With the U.S. presidential election less than a year away, what role will the Jewish vote play in the contest for the White House? President Donald Trump has accused Jewish voters who support the Democratic Party of showing “great disloyalty,” and opinion polls show a huge majority of American Jews disapprove of his conduct as president.
Yet despite the fact that most Jews will likely support the Democratic Party’s nominee by next November, experts who spoke with Haaretz say Trump and his eventual Democratic opponent will still have good reasons to court Jewish American voters — especially in the competitive swing states that will determine the fate of the election.
Jews make up approximately 2 percent of the population in the United States and most of the community is concentrated in states that aren’t usually competitive in presidential elections, such as New York, New Jersey and California. However, there are large Jewish populations in two states that will be crucial in next year’s election: Florida and Pennsylvania, both of which Trump carried by a margin of 1 percent or less in 2016.
There are also smaller, yet still significant, Jewish communities in other states that the presidential campaigns will focus on throughout 2020, including Arizona, Nevada, Michigan and Minnesota.
In past elections, most discussions about “the Jewish vote” focused almost exclusively on Florida — the ultimate swing state and the home of more than 600,000 Jews. Only New York and California have larger Jewish populations, but while the Democratic presidential candidate has won both these states in every election since the 1990s, Florida has often changed hands. Furthermore, the margin of victory between the winner and loser in the Sunshine State was in the low single digits. That makes the Jewish community — which comprises about 3 percent of Florida’s population — very valuable electorally.
“Overall, the Jewish vote is not really significant in determining presidential elections,” says Northeastern University’s Prof. Dov Waxman, who has written extensively over the years on the politics and culture of the American Jewish community. “The Jews are just 2 percent of the national popular vote, and most of them live in states that are politically irrelevant because of the Electoral College. But when you have very close elections — and it looks like the next election will be a close one — then the Jewish vote in the swing states does matter, because any small shift in a state like Florida or Pennsylvania can make a big difference.” Waxman tells Haaretz that when presidential candidates put out campaign messaging aimed at persuading Jewish voters, “They really don’t care how it will impact Jewish voters in New York and California. They’re focused on Jews in the crucial swing states.”
The challenge is that, in most cases, “There isn’t really a very big difference between how most Jews vote in different parts of the country,” he continues. “Most American Jews are liberal, most of them support the Democratic Party, and for most of them the top issues on the agenda are domestic political issues.”
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In 2016, the left-wing Jewish group J Street commissioned a national poll of Jewish voters, and a separate poll in Florida (both conducted by veteran pollster Jim Gerstein). The results were almost identical: 70 percent of Jewish respondents nationally said they voted for Hillary Clinton, compared to 68 percent of respondents in Florida; Trump was the choice of 25 percent of respondents nationally and 28 percent in Florida.
“There are definitely certain ‘pockets’ of the Jewish population in states like Florida or Pennsylvania where you will find Jewish voters who lean more toward the Republican Party,” says Waxman. “It can be an area with a lot of Jewish retirees — older people tend to hold more conservative views — or an area with a large concentration of Orthodox Jews, who are likelier to support Trump. But at the macro level, there aren’t any signs that Jews in the swing states vote differently than those in other parts of the country.”
‘Every vote counts’
Pollster and political strategist Mark Mellman also tells Haaretz he expects both parties to invest time and resources to court Jewish voters, for one simple reason: “This is going to be such a consequential election and there is a good chance that it will be very close — and then every vote counts, including every Jewish vote.” He adds that in 2020, “No party can take any voting group — including Jewish voters — for granted.”
Mellman is the CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel, an organization he helped establish last year that works to increase and strengthen support for Israel within the Democratic Party. He believes that while the Jewish vote overall will remain “strongly anti-Trump,” there will nevertheless be a significant fight in the “deciding states” over the exact margins of the Jewish vote. For that matter, if Trump could increase his share of the Jewish vote in Florida or Pennsylvania by just a few percentage points, that would guarantee him thousands of precious votes in two states that are likely to be very competitive.
The Republican Jewish Coalition released its first ad of the election cycle Monday, focusing on recent statements by leading Democratic presidential candidates that favor limiting or conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel.
