Clinton, Sanders or None of the Above? First-time Jewish Voters Weigh In

In East Coast primaries, some align with the demographic trends of their parents, others with their peers. Most categorically reject Trump and express dismay at the toxic electoral process.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders greets audience members at a campaign rally at the University of Buffalo, April 11, 2016.
Brian Snyder, Reuters

In last week’s New York primary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dominated the Jewish vote nearly 2-to-1 in heavily Jewish districts on her way to statewide victory. Meanwhile Bernie Sanders,  the senator from Vermont, commanded similar numbers from voters under age 30.

For the young Jewish voters belonging to both categories participating in their first presidential election, the question is whether they will align themselves more with the political leanings of their religion, or with their generation.

“I’m voting for Hillary Clinton,” said Hannah Cooperman, 19, a sophomore at the University of Rochester studying environmental health. “I think she’s very experienced and I think she has a very deep understanding of the issues.” Cooperman, who is the campus liaison to AIPAC and attended all of the candidates’ speeches at last month’s policy conference, added, “I think she’ll work really well with Congress to get things done in government and I’m not sure Bernie will do as good a job.”

Cooperman was in good company as a young Jewish Clinton supporter amongst the students that Haaretz spoke to following the New York contest and ahead of primaries on April 26 in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut and Rhode Island. 

“I support her because I think she best addresses issues facing women and other groups that are underrepresented in the policy-making process,” said Gabby Deutch, 20, a sophomore at Yale University studying history who voted for Clinton in her home state of Florida in March, where Clinton won handedly. “I think she has a concrete vision of how to succeed and create lasting change in this country.”

Those on Team Clinton pointed to her legislative experience, foreign policy chops, and demonstrated support for Israel.

“Her policies on the most important domestic issues – climate change, the economy, and gun control to name only a few – are ambitious and reflect progressive ideals but are also still attainable,” said Daniel Youkilis, an 18-year-old freshman at Brown University, and a fellow with the Hillary for Rhode Island campaign. “I also view her as the only candidate who truly understands American foreign policy and can conduct America appropriately in world affairs.”

Some, however, are backing Clinton with hesitation. Elisha Jacobs, a 20-year-old sophomore at NYU studying political science and economics, said he reluctantly cast a vote for Clinton to “offset her likely opponent Donald Trump whom I believe to be a dangerous threat to many U.S. citizens' well-being as well as relationships with foreign countries' leaders.”

Others are on the fence. “It's still a toss up for me between Sanders and Clinton,” said Alexandra Jacobs of the University of Rochester, who initially was a supporter of Rand Paul and only registered as a Democrat in this election because New York held a closed primary. For her, legalization of marijuana and reduced sentencing for drug offense is a top priority, which has her leaning toward Sanders. She also said she’d vote for him because he is Jewish.

“I know it's a terrible reason, but there would be something rewarding about having a Jewish president,” she said.

For Jared Miller, a sophomore and government and politics major at the University of Maryland, College Park, climate change is his greatest concern, followed by ISIS, income inequality and fixing the criminal justice system. Bernie Sanders has his vote.

“Sanders has a political background spanning over 30 years in which he has virtually always had the same platform and has not ‘flip-flopped” on issues like so many of the other potential candidates have,” he said. 

The Maryland primary is one of five key contests that will be held on Tuesday, but Jonathan Allen, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Maryland, won’t be casting a ballot. He’s registered as an Independent and Maryland’s primary is closed, so he said he’ll wait to see which candidates win the nomination before deciding. But he’s not particularly inspired by any of them.

“Sadly, my first election cycle that I am eligible to vote in is lacking a strong candidate that I can see myself being excited to vote for,” he said. “It seems like I will be choosing between the lesser of two evils.”

On Israel and Trump

Several students named climate change as a significant issue that influenced their vote; others mentioned college affordability, the economy in general, heath care and women’s health specifically. The United States’ relationship with Israel got high billing as well.

“My top priority is in regards to the candidate’s opinions and knowledge and approach to the Middle East,” said Michelle Schein, a sophomore international relations major at Brown University, and an active member of Brown Students for Hillary. She has spent weekends canvassing in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and has worked the phone banks up to 12 hours a day, she said.  

For others, Israel is important, but not necessarily a deciding factor. “While I support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, I don't really consider Israel when choosing my candidate,” said Anna Rosenfeld, a 21-year-old American history major at the University of Pennsylvania who is supporting Clinton. “Every presidential candidate is going to say they support Israel, so when it comes to foreign policy I am more concerned with what they say about other parts of the Middle East and the rest of the world.”

Aside from Israel, several students said that Jewish values guide their political priorities – and it’s those values, they said, that make the Republican candidates difficult to swallow. 

“I think it is my Jewish identity that makes the Republican rhetoric this cycle so unpalatable,” said Alexandra Jacobs in Rochester. “Not allowing Muslim refugees to enter the country? Building a wall to keep the undesirables out? This all sounds eerily familiar.” 

Their age, geography, religion and educational status may make these students demographically unlikely to support a Republican candidate in the first place, but many expressed explicit disdain for that party’s frontrunner, Donald Trump. Beyond his proposals, most said they were frustrated and disappointed with the way his campaign has flavored the political process this year.

“Perhaps the saddest encounter was between Marco Rubio and Donald Trump weeks ago,” said Jared Miller in Maryland, referring to the Republican debate ahead of the Florida primary. “I watched two grown adults who were running to be leader of the free world, bicker over things like certain physical features the other possessed, rather than discuss issues that are actually important.”

He echoed many of those interviewed when he said his impressions of the campaigns were “quite honestly very negative.” These students, who came to political consciousness during the galvanizing election campaigns of President Barack Obama are dismayed and disillusioned that, come their turn, the political climate is more toxic than it is energizing. 

“With the increasing polarization in American politics, it seems like many people are being sucked into the far-left, or far-right sides of the political spectrum,” said Jonathan Allen. “It is disheartening to see what the elections have become.”