Jewish Voting in the United States- A Historic Perspective

Governor Romney is in Israel to burnish his Foreign Policy credentials and to try to broaden his support among Jews. Republicans have been trying to increase their popularity with Jewish voters for the past few decades, with very limited success. That failure has been both frustrating for Republicans and perplexing to political observers. Having recently completed a book entitled: “The History of American Presidential Elections: From George Washington to Barak Obama”, I thought I would try to tackle this conundrum.


First, let’s begin with a little historic perspective. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson was the first Democratic President to receive greater Jewish support than his Republican opponent. It was not until the election of Franklin Roosevelt, in 1932, that Jewish voting became overwhelmingly Democratic. Of course, part of the support for FDR can be explained by the overwhelming victory Roosevelt garnered from the population at large. FDR’s appeal to Jewish constituents was also due to the fact his policies were in line with Jewish economic interests at the time. In addition, Roosevelt gave the impression of being more inclusive. He had Jewish friends and he appointed Jews to key positions in his administration.

President Elect Roosevelt contributes to the Federation of Jewish Philanthropic Society being solicited by Mrs Herbert Lehman December 19, 1932


Finally, despite later claims that Roosevelt did not do enough to help the Jews of Europe, (a topic for a completely different article), as the clouds of war began to darken in the years leading up to World War II, Roosevelt was always seen as the more internationalist than his isolationist critics. FDR seemed more likely to take action against Hitler for his crimes against Jews.


That being said, Roosevelt is long gone now, and the broad coalition that supported FDR has long broken up. Still, Jews continue to be  one of the few groups that has remained loyal to the Democrats. Jews have remained overwhelming supporters of the Democratic Party, despite the fact that in the intervening years Jewish economic accomplishments in the United States have been unprecedented. Jews are now on the top of the American social economic ladder.  To paraphrase a prominent Sociologist , “Jews look sociologically like Wasps, but vote like Hispanics.


The only time Jewish support for a Democratic candidate sagged was in the 1980 race between Carter and Reagan. That one anomaly can be explained either by the general sense of incompetence that appeared to surround Carter at the time, or a real sense that he was the US President least friendly to Israel in recent history. When the election of 1984 took place all eyes were on the Jewish vote– Would Jews continue to support a Republican in ever-greater numbers?  Would Jews stand behind a Republican who, other than his decision to sell AWAC’s to Saudi Arabia, was considered a real friend of the Jews.


The Republicans were disappointed. Jewish support for Reagan dropped from 39% to 32%. Jews were the only group to see a drop in Republican support between 1980 and 1984. Jewish support for Republicans waned, despite public support of Reagan by many Jewish leaders. As Yehuda Helman (Malcolm Honlein’s predecessor), the sitting Executive Director of The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations wrote in Maariv at the time: “We now will have a very difficult task to repair the damage that the Jewish vote has caused; the Jewish organizations will have to struggle to restore their influence in the American establishment.”


Was the marked decrease in Jewish support for President Reagan a return to the normal pattern of Jewish backing Democrats, or was it a reaction to some of Reagan’s conservative positions? Alternatively, is it possible Jews were concerned with Reagan’s support for weakening the walls between Church and State? The answer to this question remains unclear.


What has happened in the intervening years? With slight ebbs and flow, notwithstanding, Jewish support for Democratic candidates has remained steady– Despite the fact that, by-and-large, Republican candidates have projected a more pro-Israel tone than their Democratic counterparts.


Jewish Voting

In addition, neither age, nor economic standing seems to have any impact on Jewish vote. The one area that does seem to be of impact is a person’s self-identification with Judaism. As highlighted in several surveys, voters who self-identified as “highly Jewish”* more frequently supported Republican candidates, while those who self-identified as “less strongly Jewish” tended to associate more strongly with the Democratic Party.


So what explains the continued support for the Democratic Party among Jews? Traditional explanations of party identity, based on family identity, are no longer relevant. Most surveys among the population-at-large show a much smaller correlation in voting between parents and children than ever before.


