Sibling Rivalry: American Jews Spar Over the Meaning of the Jewish Vote

Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
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Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

Boston – Now that the U.S. presidential election is over, a new political battle rages. This one pits Jewish Republicans and their Democratic counterparts against one another over just how significant a drop in the Jewish vote for the president was and what it might portend.

Obama won some 69 percent of the Jewish vote, according to exit polls conducted by a consortium of media groups – which is either a drop from 78 percent or 74 percent in 2008 depending on which figures one uses. Republicans cite the former, Democrats the latter.   

Both the Republican Jewish Coalition, the RJC and the left-leaning J Street released their versions of exit polls Wednesday and immediately set to work to spin the meaning behind the math.

"This has been the biggest gain in the Jewish vote since 1992,” said Matt Brooks, chairman of the RJC. “All trajectories have been upward sloping as every year Democrats have been losing Jewish market-share.  We will continue to build the base of the Republican Party in the Jewish community.'"

Brooks argued that the numbers indicated an incremental, gradual migration of Jews, long stalwarts of the Democratic Party, towards the Republican camp.  
About $15 million were spent by Jewish Republican groups and donors, with billionaire Sheldon Adelson at the helm, in an aggressive bid – especially in swing states like Ohio and Florida – to convince Jewish Democrats that Obama was bad for Israel and their wallets.

Democrats, citing 74 percent figures for the Jewish vote Obama secured in 2008, based on a broad, non-partisan study of the numbers conducted in the months after the election, downplayed the election results as being within the margin of error.

“At the end of very long campaign donors like Adelson , the Emergency Committee for Israel and the RJC had no net movement in the Jewish American voting bloc, above and beyond the movement of other voters,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, who heads J Street. “It demonstrates that Israel-Palestinian peace is not available for partisan use as a wedge issue.”

Abe Foxman, chairman of the Anti-Defamation Leaque, weighed in on the Republican messaging against Obama on the Israel issue: “It did not sell, it did not take. We need to take a look at ourselves. There is no need to go that route when what has served us is a bipartisan support of Israel.”

Democrats also said the focus for the majority of Jewish voters remains domestic issues. The J Street survey for example, conducted by pollster Jim Gerstein, found foreign policy issues ranked far behind topics like the economy and healthcare.  

As the campaign progressed Republican candidate Mitt Romney moderated some of his more conservative stances which were turning off potential supporters.  

"They [Jewish Americans] voted with their feet on the chasm of differences that separates these candidates when comes to domestic policy whether its basic civil rights issues, Medicare or Social Security. American Jews are staunchly united with the president and the Democratic party on domestic policy,” said David A. Harris, president and CEO of National Jewish Democratic Council, the NJDC.

On Wednesday the NJDC released previously unpublished polling which found Obama made significant gains with Jewish voters in Florida in the final weeks of the race even as the “buyer’s remorse” advertising campaign against Obama funded by Republican Jewish groups was at its peak.

Conversations with prominent Jewish Republican donors at the Romney election night party in Boston Tuesday revealed a level of frustration that the party’s social agenda has been steered by the more Conservative elements within the party.

Several suggested it was one of the issues that would have to be addressed in the party as part of a post-mortem on the election.

Steven M. Cohen, a prominent sociologist of American Jewry and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University said it was important to put the Jewish vote in context with the trend of a downturn of support for Obama among the broader white vote in the election.  Obama’s share of the white vote dropped from 43 percent in 2008 to 39 percent in this election, mostly because of the economy.   

“Whites votes for Obama dropped by four percent and Jewish vote for Obama dropped by five percent. Statistically that means there is no difference. And compared to whites, Jews are just as firmly in the Democratic camp as they were in 2008,” he said, citing a Workman’s Circle survey released in July that he conducted that indicated Jews make their voting decisions primarily based on views on economic justice and social inclusion.

For Jason Isaacson, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington Office, the decrease in support for Obama, however one chooses to interpret its magnitude, reveals something important: “that Jews are open minded to different appeals and are worth fighting for.”

“The RJC and Romney campaign tried very hard to appeal to Jewish support and made inroads. It is in the best interest that both parties compete for its support,” he said. “Bipartisan support for the Israel-U.S. relationship and other advocacy issues of  the Jewish community is essential. In order to say our interests are heard through ups and downs, we need to have friends who take our votes seriously on both sides.”

Republican Jewish Coalition members campaigning in Pennsylvania. Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya