Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

The 2020 election: What it means for the Jews

Over the years, my articles here and elsewhere[1] have tried to define the characteristics, interests and practices associated with Jewish political behavior. As we gear up for the 2020 elections, it may be useful to redefine some of these core elements while adding some specific insights about this forthcoming campaign, an election described by some as the most important in American history.

Why is this election seen as so significant? Americans of all persuasions are being asked in this political moment to address the character and content of this democracy. In some measure, this is a referendum on this President and with it comes the question, what type of society and democracy do we want  for this nation?

To begin with, there are a number of distinguishing features and challenges to 2020:

  • An Impeached President
  • The Coronavirus and its Impact on our Lives
  • Black Lives Matter and the American Street
  • The Economic Condition of this Nation

These four factors alone might be key “influencers” in shaping the political climate. We need to remind ourselves that voters see the ballot box as a means for expressing their own political identity as their vote serves as their leverage in shaping this country’s destiny. Due to its significance, many analysts believe that the turn-out this November will provide a national referendum on the future of this democracy.

For Jews, all of these primary considerations are joined with other specific political agendas.  The rise in anti-Semitism in this country along with the challenging geo-political issues facing the State of Israel represent concerns unique to the Jewish community. In connection with this latter point,  the possibilities afforded the Netanyahu government in connection with annexation are likely to reshape the Diaspora-Israel equation. Two questions emerge:  In what type of society do American Jews want to live? How will the future of the Israel-American partnership be defined?

Stepping Back:

Following the 2016 campaign I had occasion to write about the implications of that election: [2]

“In the aftermath of this surprising and historic election, where can one find American Jews on the political spectrum? As with other constituencies, Jewish political behavior operates across a framework of party loyalties and ideological commitments.

A Trump Presidency will result in a fundamentally unique and transformative moment in this nation’s political culture. Not only are we likely to see strikingly different policy options and directions, but the cultural artifacts of politics, namely how this President will operate, will dramatically challenge existing norms of political behavior and action.

As we shift from a period of American liberalism to a time of political populism, deep fissures are dividing Americans in general and Jews in particular. Republican Jewish triumphalism is offset by the angst and uncertainty operating among many Jewish Democrats. In the aftermath of November, Jewish political differences may never have been more pronounced, as Jews debate what defines their vision for America and how they understand their self-interests in this new political reality.

Indeed, the political directions being chartered by the Trump administration will have particular implications for the State of Israel as Jewish Americans and Israelis consider the new dimensions of United States foreign policy in the Middle East and across the globe, just as the domestic agenda of this nation will be fundamentally reconfigured.”

Jewish Political Engagement:  Now, four years later how might we understand some of the unique characteristics that define the Jewish voter? Previously, I have had occasion to lay out the distinctive elements associated with Jewish political behavior.[3]  Over the years, various generic and specific surveys confirm a set of particular characteristics in connection with Jewish political practice.[4]  As we approach this fall’s election, we are framing  five core behaviors that are now central to Jewish political expression:

  • Jews vote!
  • Jews are deeply engaged in politics
  • As with other Americans, Jews reflect the diversity of American politics
  • Jewish political behavior remains remarkably consistent over time
  • Demographically, Jews represent one of the oldest voting groups within this nation
  • Jews provide major financial contributions to candidates and causes

Voting as a Measure:

 Jews vote in larger percentages than other ethnic or religious constituencies[5]. Even as these numbers, in more recent election cycles, appear to be falling. The more recent studies place Jewish voting percentages around 75%, down from a high of 85%.[6] But there are other interesting political characteristics that define the “Jewish voter”.  Some of these trends are introduced below:

Political Behavior:

We are regularly reminded by analysts that voters hold onto their political values for decades. It is therefore unlikely to see sharp and sudden shifts in political party loyalties. That of course does not mean that during a particular election, it is quite common to see voters move away from their political base to embrace another candidate in connection with a specific issue or social condition. Reacting to particular events certainly drives “traditional” voters to opt out of their comfort zone in order to make alternative choices.  “Jewish voting patterns may undergo significant change at those times in which Jews sense that their self-interests are being challenged, and that it is essential for them to evaluate their political position within the society.”[7]

Overall, Jewish voters identify a significant number of issues as being of importance to them. These include an array of domestic issues and foreign affairs matters. While we have no data that reflects specific Jewish concerns in connection with COVID 19, Black Lives Matter or the current economic challenges, we can extrapolate employing the general society’s response to these immediate considerations.

No doubt many Jews weigh the Israel equation as part of their voting choices. Two factors are important here. Core “identity voters” will likely place the importance of Israel as a higher value in defining their priorities.  Other Jewish voters will weigh many other factors, along with the Israel question, in determining their vote.

Posted below is one survey noting Jewish political priorities:

Among the issues of primary concern to Jewish voters were health care (43%), gun violence (28%), Social Security and Medicare (21%), the economy (19%), immigration (18%). Other issues of importance to Jewish voters the environment (14%), education (8%), and the Supreme Court (8%). In this study, Israel ranked twelfth among the political priorities offered by potential Jewish voters.[8] As a result, voting for a president is by extension a statement on the part of voters of their broader national vision.[9]

Jewish Voting Patterns:

 The two central Jewish political traditions are deeply embedded in our community’s role within the larger society.

Jewish Conservative Connections: Republican Voters

Identity-Politics: Identity-based political behavior is built around specific ethnic/religious based interests. For such voters, a frequent guideline might be: “How good is it for the Jews?”  This class of voters tie their political influence and support to those candidates that best reflect their values and ideas in connection with Israel and other perceived communal self-interests.

