last few decades, the Jewish vote in general has gone roughly 70 percent for the Democratic presidential candidate and 30 percent for the Republican candidate. The only candidate in recent memory who bucked that trend was Ronald Reagan in 1980 when he ran against Jimmy Carter. Reagan garnered about 40 percent of the Jewish vote but was down to 31 percent four years later. One theory is that the emergence of the Christian-driven Moral Majority as a political force within the Republican party gave Jews cause for concern.
As Windmueller turned to Trump, this question, which Republicans who aren’t Jewish frequently ask Jews, came to mind: “President Trump has been a great friend of Israel. Yet, why do Jews still vote so heavily Democratic?”
The answer, Windmueller explained, is that while Israel is important to most Jews it is not the only important issue, and for many Jews, there are more important issues. Nonetheless, Windmueller cautioned against reading this as Jews shifting away from caring about Israel.
Looking ahead, changing demographics will likely affect the role of Jews in U.S. politics. Today Jews represent less than 3 percent of the U.S. population. That percentage is likely to go down even further as America’s overall population grows, with Jews reproducing at a lower rate than the overall population.
One significant growth trend for Jews politically, however, is the abundance of Jewish candidates now running for public office, including Jews running against Jews. “There is a huge influx of new, young, emerging candidates from within the Jewish community running for office,” Windmueller noted.
This trend has the potential to expand Jewish influence in the political arena as more and more Jews are elected to office. Also, it is not uncommon for Jewish candidates to be elected in areas and states that don’t have large Jewish populations, another indicator of continued Jewish integration into the mainstream of American life.
While Windmueller made an effort to stay away from partisan politics, he did acknowledge that the 2020 election, for many Jews and others, is all about President Trump. Jews who voted for Trump in 2016 are conflicted today, much like many in the population at-large.
Interestingly, Jews at the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century were affiliated more with the Republican party than the Democratic party. That is because Jews embraced the GOP as the party of Abraham Lincoln, someone they deeply admired. Later on, in the 20th century, many Jews, which included an influx of immigrants, would rally to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nearly 90 years later, this transformation is still cited as one of the factors that led many American Jews to plant deep political roots in the Democratic party.
Many observers today see the majority of Jews as reliable Democratic voters. This, suggests Windmueller, is not necessarily a long-term given. This is because Jewish political allegiances have shifted as the American experience has evolved, and can be expected to continue to evolve given the combustible nature of American politics today and for the foreseeable future.
The fastest-growing segment of American Jewry is the Orthodox community. “We are seeing the rise and significance of Orthodox Jewish voters,” said Windmueller, noting there are two groups within the Orthodox community — ultra-religious and modern Orthodox. Members of the first group, who often have large families, are overwhelmingly for Trump; the second group is more divided between Trump and former vice president Joe Biden. Either way, the Orthodox community is growing in influence and impact.
Many Orthodox Jews believe that Trump has been an ardent foe of antisemitism and is the greatest friend of Israel to ever occupy the White House. Windmueller compared this hard-core Orthodox support of Trump to the support the president receives from the Evangelical Christian community, noting that Jews and Evangelicals share a belief that religious principles should be at the center of their lives.
What binds Jews of all political persuasions these days is concern over antisemitism and also the growth of conspiracy theories which often have anti-Jewish implications, said Windmueller. These are issues that cut across the Jewish political spectrum and create a sense of anxiety. How this growing unease will play itself out in terms of Jewish interaction with the American political system, and affiliation with candidates and parties, remains to be seen.
Windmueller was asked about Jews in the Deep South — states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and how they fit into the national pattern. He didn’t have much data because surveys tend to focus on the greater number of Jews living in the larger urban areas as opposed to the Deep South which, other than Atlanta, is made up of Jewish communities with relatively small populations. “As a result, we miss the nuance of Jewish voters embedded in red states… so we are not reading a thorough and complete picture of Jewish voters.”
Long-time observers sense that Jews in much of the South are more conservative politically than American Jews at-large and that in the last three presidential elections, the voting may have been closer to 50-50 rather than 70-30. However, these observations are not based on scientific polling.
Windmueller is well-known in the Jewish world and is often turned to for his insights. He is Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. He has written four books and has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Pennsylvania. This ejewishphilanthropy piece provides more insights into his thinking about the upcoming election.
A final takeaway from this New Orleans JCC program was that until the election is behind us, it will be difficult to determine how the Jewish vote went and what factors influenced Jewish voters. What is certain is that in the aftermath of the election, Jewish academics, journalists and others will analyze the results carefully, striving to determine patterns, dynamics and, ultimately, what it all means for the future of the American Jewish community.