By Herbert F. Weisberg
American Jews’ politics is usually described as simply voting strongly Democratic, but analysis of voting data and high-quality surveys of Jewish Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center, Public Religion Research Institute, and other organizations since 2010 reveals substantially more information. For one thing, averaging available election polls shows that Jews’ presidential voting has exhibited more variability over the years than is generally recognized. In particular, the Democratic presidential vote by Jews fell from about 78% in the 1996-2008 elections to about 70% in 2012-2016.
My 2019 book The Politics of American Jews, which the University of Michigan Press has made available for reading for free (but not for downloading) through the end of June 2020, emphasizes three factors that are important in considering the likelihood of future change in their voting: Libertarianism, Israel as a voting issue, and Jews’ reactions to the rise in antisemitism.
In the large-scale 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, nearly half of Jews were liberal on governmental regulation of both morality and economic issues (feeling that homosexuality should be accepted by society and wanting a larger government that provides more services), while less than a tenth were conservative on both issues. About a quarter of Jews were instead “Libertarians” who feel that homosexuality should be accepted by society, but also prefer a smaller government providing fewer services. These Jewish Libertarians favor minimal government regulation of both morality and economics, though that is not to say that they are Ron Paul or Cato Institute libertarians.
The Libertarian proportion among Jews is similar to that for non-Jews when asked similar questions in a 2014 Pew survey, but what is different is their party attachments: Most Libertarians among the general public are Republicans, while half of Jewish Libertarians are Democrats and only a third Republicans. These Libertarians are not fully comfortable with either party, so therefore their voting could change depending on campaign issues. Incidentally, Jewish Republicans are nearly twice as likely to be Libertarians than to be conservative on both of these issue domains.
The drop in Jews’ Democratic voting in the last two presidential elections may be due to some Jewish Libertarians moving away from the Democrats because of economic issues. Still, morality issues have served as a constraint on party change by these Libertarians. As Kenneth Wald has argued in his 2019 book The Foundations of American Jewish Liberalism, Jews have a strong desire to maintain the church/state separation under which they have flourished in this country. Attempts by the Religious Right to legislate its moral views on such matters as school prayer and abortion are seen by most Jews as threatening that church/state separation. Thus, even if Libertarian Jews agree with the Republicans on economic issues, many have difficulty becoming Republicans because of GOP attempts to enact the Christian Right’s moral positions. Another possible source of voting change by Jews involves Israel. My book shows that, although it is not the most important factor, Israel is a political issue for American Jews, even with statistical controls on other issues, as in evaluations of President Obama in the Pew survey conducted a few months after his reelection.
While the Trump Administration has changed several Middle East policies in ways that the Israeli government desires, that is unlikely to lead to much change in American Jews’ voting. Surveys consistently find that nearly all Jews care about Israel, but also find that most Jews do not approve of the Trump administration’s policies on Israel. Orthodox Jews are the exception: they are more approving of the Trump administration’s policy changes, and most are already voting Republican. Further small shifts in the Republican direction may be occurring among Jews identifying with the Orthodox and Conservative movements, but most Jews in the U.S. are not affiliated with those movements. Thus, the Administration’s policy moves are more likely to buttress Trump’s support among evangelical Christians than to increase his support among American Jews.
In the near future, Jews’ reactions to antisemitic threats are more likely than Israel to matter in their voting. In analyzing surveys of Jews taken between 2000 and 2016, I never found perceptions of antisemitism to be related to their politics. That changed starting in 2017 after post-2016 election antisemitic incidents, the Charlottesville alt-right march, and the Pittsburgh and Poway synagogue shootings.
As I report in The Politics of American Jews, one of the strongest predictors of Jews’ disapproval of the Trump presidency in the 2017 American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey was whether they considered antisemitism to be a serious problem in the U.S. At the same time, many Jews are concerned over the threat of antisemitism from the political left, as in Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments that raised antisemitic memes, the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement protesting Israeli settlements, and intimidation of Jewish college students who support Israel.
The threat of antisemitism has become a partisan issue, with surveys showing that most Jews associate the increased security threat with President Trump’s rhetoric and with antisemitism from the right. For example, analysis of the Fall 2019 AJC poll shows Jews were four times more likely to consider the extreme political right as representing a more serious antisemitic threat than the extreme political left (64% to 16%, with 20% viewing them as equally serious).
Politics have become so polarized that large changes in Jews’ partisanship seem unlikely, with surveys consistently finding a large majority disapproving of Trump’s job performance. Still, change is possible. Libertarians are not fully satisfied with either party, but, given their opposition to big government, they may favor Republicans opening the country’s economy up more quickly from the coronavirus lockdowns. Israel’s security continues to have potential potency as an issue. Trump’s attacks against Rep. Omar and “the squad” are noticed in the Jewish community; however, the threat to the security of Jews’ families posed by right-wing antisemitism may weigh more heavily on Jews’ minds now that synagogues have to hire armed guards. In the end, these points will determine whether Jews’ Democratic presidential voting will remain steady, at least until the Trump era ends.
Herbert Weisberg is an emeritus professor of Political Science at Ohio State University. He specializes in American politics, voting behavior and survey research. He is coauthor of The American Voter Revisited and author of The Total Survey Error Approach. His articles on Jewish voting include “The Presidential Voting of American Jews” for the American Jewish Year Book 2019 (forthcoming) and “Reconsidering Jewish Presidential Voting Statistics.”