Jews and Republicans: Turning over a new leaf?

Dr. Rafael Medoff | Director, The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

A new Pew poll has found that close to one-third of American Jews now identify with or lean towards the Republican Party, up from just 20% in 2008. Does this indicate a temporary aberration, or a long-lasting shift by Jewish voters? And if so, why? The Nevada caucuses offer an important clue.

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Since the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, Jewish affiliation with the Republican Party has rarely risen above the single digits, and large majorities of Jewish voters have supported Democratic presidential candidates in all but one election. In the old days, Jewish immigrant blue-collar workers naturally supported the party that championed labor rights. FDR’s anti-Nazi rhetoric (even if not matched by action to rescue Jews from Hitler) contrasted sharply with the Republicans’ isolationism.

Jewish attachment to the Democrats continued long past the Roosevelt era because the Democrats promised an ethnically and religiously inclusive society, while the Republicans seemed to be the party of WASP-only country clubs. For immigrants who had experienced pogroms, and for their American-born children who experienced the widespread anti-Semitism of the Depression era, the choice was clear.

But not so fast. The GOP was changing. During the Holocaust years, prominent Republicans challenged President Roosevelt’s failure to rescue Jews from Hitler. In the postwar years, there were Republicans who flirted with the John Birch Society, but there was also a more tolerant wing, including Jewish Republicans such as Senator Jacob Javits. By the early 1970s, a growing number of Jews recoiled at the era’s cultural excesses and decided that maybe the modern GOP was not the enemy after all — as the record 35% Jewish vote for Richard Nixon against George McGovern demonstrated.

It is sometimes forgotten that in recent decades, large numbers of Jewish voters have supported the Republican or conservative law-and-order candidates in mayoral races. Sam Yorty won about 46% of the Jewish vote in the Los Angeles mayoral race in 1969. Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo received 50-53% of his city’s Jewish votes when he ran for mayor in 1971 and 1974. Rudy Giuliani captured a large majority of the Jewish vote in all three of his mayoral races in New York City. Specific local concerns sometimes trumped Jewish voters’ general ideological orientation.

American Jews may be uneasy about some aspects of the evangelical Christian agenda, but during the Reagan era, these Christian Zionists made the Republican Party more welcoming for Jews by guiding the GOP to a position of fervent support for Israel. The 40-40-20 split of Jewish votes between Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and John Anderson in 1980 was possible not only because Carter’s Israel policies alienated many Jews but also because the Republican Party of the 1980s was not the GOP of the 1930s.

Now fast-forward to last weekend’s Nevada caucuses. Jews are less than 2% of that state’s population and a miniscule portion of its Republican voters. Yet when Orthodox Jews — less than 5% of the local Jewish community — protested the scheduling of the caucuses on a Saturday, the Nevada GOP immediately agreed to hold a special post-Sabbath caucus for them. This contributed to the delay compiling the final results, to the annoyance of some tally-hungry reporters, but the principle of inclusiveness was upheld — by those who once stood for the opposite. This is not your grandfather’s Republican Party.

And it’s not your grandfather’s Jewish community, either — which is why the perennial speculation about Jews moving away from the Democrats might actually have some legs this time around. Significant demographic changes are underway among American Jews, and the political implications could be felt in November.

Orthodox Jews, who are politically the most conservative element in the community, are approaching 15% of U.S. Jewry and rising, thanks to a high birth rate and few intermarriages. Russian Jewish immigrants and their children, who comprise about 12% of American Jewry, also tend to be politically conservative. The Orthodox and the Russians are heavily concentrated in the New York City area and played a key role in the recent victory of Republican Bob Turner in the race for Congressman Anthony Weiner’s old seat — the first GOP triumph in that district in nearly a century.

But perhaps the biggest wild card for the 2012 presidential race is what we might call the Reagan generation of American Jews. Here it’s worth dusting off an analysis of the 1980 presidential race by scholars Deborah Lipstadt, Charles Pruitt, and Jonathan Woocher, which asked whether Jewish support for Reagan over Carter was a one-time protest vote over Carter’s Israel policy, or an omen of future political trends in the Jewish community.

“Among older Jews,” they noted, “there are many who have never voted for a Republican” and were thus unlikely to repeat their 1980 shift to the GOP candidate. But among Jews aged 30 to 45, Reagan won a clear plurality with 41%, as opposed to 35% for Carter and 22% for Anderson. It is this age bracket, with no lifelong record of deep loyalty to either party, “that is most likely to abandon the Democratic party.”

“Abandon” was too strong a word. A large majority of Jewish voters continued to support Democratic presidential candidates in the post-Carter era. And even the new Pew poll shows two-thirds of American Jews still leaning towards or supporting the Democratic Party. There is no Jewish stampede to the GOP.

And yet, the young pro-Reagan Jews of that Lipstadt-Pruitt-Woocher survey are now the middle-aged backbone of the Jewish community. If they perceive Barack Obama as another Jimmy Carter on Israel, and if you add the Orthodox and the Russians, you suddenly have a large bloc of Jewish voters who could tip Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, or other battleground states come November.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is the director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and the coauthor, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the forthcoming book Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel.

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