Courting the Jewish Vote May Not Be Worth It

Even though the presidential elections in the U.S. are more than a year away, the race for the presidency is already in full swing. The Democratic candidates are traveling from state to state in an attempt to enlist support in advance of the primaries season, which begins in January, while President George W. Bush is crisscrossing the country to raise contributions and to translate the president's popularity into sure votes at the ballot box in the 2004 elections.

Even though the presidential elections in the United States are more than a year away, the race for the presidency is already in full swing. The Democratic candidates are traveling from state to state in an attempt to enlist support in advance of the primaries season, which begins in January, while President George W. Bush and his people are crisscrossing the country to raise contributions and to translate the president's popularity into sure votes at the ballot box in the 2004 elections.

In this campaign, American Jews are traditionally considered a leading force, thanks to their considerable electoral weight in a number of key states and, more importantly, because of their strong presence on the lists of donors to the two parties.

With President Bush in the midst of an effort, the first during his tenure, to advance the peace process in the Middle East, the question of the Jewish vote is again surfacing. In other words, how far will the president go in applying pressure to Israel to implement the road map, in light of the concern that this pressure will deter Jewish voters and donors?

For the Republicans, this is not a matter of secondary importance. They would like to see the 2004 elections go down in the history of American politics as the turning point in which the Jews abandoned their traditional commitment to the Democratic Party and moved into the Republican ranks. In view of where George Bush is starting out, any result will be an improvement.

In the 2000 elections, he won only 18 to 21 percent of the Jewish votes, while his rival, Al Gore, swept up the vast majority of the Jewish voters in the United States. However, since then, quite a lot has changed. Bush has climbed and soared in the surveys, thanks to the war against terror. As there has been a general increase in the rates of support for him, the percentage of Jews who say they will vote for him in the next elections has also risen. Moreover, Bush's profound commitment to Israel and his strong stance against Palestinian terrorism have further strengthened Jewish support for him.

The Republicans have set themselves the goal of returning to the glory days of president Ronald Reagan, who for his second term won 36 percent of the Jewish votes. Since then, this record has not been broken, but Bush believes this is a possible achievement. The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matthew Brooks, sees signs of movement in this direction in isolated incidents around the U.S. - for example the vote of the Jews of New York for Republican Governor George Pataki in the 2002 elections and their support for Michael Bloomberg in the race for mayor of New York City.

A survey published in the middle of July, however, poured cold water on the Republicans' enthusiasm. In a poll conducted by Ipsos/Cook, it turned out that 64 percent of the Jews define themselves as Democrats, while only approximately 26 percent see themselves as Republicans. These results are similar to a previous Gallup poll, which found that 50 percent of the Jews are Democrats, 18 percent are Republicans and 32 percent are independents.

When the Jews were asked for whom they would vote in 2004, 71 percent said that they were considering not voting for Bush, as compared to 51 percent of the general population. The Jews were also more critical of Bush's policy in all areas, more so than the general population and more than any other population group.

Democrats rejoice

The Jewish Democrats rejoiced at the results of the survey. "The Republicans found out that they over-sold the story about a shift in the Jewish vote, and now they have to deal with this reality," says a Democratic Jewish activist. The Republicans charge that the survey was flawed, as it was made up of the results of five separate surveys and its results do not reflect anything. There's a background to the statistical debate: It is very difficult to obtain a representative sample of a population group that constitutes only 2 percent of the overall population.

Nevertheless, it is possible apparently to isolate from this debate two key facts. One is the probability more Jews will vote for George Bush in 2004 than in 2000, and the other is that this will not be a return to the glory days of Ronald Reagan. Who are the Jews who have gone over to supporting Bush and the Republicans? These are mainly young people who no longer have the same commitment to the Democratic Party as their parents, who are more identified with the suburban middle class, which is closer in its conservative economic outlook to the Republican platform, and who no longer have strong feelings about the civil rights struggles that characterized the previous generation. Researchers believe that this is a phenomenon typical of any population group that is absorbed into American society, but for the Jews this has taken a bit longer.

The question is whether these votes are important enough to influence the president's foreign policy. What exactly is the "Jewish vote" worth in the presidential elections?

The Jews turn out

Even though quantitatively the Jews constitute only 2 percent of the American population, because of their relatively high rate of voter turnout, they account for 3 to 4 percent of the votes cast. The significance of this is that even if Bush surprises everyone and rakes in 40 percent of the Jewish votes, this would represent a total of 1 percent at most of the voting public. But as the electoral system for the president is by state, the question, as it emerged in 2002, is not how many Americans support the president, but their distribution by state. Jews carry significant weight in a number of states - New York, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Florida. In all of them, apart from Florida, Bush lost the last election, and the assessment is that this time, too, even with Jewish support, he will not succeed in bringing those states over to his side.