The ad starts with the declaration “Leading Democrats turned their backs on Israel” and ends by describing the debate over conditioning aid as a “shanda” (the Yiddish word for shame). The ad is 30 second long, and among the politicians appearing in it are senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. One politician who doesn’t appear in the ad, and isn’t even mentioned by name, is Trump himself.
The RJC says the ad is targeted at Jewish voters and that it is spending $50,000 on Facebook, YouTube and other media to reach them. The organization is reportedly going to invest at least $10 million in the 2020 election.
RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said in a statement Monday: “The radical Left has taken the reins of the Democratic Party, and their policy proposals will devastate our national security [and] our alliance with Israel. ... This isn’t our parents’ Democratic Party anymore. What’s happening to the Democratic Party is a disgrace, a shanda, and a potential disaster for our community.”
Jewish Democratic Council of America Executive Director Halie Soifer tweeted in response that the RJC ad won’t work: “Since Trump has been in office, Jewish support for the GOP has been halved [because] Trump doesn’t share our values and Jews know the real shanda is in the White House.” She also shared a March 2016 article by the RJC’s chairman, former senator Norm Coleman, who wrote at the time he would “never vote for Donald Trump” and described the future president as a bigot and a fraud.
Soifer has noted that polls showed a decrease in Jewish support for the Republican Party in the 2018 midterms and a rise in support for the Democratic Party, with Democratic candidates receiving close to 80 percent of Jewish American votes.
A recent poll by the American Jewish Committee — one of the oldest nonpartisan Jewish organizations in America — showed that 49 percent of American Jews consider far-right anti-Semitism to be a “very serious threat,” compared to only 15 percent who view far-left anti-Semitism in the same light. The poll also showed that more Jews consider the Republican Party responsible for the current levels of anti Semitism in the United States than the Democratic Party.
But for Republicans and the Trump campaign, the fight isn’t about convincing anything close to a majority of American Jews to support the president’s reelection. Instead, it’s about trying to increase his share of the vote in the swing states by highlighting his support for Israel and contrasting it with the Democrats’ internal debate over support for Israel.
Brooks tweeted Monday that “like any campaign, we will work hard to turn out our supporters but a huge focus will be in winning over persuadable voters and folks disaffected by the anti-Israel shift in the Dem party.”
The real target
Jo-Ann Mort, a strategic adviser to progressive Jewish organizations, is skeptical that the strategy can work. “Most American Jews vote first and foremost on domestic issues, not on Israel,” she tells Haaretz. “The community is overwhelmingly liberal. Those factors aren’t going to change.”
Mort adds that for many Jews, “There is a clear distinction between supporting Israel and supporting the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu. That’s a distinction Trump doesn’t understand. Trump is trying to politicize support for Israel together with Netanyahu and turn it into a Republican issue — American Jews don’t react well to that.” The RJC, for its part, is accusing Democrats of not accepting Israel’s elected leadership by taking aim at Netanyahu.
Mort predicts that while Republican campaigners will highlight Trump’s actions regarding Israel, such as moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Democrats will focus on two statements Trump has made during his presidency: his August 2017 assertion that there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville; and his insistence that Jews who vote for Democrats are disloyal. “People were disgusted by those comments,” she says.
Waxman says that political messaging aimed at the Jewish community is not always truly focused on Jewish voters. “Some of the messaging, especially at early stages of the election, is actually about Jewish donors,” he notes. “This is a sensitive issue that politicians don’t like to talk about, for many reasons. In general, politicians aren’t very happy to publicly acknowledge how important fundraising is for them — and when it comes to donors from the Jewish community, there is concern about anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. But there’s no doubt that for presidential campaigns, efforts in the Jewish community are also about donors, not just voters.”
On this front, Waxman adds, the Republicans could actually have an opportunity to make things harder for the Democrats. “People who give political donations that go beyond small dollar contributions are usually older and richer, and that’s also true in the Jewish community,” he explains. “I don’t buy the narrative that the Democrats are going to lose Jewish votes because of something that was said about Israel. But I can definitely see the Republicans gain an upper hand in the battle over the big donors, which is very important to both parties.”
Overall, Waxman sums up, “The Jewish community matters in every election, and it will also matter in 2020 — but not as much as many people tend to think.”