Jewish Republicans: Lemonade from Lemons?

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

James Besser in Washington

You have to hand it to Jewish Republicans; they know how to make lemonade out of lemons.

Tuesday’s election seemed like a big, sour lemon for groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition.  Despite early predictions that Sen. John McCain would do better with Jewish voters than any GOP nominee since Ronald Reagan in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter scared many Jewish Democrats right out of their traditional party affiliation, McCain did a little worse than President George W. Bush did in 2004 – about 22 percent, according to exit polls.

Sen. Barack Obama – now President-elect Obama – garnered about 78 percent of the Jewish vote, in line with most recent Democratic nominees,  despite recurrent, Internet-transmitted rumors about his religion, his associates and his commitment to Israel.

In the days since the election  Jewish Republicans have been busily spinning reporters, making the case that the results were actually pretty good because the GOP ticket didn’t lose Jewish support despite the national surge away from the Republicans.

Still, it’s hard to see what keeps these guys going in the face of the predictable quadrennial cycle: first, predictions of a big Jewish shift to the GOP, backed up by polls suggesting a much more modest one, then election-night spin when the numbers don’t back up the predictions.

But maybe all these predictions of  big changes in the Jewish electorate are just for show, and what Jewish Republican activists are really doing is playing a more pragmatic game aimed at a group that is undeniably playing a bigger role in GOP politics: big Jewish campaign donors.

Jewish Republicans aren’t stupid; they know that Jewish ties to the Democrats are strong, especially among older voters. They must know that a Jewish majority rejects key  Republican positions on issues such as abortion, gay rights, church-state separation and that the conservative Christian base of the party scares the heck out of even some Jewish voters who might be inclined to drift rightward.

But big Jewish givers are increasingly important to the party; by creating a buzz with aggressive advertising and grabbing media attention with stories about an impending revolution in Jewish political preferences, Jewish Republican leaders may be trying to reinforce that group’s activism and commitment.

Sure, they’re hoping to pick off a handful of Jewish votes at the margins and be positioned in case a Democratic candidate turns out to be overtly hostile to Israel or in league with domestic anti-Semites, but it could be that their aggressive efforts are aimed more at providing red meat for their base, not attracting new Jewish voters in droves.

And they expect that demographics could gradually do what their aggressive advertising has failed to do: move more Jews over to the GOP.

Several recent surveys confirm that younger Jews are more likely to identify as conservative than their elders.  That may be largely a function of a large Orthodox cohort that is moving into the electoral pipeline. A higher proportion of younger voters are Orthodox – some Republican activists say it could be as high as 20 percent, although most analysts say it’s less – and they come from a minority in the community that has been shifting steadily toward the GOP.

As that segment grows as a proportion of the Jewish electorate, many analysts predict a slow growth of Jewish Republican identification.

So for now, the Democrats remain big winners with Jewish voters, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Indeed, a successful Obama administration that pursues a progressive domestic agenda without getting into a major tussle with Israel could bolster still further the traditional Jewish-Democratic alliance. (And remember: that doesn’t mean simply leaving Israel alone, as President Bush did; Bill Clinton enjoyed very strong Jewish support despite claims on the right that he was pushing Israel to make dangerous concessions).

A new, more pragmatic liberalism could prove enormously attractive to Jewish swing voters.

But Jewish Republican leaders, while spinning stories about a big shift, are hunkered down for the long haul, building organizational infrastructure, expecting that Jewish demographics will slowly and modestly improve GOP performance with Jewish voters and that Jewish donors will become increasingly important to the party.

Predictions of a seismic shift make good newspaper copy, but this year’s presidential election once again demonstrated that it’s not happening anytime soon.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.