There remains only Florida, the Democrats' trauma in the 2000 elections, where it is estimated that Bush succeeded in the last elections in enlisting 35 percent of the Jewish voters and in winning, after a lengthy legal wrangle, in the state and in the country as a whole. Florida is a key state in the 2004 elections, and the forecast is that Bush will have to succeed there is he is to win; therefore the elderly Jewish voters who live in the coastal areas of the state are important to him. However, it must be recalled that Bush already won in Florida in 2000, and therefore even if he contents himself with the existing situation, in which there is a slight lean among the Jews in his favor, his victory there is already ensured.

Big political givers

The direct electoral significance of the Jewish vote is, therefore, trivial, but there is also the financial side. The idea persists in American political circles, which has not been scientifically verified, that the Jews are responsible for no less than 50 to 60 percent of the campaign contributions to Democratic candidates and for approximately 30 percent of the contributions to the Republicans. In a race that is won by whoever succeeds in garnering more contributions, no one scorns the dollars of the Jews.

A political source recently opined that the importance of a change in Jewish positions would lie more in its damage to contributions to the Democrats than in an improvement in the Republicans' bank accounts. In any case, President Bush is succeeding in breaking campaign contribution records; during the past quarter, he has managed to bring in more contributions than all the Democratic candidates put together. Money from the Jewish voters, while it will not hurt him, will not make a significant difference to Bush's campaign fund. For the Democratic side, it is far more important. If the Democratic candidate should find $10 million or $20 million subtracted from campaign donations, this is sufficient to cause him significant damage.

The Jewish vote's road map

For the record, both sides are claiming success in raising funds among the Jews. Matthew Brooks of the GOP [Grand Old Party] says "there is no doubt that the Jewish community is showing financial support in this president. However, Ira Foreman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, says that he has examined the list of big donors and "I didn't see anyone who moved to the other side."

Thus, the connection between the question of the Jewish vote and possible pressure on Israel in the matter of the road map is far weaker than it appears. First of all, the question of pressure on Israel is, in any case, not on the agenda at the current stage of the American plan and on the administration's list of priorities. But, beyond that, it is clear that this equation will become relevant only in an extreme case in which President Bush will have to choose between achieving a significant breakthrough in the peace process and pressuring Israel to make concessions for the breakthrough - or not. A political source close to the Democrats put it this way: "The question will be whether the president will be prepared to give up an international political achievement so as not to annoy some of his Jewish supporters."

This sources says that were Bush in a situation in which he desperately needs international successes and the Jewish vote and contribution are, in any case, not decisive, then the Jewish vote will not be the deciding consideration.

The Jews, however, did not forgive presidents who pressured Israel. Jimmy Carter, the only president who managed to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and an Arab state, holds the negative record for Jewish support - only 45 percent, as he was perceived as someone who applied pressure to Israel. Bush senior, who refused to give prime minister Yitzhak Shamir's government the guarantees for immigrant absorption because of the continuation of Jewish settlement in the territories, believed that American Jews did not support him because of this.

For Bush junior, the picture is more complicated. He has won an election without Jewish support and is apparently able to do it again, in light of the rise in his popularity. However, unlike his predecessors, George W. Bush relies on the votes of the Christian Evangelist community, which believes in the Greater Land of Israel and is threatening to punish Bush if he forces Israel to withdraw from holy land. Ultimately, the Evangelist Christians have no one to vote for apart from Bush, but they have already made it clear that their protest could be expressed in a low level of volunteering and a low turnout on election day.

Historic value

Beyond the considerations of winning the elections, the Republicans attribute importance to the Jewish vote for reasons of morale and history. The party has been concentrating efforts this past year on appealing to minority groups that had been secure bastions of the Democrats - African Americans, Hispanic voters and the Jews - and is trying to get a foothold in these power bases in advance of more substantial penetration in future years. In the Jewish community, the Republicans are appealing mainly to younger and Orthodox Jews, who tend to adopt conservative positions relative to the Jewish community as a whole. The assumption is that even if this effort yields only minor results at the moment, when the older generation passes and is pushed aside, the Republicans will have friends in the new Jewish power stratum. Bush and his people are trying to shape a new agenda in their relations with the Jewish community. Thus, for example, many Jewish leaders were astonished when they were not invited to an event that was held at the White House a few months ago in honor of the opening of an Anne Frank exhibition at the Holocaust Museum. The heads of prominent organizations were left out, while the White House invited obscure rabbis and other figures from the Jewish community. Jewish sources believe that the administration's working assumption is that perhaps it is worth maintaining good working relations with the traditional Jewish establishment, but that it is nevertheless a traditional Democratic bastion, one that will not fall quickly. Therefore, in parallel, the administration is trying to weave ties with other Jews, with the basis for the partnership being unreserved support for Israel, religious sentiments and a conservative economic approach. This contrasts with the position of the Democrats, who base their ties with the Jews on strong support for Israel, but accompanied by a commitment to the separation of religion and state, maintaining civil rights and defending minority rights.