In this election year, Jewish votes matter
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
If one observes the goings-on of this presidential political campaign cycle — which has now arrived at our neighbor state — one might conclude that Jewish voters are indeed the most powerful voting bloc in New York, if not the country. Leaving aside all the anti-Semitic tropes that have emerged from the mouths of some of the candidates — about which more later — why is there so much focus now on Jewish voters, given that this is only the primary election?
The 2016 campaign has clearly thrown off all the political pundits and analysts as well as all the rules, and now New York prepares for its primary on April 19, just days before Pesach. No one predicted Donald Trump would be leading what was at one time a 17-candidate Republican field — now winnowed down to three — with the then-expected front-runner Jeb Bush long gone, and that the early dream candidate, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, would have been the first aspirant to drop out.
On the Democratic side, the fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders is still standing — perhaps even gaining in popularity — in his challenge to Secretary Hillary Clinton is equally shocking.
All of which brings us to what is transpiring now in the run-up to New York. Why all the lopsided focus on a total Jewish population, based on 2014 studies, of a tad more than 1,757,000 (8.9 percent), including children and unregistered voters, in all of New York state, in a state-wide population of 19.7 million?
Of the 1.819 million people who voted in the New York Democratic primary in 2008, then-Sen. Clinton received 57 percent (1,068,000) of the votes versus 40 percent (751,000) of the votes for then-Sen. Barack Obama. On the GOP side, of the 617,000 Republican voters, Sen. John McCain received 331,000 (52 percent) votes to Mitt Romney’s 178,000 (28 percent). In 2012, Romney captured 118,000 (63 percent) of the 186,000 Republican voters in the New York primary. (President Obama ran unopposed.)
While tracking of precise Jewish voting was not clearly reported, based on exit polls, the 2013 Pew Research Center Survey, and calculated assumptions, the most likely fact is that of the eligible Jewish voters in New York state who actually vote in their respective primaries, approximately 70 percent go Democratic. In addition, it is historically true that Jews as a bloc turn out in a higher percentage than almost any other ethnic or religious group; they exceed the roughly 8.9 percent that they represent among New York state citizens. Keeping in mind that this is a primary and not the general election, Republican Jews are not a significant number of voters and constitute an even smaller portion of overall Republican voters.
In 2016, the appeal to Jewish voters really began in the blatant pandering to the pro-Israel community at the AIPAC policy conference in early March. The candidates’ pitches were clearly focused on the forthcoming primaries and caucuses, as well as on the general election. The presentations reflected the fact that many of the AIPAC supporters are not only voters but also large political givers to candidates, to PACs, and to officially unaffiliated groups. It was similarly obvious that Sanders — who, it was expected, would have presented a more nuanced approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict than that presented even by Vice President Joe Biden, representing the Obama administration — would be denied permission to address the conference by satellite as did Prime Minister Netanyahu and as several presidential candidates did in 2012.
Over the past 10 days, candidates in both parties have been falling all over themselves courting Jewish voters. From substantive debates between Clinton and Sanders over the legitimacy of the 2014 Gaza conflict, to Ted Cruz’s visit to a matza bakery in Brooklyn, to Trump’s repeatedly invoking the newest Jewish member of his family, pandering to Jewish voters has been pervasive and unctuous. Similarly, the debate over Cruz’s use of the term “New York values” has been characterized by some as an anti-Semitic slur. At the same time, the discussion continues as to whether the fact that Sanders — the only Jewish candidate — may have been born a Jew, had a bar mitzva, and spent a year on a kibbutz makes any difference as he has been categorized as the least pro-Israel candidate among all of the remaining aspirants.
Sadly there is so much posturing to Jewish voters that much of the substantive discussion about issues of concern to Jews are being lost on the primary voters. Primary/caucus voters are the most motivated and among the most knowledgeable in the body politic. Yet the scene in New York is ugly and disconcerting. The only positive effect this year’s primary may have is the financial windfall New York City is experiencing. It has been many years since their primary has brought candidates to spend lots of campaign funds on this election.
It will not be until the fall that Jewish voters might perhaps be truly important — and then mainly in the swing states of Florida and Ohio rather than New York.