Opinion

Why Some Jews Are Staying Loyal to Trump

The “usual suspects” of Orthodox, Russian-speakers, and Israeli-Americans alone don't explain the 20% of U.S. Jews who'll vote for Trump, despite his uniquely offensive positions.

A supporter awaits the start of a campaign rally by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Prescott Valley Event Center, October 4, 2016 in Prescott Valley, Arizona.
A supporter awaits the start of a campaign rally by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Prescott Valley Event Center, October 4, 2016 in Prescott Valley, Arizona. Robyn Beck, AFP

It’s generally well known that American Jews are overwhelmingly Democratic and disproportionately liberal. The Orthodox (both Yeshivish - right wing Orthodox, and Modern) and those born in the FSU are the notable exceptions. 

But more than that: Jews are the most Democratic voting white ethnic group in the United States. Some of the most bluish states are also among the most Jewish: New York, California, Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts among them. Jews tend to live in those parts of the country where polls point to large leads for Clinton and for statewide Democratic candidates. Either Jews gravitate to liberal regions, or regions lean left when many Jews are present, or both. 

Another reason for Jews’ exceeding liberalism is their exceedingly high rates of college and post-graduate education, more than any other American religious or ethnic group. As of late, well-educated Americans have become even more liberal and Jews are among the most educated ethnic groups in America. 

In 2016, the vast majority of American Jews are voting for Hillary Clinton, while a small minority supports Donald Trump - consistent with historical support for Republicans and despite Trump’s uniquely offensive positions on women and immigrants. In a recent Florida poll by Jim Gerstein, Clinton outpolled Trump 66%-23%. A national poll by the American Jewish Committee put the margin at 61% to 19%.

Clearly, when the undecideds finally decide and when some fans of third party candidates lose hope or enthusiasm and migrate to the major party candidates, at least 20+% of American Jews will be voting for the Republican from New York rather than his Democratic counterpart. Even though Clinton is running away with the Jewish vote, there’s little to support the prediction that, “90% of American Jews will not vote for Trump.” 

What can explain the sheer number of Jews who are Trump voters? Their very presence surprises many observers especially in light of his decidedly illiberal positions and his extraordinary support among non-college educated whites – a group socially, geographically, and culturally distant from most American Jews.

One thought is to credit (or “blame”) the Orthodox. But they constitute only 9% of the adult population; and the combined total of Orthodox adults who are Republican or Independent (not all Trump voters to be sure) amounts to only 7% of American Jews. Russian-born adult Jews – another fairly conservative sub-group - number about 275,000. 

But the total number of Republicans + Independents among them amount to under 4% of American Jews; Just 90,000-100,000 of American Jews are Israeli born (far fewer than some advocates would have us believe) and only about 10% of them are Republicans, so they’re not a large source of Jewish Trump-ites. In short, the “usual suspects” of Orthodox, Russian-speakers, and Israeli-Americans, can hardly explain the expected number of Trump voters among American Jews. 

To get at the heart of the matter, we turned to a poll of Florida Jewish voters conducted in August by GBA Strategies. We examined a variety of possible predictors of the presidential vote. Among them: age, gender, education, denomination, synagogue membership and political ideology (self-described liberals vs. conservatives). We also constructed a five-point party identification scale, ranging from strong Republicans to strong Democrats, with weak partisans and Independents in-between. As Gerstein reported, Trump does better among men, the less well educated, the Orthodox, synagogue members and political conservatives.

But when we considered all the predictors simultaneously, one and only one mattered and it mattered enormously: Party identification and the phenomenon of sorting. After we know someone’s identity as a Democrat or Republican, learning anything else about the person hardly improves our ability to accurately predict his or her intended vote. 

The one additional piece of information that might help a bit is to learn whether he/she identifies as a liberal, moderate or conservative. Many Americans are turning away from the parties altogether and those that remain partisan have sorted into clear camps by adopting particular principles and world views that make predicting issues positions and vote choice very easy. If you are a Republican, for instance, you hold a consistent set of views and you see the world and candidates in a uniform way – and the same goes for liberal Democrats. 

So, for those few (10%) who call themselves, “Strong Republicans,” Trump trounces Clinton 85% to 2%. In contrast, among the far more numerous (38%) who call themselves, “Strong Democrats,” Secretary Clinton leads by an astounding 98% to 0.5% (!). 

In short, to understand why some American Jews seem ready to vote for Trump, one need not resort to sophisticated reasoning or special explanations – be they about cultural values, personality, Israel, anti-Semitism or other issues. Rather, American Jews seem ready to repeat patterns of earlier elections and to vote their political identities as they have sorted neatly in the past decade. To learn why some Jews are voting for Clinton and others for Trump, we need to inquire as to why many are staunch Democrats and a few others committed Republicans. It’s entirely a matter of liberal Democrats vs conservative Republicans – all the rest is commentary.

Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University. 

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.