As Massachusetts voters prepare to vote in the state’s Super Tuesday presidential primary on March 1, recent polling shows Democratic presidential rivals Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton running neck and neck. Community leaders suggest, however, that Jewish voters in the state are likely to favor Clinton.
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No poll numbers are available on the political leanings of the state’s 275,000 Jews, who comprise approximately 4.1 percent of the Massachusetts population.
Nancy Kaufman, the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women and former executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston, said she believes the predominant issue figuring in the Jewish vote for the upcoming primaries is income inequality and regulation of the financial services industry. Whether Jews’ characteristic liberalism will tilt them toward the more liberal Sanders is not clear.
Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist whose work focuses on the American Jewish community, said that broadly speaking, younger and more liberal men have backed Sanders while older and more moderate women support Clinton. Demographic studies, including the 2005 Jewish Community Study sponsored by Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, show Jews are both older and more affluent than the population at large, both characteristics that may point toward greater support for Clinton.
Unlike other local Jewish community surveys, Boston’s does not ask respondents for their political or ideological leanings. However, prominent Jewish figures sense that Jewish voters may favor Clinton in the upcoming primary.
“Most of the people I speak to seem to be leaning toward Hillary in the primary,” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.
Though Israel hasn’t figured significantly in the campaign, Cohen said, pro-Israel Jewish voters may tend toward Clinton given her more hawkish and conventionally pro-Israeli government stance. Clinton might also gain from her massive victory over Sanders in Saturday’s South Carolina primaries.
Political scientist L. Sandy Maisel of Colby College in nearby Maine, author of the 2003 “Jews in American Politics,” said that nationally he thinks Jews will favor Clinton. He said Sanders’s Judaism has not been a significant factor for Jewish voters.
“In an interesting way his Judaism is almost irrelevant to his candidacy,” Maisel said. “I think it would be different if Senator Sanders were a more open Jew, someone like Joe Lieberman.”
Jewish activists frequently fault Sanders for not emphasizing his Jewish identity on the campaign trail. Critics point to his habitually describing himself as a “son of a Polish immigrant” rather than “a Jewish immigrant.” Valerie Lieber, writing in the Forward, argued, “So far, Sanders has downplayed his Jewish heritage almost to the point of renunciation.”
On several occasions, however, Sanders has assertively highlighted his Jewish background, especially in explaining the roots of his civic engagement.
During a town hall meeting with students at George Mason University in Virginia on October 28, 2015, he was asked by a Muslim student about his response to discrimination against Muslims, and began his response by saying, “Let me be very personal here if I might. I’m Jewish. My father’s family died in concentration camps. I will do everything that I can to rid this country of the ugly stain of racism, which has existed for far too many years.”
Boston’s Jewish community also includes a sizeable proportion of Orthodox Jews and Russian immigrants, both of whom tend to lean right. Indeed, Boston is the birthplace of several particularly outspoken conservative Jewish organizations, such as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and the David Project, which trains college students to be pro-Israel advocates.
However, nationwide Jewish support for Republican candidates has remained consistently low – between Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 and Barack Obama’s 2012 election, GOP candidates captured between 15 and 30 percent of Jewish votes.
According to Cohen, conservatives have long waited for Jews to shift toward the political right given the Jewish community’s affluence, but Jewish voters have shown no sign of tilting toward the GOP in the upcoming election. Cohen sees Donald Trump, in particular, as perhaps the least appealing candidate to Jewish voters.
“Trump appeals to a demographic that’s just very different from most American Jews,” Cohen said. He noted that Trump’s supporters are typically of lower education backgrounds than American Jewish voters.
It’s certain that after his loss in the Nevada caucuses and Clinton’s landslide victory in South Carolina, Sanders badly needs a win if he is to regain his momentum. If he can’t get it in Massachusetts, famously liberal and next door to his home state of Vermont, it’s not clear where he can recover.