One popular explanation given for Jewish support of Democrats is that Jews tend to be more liberal on social issues, and therefore, tend to align with Democrats. (The exception to that rule is seen with the Orthodox, and especially among the Ultra-Orthodox.) That theory would seem to provide an explanation. However, that conclusion proved to be inconsistent with research that I did 20 years ago. Using the data gathered in a large survey of New York voters in 1988 (Dukakis vs. Bush), I was able to show that Jewish voters in New York were no more liberal than their non-Jewish counterparts. Yet, Jews voted for Dukakis in much larger numbers than their non-Jewish counterparts.


I would suggest a different explanation to explain Jewish voting patterns in America. By and large, the Democrats have always been the “party of inclusion”, while the Republicans have been perceived as the “party of exclusion”.  The Republicans were the party who used to meet at the country clubs, where Jews were excluded. At the same time, the Democratic Party had included many Jews in its ranks. With the noted exception of Eric Cantor, how many prominent Jewish Republican politicians are there? At the same time, most, but not all of the Jewish Congressman and Senators are Democrats. In addition, it was the Democrats who nominated a Jew to be Vice President.


The perception of Republicans being the “party of exclusion” is tied to the issue of the separation of Church and State. Jews have always been in forefront of that fight. The clear separation of Church and State in the American body politic is one of the major contributing factors to the unprecedented safety and success that Jews have found in America. In the last few decades, as the Republican Party has become a little less the “party of the country club”, it has embraced lowering the wall between Church and State. This plays into the Jewish fear of being the outsider once again.


These two related items, I believe, rise to what is called “symbolic politics”. As George Rabinowitz and Stuart Macloud, two respected political scientists describe wrote: “The key tenet of symbolic politics is that for issues (or other political cues) to have impact, they evoke emotions and sentiments, rather than simple objective appraisals of information.” I believe this is the key factor behind continued Jewish support for Democratic candidates. This theory also explains the greater support amongst Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox voters for Republican candidates.


Some Jewish voters may have a higher identification with Israel, and thus, may be single-issue voters. Some American Jews, especially amongst the Ultra-Orthodox have no interest whatsoever in assimilating into American society. They also have no interest in the maintenance of the separation between Church and State. When it comes to support for Jewish educational institutions, their interests are often just the opposite. They want state aid to pay for Jewish education. However, for the overwhelming number of American Jews, the need to be accepted– even now in the 21st century– is the powerful driver of their vote.


So where does that leave us with regard to the 2012 US Presidential election? My sense is that this election will be similar to most. Romney will likely receive support somewhere within the lower range of what Jews have given to Republicans.


When it comes to Israel, the policy differences between Romney and Obama are not large. Mostly, their differences come down to their Gestalt. There is a sense that Obama is not “pro-Israel” in his heart. That may affect some voters, especially the single-issue Jewish voters. However, Obama has not done anything overtly negative to Israel– No arms cutoffs, or threatening of aid. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Israel issue will become more significant this year than it has been in the past. Furthermore, Romney does not come to the race with any significant ties to the Jewish community (e.g. like those that Reagan brought from his lifetime in Hollywood.) In addition, when it comes to dealing with separation of Church and State, Romney brings with him some of the same traditional concerns Jews have feared. On the other hand, Romney comes from another group of “others” (the Mormons). As such, it might be assumed that he can better understand the concerns of a religious minority. It is unclear how Romney’s religious affiliation will impact the Jewish vote this year. My sense is that most Jews do not know what to make of his Mormon religion. Therefore, it is unclear how this factor will affect the race.


Finally, there are a few wild cards at play in this year’s election. First, the fortune that Sheldon Adelson, a close supporter of Prime Minister Netanyahu, has been willing to spend to defeat President Obama could end up being a factor. Of course, all bets would be off– if either the United States, or Israel take military action against Iran before the election. The outcome of such military action could have a major and unknown effect. Ultimately, despite the Jews being a small minority in the United States, the fact that there is a large Jewish community in two swing states, Ohio and Florida, makes any change in support by the Jewish Community, for either Obama or Romney, critical to both campaigns. As we saw in 2000, a small number of voters in Florida can decide an election. So as Romney makes his public appearances here, it will be less important whether he gets 28% 32% or 38% of the Jewish vote, but if he can swing a few thousand important voters in Florida. We will have to wait until November 6th to find out the final answer.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary.