According to exit polls 71% of American Jews voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s presidential election, while only 24% backed her Republican opponent Donald Trump. While Haaretz described the outcome as a reflection of overwhelming Jewish support for Clinton, the truth is the opposite. Jews rejected her in extraordinary numbers and may have contributed to her defeat in battleground states with large Jewish populations.
Just as the press misjudged the general population before Tuesday, so too did it miscalculate the Jewish vote. Take some of the hysterical headlines prior to Election Day, such as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s “Anti-Semitism unleashed by Trump followers chills Jewish voters,” or The Atlantic’s, “Has Trump Driven Jews Away From the Republican Party?”
The percentage of Jews voting for Clinton was apparently higher than any other religious group, but that is not unusual and hardly justified J Street’s claims that Jews had “an overwhelming disdain for Donald Trump and his policies,” or their pollster’s assertion that Jews are clearly in the “progressive camp.”
I cannot claim any great prior insight because I had expected Trump to potentially get the lowest percentage of the Jewish vote of any Republican in history; he did not. Similarly, most of the autopsies on the election so far have incorrectly asserted that Jews rejected him when, in fact, his share of the Jewish vote was about average for a Republican candidate. In fact, he did as well or better than every Republican since 1992 — George W. Bush (24% in 2004 and 19% in 2000), Dole (16% in 1996) and Bush Sr. (11% in 1992) — with the exception of Romney (30%) who benefited from Jewish disillusionment with Obama’s Middle East policies.
The real story is how Jews abandoned Hillary Clinton despite her close ties to the Jewish community, major Jewish supporters (financial and otherwise), government experience, pro-Israel record, relatively hawkish foreign policy and liberal domestic policy. Most Jews were drawn to her record of public service and, simultaneously, repelled by Trump’s lack of experience, bigotry, misogyny and all of the other negative traits his critics assigned to him.
Still, Jews deserted Clinton in droves. Yes, she won a substantial majority, but all the previous Democratic candidates, going back to her husband did much better, with Bill’s 80% share of the Jewish vote in 1992 significantly higher. After 1992, Clinton followed that up with a 78% in his second campaign. Gore and Kerry lost despite getting 79% and 76% of the vote, respectively. Jews saw great promise in Obama and rewarded him with 78% of their vote, but the perception that he was perhaps the most anti-Israel president in history drove that total down dramatically to 69% in 2012. Thus, the pro-Israel Clinton didn’t do much better than the Democrat viewed as hostile to Israel.
Put bluntly, Clinton’s share of the Jewish vote was disastrous. Did it cost her the election? Probably not, since she underperformed with so many other constituencies and, in many respects, ran a terrible campaign, but losing Jews certainly didn’t help her in states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, or Ohio.
There is no single explanation for Clinton’s poor showing. Jews were much more in tune with her liberal social policies and more hawkish foreign policies than with Trump’s ambivalent and scattershot social program and isolationism. Trump said the right things about Israel and the danger of radical Islam (which he rightly pointed out she refused to recognize was a major problem), but his overall foreign policy, to the extent it was discernible, was not consistent with Jewish views. Trump’s overall ignorance of foreign policy, threats against NATO, cultivation of Putin, and desire to withdraw from leadership in the Middle East and elsewhere were all troubling.
On the other hand, many Jews wanted a change after eight years with a Democrat in the White House, especially one they distrust even now to take a parting shot at Israel at the UN by recognizing “Palestine,” voting that settlements are “illegal” or setting some parameters for a final peace agreement at odds with Israeli public opinion. For all her positive statements about Israel, Clinton was Obama’s Secretary of State and oversaw the first years of his deleterious policies toward Israel and the region. Though the Iran deal was not a major issue in the campaign, her support for that disastrous agreement undoubtedly turned off Jewish voters who are still angry about what they see as the appeasement of Iran.
The fact that Trump did far better than expected with Jews, especially given the way even Jewish Republicans ran away from him during the campaign, does not reflect any significant realignment of the Jewish vote. Though Jewish Republicans have touted such a change now for years, this election is not a harbinger of that dreamed of change. Trump does not reflect the traditional views of the party advocated by most Jewish Republicans and, even with a flawed opponent, he did not win new converts to the party.
The vote is always based on assumptions of what the next president will do in office. Now, we will have to see whether Trump’s statements reflected typical pandering (such as the promise nearly every candidate makes to move the US embassy to Jerusalem only to change their minds when they reach the White House) or conviction. The fact that one of his first acts was to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington was a good sign – exactly the opposite of the approach Obama took to immediately demonize Israel. Hopefully, we will hear more about how serious he is about fighting radical Islam and ISIS, ending the slaughter in Syria and whether he will indeed tear up the Iran deal. We will learn more when we see who he appoints for key positions. I hope he does not believe what he said in the campaign about being his own foreign policy adviser; Obama acted as though he were and the results were, to use Trump’s favorite word, a “disaster.”
Will Trump be good for the Jews and Israel? There are good reasons for trepidation, but also signs of hope. As others have said, he is the only president we have and Americans should give him a chance to demonstrate he can be a leader of all the people.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.