If you type the words “will he or won’t he” in Google images, you get rows and rows of Joe Biden pics, sprinkled with images taken from advice columns about men who won’t commit. But the ultimate “will he or won’t he” man these days is former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has floated the idea of a presidential run at least twice in recent weeks. And while most pundits who are writing about the topic are urging Bloomberg to stay in his midtown Manhattan offices, that sentiment may not be shared by American Jews, in New York and elsewhere.
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In his 2001 upset victory in the New York mayoral race, Bloomberg garnered 52 percent of the normally Democratic Jewish vote. Observers said at the time that Bloomberg had benefitted from the tremendous post-9/11 popularity of Rudy Giuliani that had helped offset the fact that his rival Mark Green was both a Democrat and Jewish. But in 2005 and again in 2009, with Giuliani’s glory days going and then gone, Bloomberg got over 75 percent of the Jewish vote. Despite their Democratic traditions, Bloomberg proved himself to be the kind of guy that all but the most liberal of New York Jews could rally around.
In a Siena poll conducted in New York earlier this month, Bloomberg’s favorability ratings among New York Jews of both parties far outstripped anyone else’s: He was viewed favorably by 64 percent of New York Jews, followed by Marco Rubio (47 percent), Barack Obama (45 percent), Bernie Sanders (44 percent), Hillary Clinton (37 percent), Chris Christie (35 percent) Ted Cruz (32 percent), Donald Trump (31 percent) the largely unknown John Kasich, (27 percent) with Jeb Bush, somewhat surprisingly, leading from behind with 26 percent.
One in four Jews polled said they would want Bloomberg to join the presidential race, far more than any other religious group. If he does, he would endanger both Clinton’s and Sanders’ hold on Jewish votes, though the latter much more than the former. In fact, if the New Hampshire winners Trump and Sanders go on to become their parties’ candidates, Bloomberg could arguably make a killing, at least among the Jews.
In a Sanders-Trump contest, Bloomberg could present a viable alternative to all but committed Jewish liberals and devout anti-left conservatives. He could definitely garner a substantial portion of the Jewish vote, perhaps a plurality. A Washington Post article on Thursday put it snarkily by claiming that “the people who want Michael Bloomberg to run the most are wealthier, white, Jewish New York City residents: People just like Michael Bloomberg,” which may be wrong about America but seems right about the Jews. Though there aren’t really more than a handful of Jews who are “just like Michael Bloomberg,” the former New York mayor does represent centrist, mainstream American Jewry in 2016 far better than Trump or Sanders: He is a free market capitalist, he holds liberal social views, he opposed the Iran deal and his Israel credentials are considered top notch, though he avoids the crazy-talk so prevalent in the GOP.
In other words, if Bernie Sanders is J Street, as he indicated this week by mentioning them as one group with which he consults on the Middle East, then Bloomberg is the much larger AIPAC. And Trump would be left to pick up the leftovers.
Trump’s positions on issues such as immigration and his harsh diatribes against Muslims might endear him to certain parts of the Jewish-Republican electorate, including Orthodox communities, who would also be wary of Bloomberg’s positions on abortion, for example, but that would be the extent of it. Trump is not a Marco Rubio or a Jeb Bush who could exploit some of the widespread disillusionment on the Jewish center-right from Obama and perhaps garner more than the 31 percent of the Jewish vote that Mitt Romney received in 2012. Trump would also have a hard time enthusing the GOP’s Israel-centric hard right, where some regard him as the most dangerous candidate of all.
Sanders would do much better than Trump. He is most likely to pick up a sizeable chunk of the 36 percent of American Jews who described themselves as liberal in a 2014 J-Street poll. He might attract some of the 36 percent who describe themselves as moderates, if he ever stops denigrating moderates as an inferior version of progressives: Many moderates will vote for Sanders if only to stop Trump.
Nonetheless, Sanders won’t pick up the 74 percent of the Jewish vote that Barack Obama garnered in 2008 or the 69 percent that the president picked up in 2012: Clinton has a far better chance of emulating that achievement, despite her lowly favorability ratings. In a two-man Sanders-Trump race, the distribution could very well be misleading anyway: Many Jews, who usually come out to vote in far higher percentages than other groups, could opt to stay at home for once.
Sanders would find it hard to convince high-income, centrist, moderate, AIPAC-type Democrats, of which there are many, to trust him, whether the issue is taxes or Israel, and the former is probably much more influential than the latter. American Jews are the highest earning religious group in America: 46 percent of them, according to a 2009 Pew Research study, earn over $100K a year and many of these make more than $310,000, making them prominent members of the “one percent” that Sanders tends to describe as the scourge of humanity. With all due respect to their forefathers, the socialist days of American Jews are long over. They are die-hard liberals, true, but only on social matters, not basic economic outlook. The famous formula that Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans might not survive a politician who wants to tax the Jews down a notch or two from their Episcopalian income bracket.
Whether he runs against Trump and even more so if he runs against a different GOP candidate, Sanders is also likely to be called out for some of his past statements and positions on Israel. In terms of U.S. politics, Sanders’ criticism of Israeli policies in the territories, his past calls for American pressure to achieve peace, his undisguised disdain for Benjamin Netanyahu and the harsh adjectives that he has sometimes used to describe Israeli practices place him outside the American political mainstream, at least as it is manifested in Congress.
At the same time, as Allison Kaplan Sommer has pointed out, Sanders has attracted more venom from the Israel-hating left than he has from the Israel-loving right: He has consistently, though not flawlessly, supported AIPAC-sponsored bills in Congress. And his positions on Israel are probably aligned today with a large chunk of the increasingly critical Democratic Party and the majority of its younger voters, which is why Hillary Clinton will think twice before attacking him on this front.
Bloomberg, on the other hand, is a more comfortable fit. Unlike Sanders and, in many ways, Trump as well, Bloomberg is no enemy of Wall Street – he thrives on Wall Street, in fact. On top issues on which American Jews are liberal – climate change, abortions, women’s rights, gay marriage and immigration – he can be a liberal with the best of them. And while he seems to be an assimilated secular Jew, like Sanders, he is also one of the staunchest supporters of Israel and one who puts his money where his mouth is.
Bloomberg, in fact, probably stands slightly to the right of the Jewish community, but that’s the way most Jews like it. The problem with Obama wasn’t that he supported a two-state solution, which most American Jews still do, but that he never succeeded in persuading the bulk of the community that he had Israel’s best interests at heart. Sanders, despite his religion and perhaps because of it, will have the same problem, but Bloomberg won’t. In the kind of defiant symbolic gesture that Israeli-supporters crave and its critics loathe, Bloomberg flew to Israel in summer 2014 to brave Hamas rockets and to protest an FAA decision to ground flights to Ben Gurion Airport. After such bravado, he would be well positioned to come to Jerusalem with a list of demands.
Of course, it’s a pie in the sky scenario. Odds are Bloomberg won’t join, and if he does his chances of success are minimal: No third candidate has ever come close. Most of the polls that have been published so far have not been very encouraging for Bloomberg, with the notable exception of a January poll by GOP guru Frank Luntz that had him trailing Clinton and Trump by only a few percentage points. If he decides to join the race – and most people that I have spoken to were skeptical – one thing is for certain: with a personal worth of $39 billion, Bloomberg, like Sanders and Trump before him, will leave the heavy-duty donors, Jewish or otherwise, with bursting pockets.