by Marc Schulman 10/18/20
In a new poll commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, and conducted by the SSRS Polling Company, 75% of Jews said they would vote for Joe Biden; while 22% stated they would cast votes for Donald J. Trump. While the SSRS poll findings are very similar to the way American Jews have voted since FDR, they indicate lower support for the Republican candidate than in recent US Presidential elections.
Historically, the Republican party has failed to make significant inroads with Jewish voters. Scholars have deemed Jewish loyalty to the Democratic party "the paradox of the Jewish vote". Despite rapidly rising social, economic status, Jews continue to vote for the Democratic Party, while those with similar status have tended to vote overwhelmingly for Republicans. This paradox has frustrated Republicans whose Presidents', except for George Bush, Sr., have been perceived as more pro-Israel than Democratic Presidents.
What motivates Jewish voting has come into sharper focus in the reelection campaign of President Trump. There is no question that Trump has been outwardly the most pro-Israel President in US history. I would argue that many of his other actions on the international scene are ultimately detrimental for Israel. Still, comprehending voter perception is essential to understanding what motives voting trends, and in terms of perception, Trump is perceived by voters as extremely pro-Israel.
So what explains Jewish support for Democrats, in general, and for backing Joe Biden in 2020, in specific?
It's interesting to examine prior election results. In 1980, Jews gave President Ronald Reagan an unprecedented 39% of their votes. As the 1984 election neared, pundits wondered whether Jewish votes for Reagan’s re-election bid would increase. In a Moment Magazine article authored by Deborah Lipstadt, Charles Pruitt, and Jonathan Woocher, published shortly before the election, they wrote:
"Lou Harris says the Jewish vote will split 68-32 in favor of Mondale. Republican strategists assert that this time, the Jews will give Ronald Reagan even more than the 39% support they gave him in 1980. Who’s right? Is the old tie between the Jews and the Democratic party finished, as some think, and as other believe? Have Jews, in fact, been inching rightward these past years, and will 1984 be the year for their decisive turn — or is the traditional alliance, however, bruised, still intact."
Republicans expended an inordinate effort at wooing the Jewish vote in 1984. Nevertheless, Jewish support for Reagan dropped to between 30-33%. Jews were the only ethnic group to register a drop in support for the incumbent President, even though Reagan proved himself to be a firm friend of Israel. So, what led to this shift back in loyalties? According to polls done at the time, Jews were unnerved by Reagan’s close ties with Christian Evangelists like Jerry Falwell, and the Reagan Administrations’ attempt to weaken the wall between Church and State.
According to a national exit poll conducted by the American Jewish Congress, 44% of Jewish voters said the Reagan stand on Religion and State was crucial in determining their vote. The two Jewish sub-groups that remained loyal to Reagan were the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. According to some estimates, Reagan received 59% of the modern Orthodox vote and 94.5% of the voices of the ultra-Orthodox.
In my opinion, the explanation of why Jews continue to support Democrats over Republican candidates, hovers in the perception of antisemitism that has emanated from the Republican Party. For generations, the Republican Party has been considered the "Party of the Country Club" the "Party of Exclusion". As Richard Reeves wrote, in 1972, about growing up in a Republican family:
"I listened over the years to the dinner table and living room talk of Republicanism, learning that Jews are good people with a 'place,' being encouraged to treat them almost the same as 'our kind,' but understanding that they were a brain-labor pool, ideal for under-secretaryships and assistant-to positions, research jobs in Wall Street, as long as there weren't too many of them."
To most Jews, the issue of antisemitism rises to the level of what is called "symbolic politics". As George Rabinowitz and Stuart Macloud wrote, "The key tenet of symbolic politics is that for issues (or other political cues) to have an impact, they need to evoke emotions and sentiments rather than simple objective appraisals of information."
This brings us back to the election of 2020. While no one thinks that Trump himself is an antisemite, his actions have encouraged antisemitism in the US. His rhetoric about "America First" has encouraged extremists to take actions against Jews, including, but not limited to the attack on the synagogues in Pittsburgh, PA and Poway, CA.
The Anti-Defamation League's most recent Audit of Antisemitic Incidents in the United States recorded more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism, and harassment; representing a 12% increase over the previous year. This constitutes the highest level of antisemitic incidents since ADL's tracking began in 1979.
For those concerned about antisemitism, the Trump Administration's defining moment was, without doubt, the President's comments after the neo-Nazi March in Charlottesville, where marchers chanted: "Jews will not replace us." Trump’s remarks that there were "good people on both sides" shocked many, and was a wake-up call for others. Most recently, last week, Trump refused to denounce QAnon, a conspiracy group with clear anti-Semitic elements.
According to SSRS, Trump will still receive 22% of the Jewish vote, despite all the antisemitism his rhetoric has provoked in America. Surveys suggest that like Reagan, Trump will receive support mostly from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. A poll published by Ami Magazine, projects/estimates that 83% of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities plan to vote for Trump.
What might explain the widespread support for Trump among Orthodox Jews? Here are three determining factors -
First, Israel is more central to a portion of the Orthodox community than it is to other Jews. While much of the Jewish community views Israel as a prosperous, independent state they care about, a segment of the Orthodox world believes Israel is forever embattled, and always in need of their support.
Second, the Trump Administration has weakened the wall between Church and State, especially with regard to religious schools. To the bulk of the Jewish community, that very separation is considered one of the keys to American Jewish success. However, to portions of the Orthodox world, that separation has limited access to desperately needed financial assistance for their private schools.
Finally, and paradoxically, antisemitism is perceived as less of a threat in the insular Orthodox world. Over the past 30 years, antisemitism had been receding, before its recent rise during the Trump presidency. Yet, there was a perception among Jews, especially the younger ones, that antisemitism was on the rise. That happened because those same young Jews who no longer encountered any barriers social or otherwise to their advancement, found themselves in situations where they heard antisemitic jokes and other antisemitic remarks. The Orthodox, whose lives, including their professional lives, are much more isolated, rarely experienced antisemitic incidents — Thus, antisemitism is not as important to them. The last thing an ultra-orthodox Jew wants is to become a member of an exclusive American club.
The Jewish vote has always been pivotal in American politics. While many Jews live in solidly blue states, such as: New York, California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, the critical swing states, such as: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, all have significant Jewish populations. In states where a few thousand votes can differentiate between victory and defeat, the Jewish vote can be consequential if an election turns out to be very close. For this reason, both Republicans and Democrats have been working to ensure they receive the greatest support possible from Jewish voters.
Most Jews appreciate Trump's support for Israel. However, with Israel largely at peace and flourishing, it is clearly not the most important factor in their decision on how to vote. Instead, Jews, like many Americans have a variety of reasons to vote against President Trump. His tenure as President is widely considered a disaster on numerous levels and his accomplishment have been few. However, the final factor that makes Trump so toxic to most Jews is the antisemitism his presidency has engendered. That antisemitism will likely ensure that the Jewish vote this year, and in years to come, will remain overwhelming Democratic.