Ideological Conservatives:  But as with Jewish liberals, conservative Jewish voters generally have a range of political and economic priorities. In the case of this cadre of voters, specific social values define and shape their political orientation.

 Religious Conservatives: A values-based politics is seen as being influential in defining how these voters embrace particular candidates and causes. Orthodox Jews represent an important segment within the Republican Jewish base. In their voting patterns, political outlook and social values, Orthodox Jews turn out to be more like evangelicals than like liberal Jews.”[10]

In the 2020 campaign we see the emergence as well of “Anyone but Trump” Republicans. The depth and strength of this base remains uncertain. It has secured however some high profile ideological champions among them columnists Bret Stephens, Bill Kristol, and Jennifer Rubin.

Universal/Progressive Politics: Democratic Voters

This political mindset generally frames its questions around: “Will this enhance the welfare of the society?”  As with conservative voters, Jewish liberals have a broad set of interests and define their political priorities through various lenses.  For Jews liberalism is a “moveable feast” where specific policies and ideas take on added significance at different times and for different segments of the Jewish Democratic base. Three elements describe the Jewish Democratic base:

Liberal Suburban Democrats:  As with other voters, these older longstanding Jewish constituencies have a set of established political interests that tend to include a broad range of domestic and international concerns. Undergirding their voting behavior are a set of social values about how they envision a more just and democratic society.

Urban Activists: Unlike their suburban counterparts, these younger, urban-based voters tend to be more independent in their political choices, focusing more on economic concerns, social justice issues, and cultural/racial matters.

Red-Diaper Babies: There are still remnants among Jewish Democrats of the old socialist tendencies that once defined a significant cohort of immigrant voters. These “lefty” Democrats are found today both inside and outside of the “Progressive” wing of the Democratic Party. Part of their political positioning is linked to their support of or opposition to the anti-Zionist voices found within that sector of the Party.

 Jews as Political Activists:

A key political pattern has been the significantly high engagement of Jews in various forms of  political practice. The data below is extracted from the LA County Jewish Voter Study[11], but these patterns of engagement are confirmed by an array of other surveys.[12]

  • 96% talk with family and friends about politics
  • 77% report having signed petitions or having sent letters
  • 62% indicate that they have made political contributions
  • 38% attended public meeting or government agency hearing
  • 44% indicated that they had participated in a political rally, protest or march

Jews as an Older Constituency:

As noted above, American Jews are older than other white ethnic constituencies[13].  Today, our community comprises 1.8% of this nation’s population. In the United States, 20.6 percent of the population is 65 or older, yet among Jews, 26 percent are part of this cohort. And while 45.8 percent of all Americans are aged 18 to 44, among Jews the figure is 41 percent. Within that category, only 10.5 percent of Jewish Americans are between 18 to 24 years of age.

The importance of this demographic reality plays out in connection with some of the choices that Jewish voters are making. Health/Medicare, social security and economic security issues represent a significantly higher status in voter considerations among older constituencies.

Specifics on the 2020 Campaign and the Jewish Vote:

Polling data has generally shown significant Jewish opposition to the President and his policies both at home and abroad. A February (2020) poll lays out both the substance and depth of these concerns.[14]

  • A majority of Jewish voters identify as Democrats, and an overwhelming majority of Jewish voters disapprove of President Trump.
  • While Jewish voters remain strongly pro-Israel, Jewish voters prioritize domestic policy issues over Israel when asked which issues are most important to them in selecting a candidate.
  • While nearly all respondents identify as “pro-Israel,” a majority also identify as critical of at least some of the current Israeli government’s policies.
  • Jewish voters feel less secure than they did two years ago, and they hold President Trump responsible for their insecurity. 
  • A plurality of Jewish voters believe that the best way to improve the security of Jews in the United States is “helping people with the right values get elected.”

Along with other Americans, Jews will be actors in the unfolding story of this fall’s political campaign. What type of a national story will emerge is being crafted both by the political actors and by the events unfolding within this society on a daily basis. As in the past, Jews will continue to play a significant story in this drama.

[1] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/taking-the-temperature-of-jewish-voters-a-political-snapshot/

[2] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/mapping-jews-and-their-politics-in-the-age-of-trump/

[3] https://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp509.htm

[4] http://huc.edu/news/article/2011/snapshot-american-jewish-electorate-2011-political-survey-dr-steven-windmueller

https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/jews-and-their-politics-unpacking-a-new-survey-of-jewish-voters-in-los-angeles/

[5] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-essentials-taking-another-look-at-the-american-jewish-voter/

[6] https://jcpa.org/article/the-2016-election-jews-and-their-politics/

[7] https://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp509.htm

[8] J Street National Post-Election Survey,” J Street, 6/11/2018, retrieved 19/1/2020 at https://jstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/J-Street-Post-Elect-Topline-Results-110818.pdf.

[9] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-essentials-taking-another-look-at-the-american-jewish-voter/

[10] Samuel Heilman, “How Trump Split the Jewish Vote,” Haaretz, 11/11/2016, retrieved 19/1/2020 at https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-samuel-heilman-how-trump-split-the-jewish-vote-1.5459828.

[11] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/jews-and-their-politics-unpacking-a-new-survey-of-jewish-voters-in-los-angeles/

[12] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/connecting-the-dots-american-jews-and-civic-engagement/

[13] https://www.jta.org/2019/10/07/united-states/americas-7-5-million-jews-are-older-whiter-and-more-liberal-than-the-country-as-a-whole

[14] https://www.jewishelectorateinstitute.org/national-survey-of-likely-jewish-voters-in-2020/

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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