Jewish Vote, 2008: More Study Needed

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

James Besser in Washington

Mik Moore, the Jewish Funds for Justice blogger and co-creator of the “Great Shlep,” the pro-Obama youth crusade in Florida, has a provocative item this week about why predictions of an anti-Obama vote in the Jewish community proved wildly inaccurate.

Despite the 78 percent Jewish tally for Obama, Moore said he is “more interested in exploring why so many Jews were such fertile ground for the smears; why so many Jews had a narrative with which to fill in the blanks about Obama. “

Moore goes back to the black-Jewish conflicts in the 1980s and early 1990s and the tendency of Jewish community elders to lash out against any anti-Jewish statement by any black leader.

That, he said, continues to influence “how Jews came to regard all black leaders.   Revs Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, anyone from the Nation of Islam; they became the representative black leader to many Jews.”

Then he asks the obvious question: why, then, did so many Jews end up voting for Obama on November 4.   He cites a number of factors, including the souring economy, Obama’s effective outreach and growing familiarity with a relative newcomer to the national political scene.

Based on his own experiences, he said the single biggest factor was GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who personified the other big fear of the Jewish community: the extreme Christian right.

Many political scientists agree with Moore’s analysis, especially on the Palin issue.  But the 2008 presidential election poses a number of intriguing question about the Jewish vote that have yet to be answered.

*  How big a factor was Obama’s race with Jewish voters, and exactly how did that play out on November 4?

This paper, among others, cited numerous reports – from rabbis, from parochial school officials, from voters in Florida – suggesting that race was a significant factor for many Jewish voters, and yet the only numbers we have are the final vote tallies, which show Jewish voters going more pro-Obama than just about any other white group.

Did factors like Palin and the bad economy simply shove the race factor into the background, or were reports of the race factor’s emergence exaggerated?  We just don’t know.

We do know that Orthodox voters were far likelier to vote for McCain than the non-Orthodox. But was that race, or issues like Israel, parochial school aid and the whole range of “values” issues?  Or all of the above?  Again,many theories, few hard answers.

*  What about the Jewish youth vote?

Back when Florida was seen as the likely key to the election, there were numerous reports about Obama’s “bubbe problem” in a state with loads of Jewish retirees.

But polls just before the election suggested it was the youngest cohort of voters who were the least likely to support the Democrat, with the over-60 faction strongest in support for Obama. And other polls suggest the youngest Jewish voters are the most likely to identify as conservative.

What gives? Is this an indication of a longterm shift in Jewish voting that will become more apparent in years to come? If so, why is it happening, especially since younger voters in general seem to be moving in the other direction?  Is it just a function of changing Jewish demographics as the proportion of the Orthodox grows among younger voters, or is something else at work here?

*  And the Orthodox-non-Orthodox split.

No secret here: Orthodox voters are much likelier to vote Republican than the non-Orthodox, and that gap seems to be widening. But Obama also did better with Orthodox voters than John Kerry did four years ago. Is it all about Israel, or are domestic issues like government support for religious charities a factor?  What about the whole constellation of “values issues?”

The Democrats  believe they have a chance to win back Orthodox voters.  Is that realistic, or are they hallucinating?  If, as some analysts say, the Christian right is on the ropes, politically speaking, what does that mean for Jewish forces that are allied with that faction?

*  Where does Israel fit in?

The perception in the broader political world is that Israel is the end-all and be-all of Jewish politics, but studies have always refuted that notion. Still, it was clear that this year, the significance of Israel in the election seemed to reach a new low (look at the American Jewish Committee poll in September).

Is that because Israel is not as important to generations of Jews who don’t remember its birth and struggles for survival?  Or because Jewish voters simply assumed both presidential candidates were fine on Israel, so they could focus on other issues, especially a sinking economy? Is it because of the widely discussed gap between Israel-focused Jewish leaders and the Jewish grassroots, more concerned about close-to-home issues?

And what does that mean for the future of the pro-Israel movement?

If you’re a political scientist interested in Jewish politics and have some money to spend on survey research, Election 2008 could be a real gold mine.

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.