The rise and decline of the American-Jewish vote

The rise and decline of the American-Jewish vote

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Election 2012 may well turn out to be historical for American Jews, but in many ways the results are ones about which Jews have been in denial for a number of years. The tides are shifting.

After the dust has settled and reality has set in, Democrats and Republicans will begin to do the hard job of determining the lessons to be learned from this year’s election, including the nature and role of the 2.1 percent of the population that constitutes the American-Jewish community. It also needs to be a moment during which American Jews consider what their own future role is in American politics and what issues they need to champion most.

For all the talk about the clout of the Jewish voter before the election, the postelection analysis has focused on Latinos, women, and young people — all key demographics in President Obama’s re-election. While Jews are a small minority in the United States, 85-90 percent of American Jews vote in national elections. The conventional wisdom was that their turnout rate magnified their clout by a factor of four or five. In certain key states, since they tended to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, this clout was seen as even greater. This was the past.

In addition, politicians in both parties recognized that Jews historically made far more political contributions than their percentage of the national population could have assumed. Jews helped to fuel campaigns and to protect and support their friends. While money was donated largely to Democrats, over the past few decades, more and more Jews understood the need to cultivate Republicans. This strategy benefitted American Jews as both individuals and as a community in terms of access, but it also enabled Israel and the pro-Israel community to have a clear path to politicians of all stripes.

This year’s campaign pointed to a new demographic as well as a new financial reality for American Jews. First, Jewish voters make a difference at the presidential level only in a few swing states where there is a sizeable Jewish population. In Florida and Ohio, exit polls indicated that Mitt Romney received only the same 30-31 percent of the Jewish vote that he received nationally, suggesting that the intensive Republican campaign for Jewish votes in these swing states did not push the needle at all.

Second, the Jewish vote is declining as part of any necessary winning coalition. Hispanics are close to 16 percent of the national population today, with a projection to become 20 percent by the end of the decade. As the number of Hispanic voters increases — including in swing states with sizeable Jewish populations — their issues become more compelling for a candidate than those of Jewish voters. Even if Jews continue to turn out in far greater numbers than any other segment of the population, their influence as a percentage of total voters is small and declining.

In the financial realm, Sheldon Adelson can pour $70 million into campaigns, be the largest single contributor in an election cycle, and still walk away with virtually no victories to show for his effort. The Republican Jewish Coalition says it spent $6 million on advertising aimed at Jewish voters in swing states, and it too has only a small change from 2008 to show for its efforts. At the same time, George Soros and Jeffery Katzenberg were large donors to Democrats, although hardly on the scale of Adelson. In the wake of the Citizens United decision, contributions to the 2012 election cycle are now projected to total $6 billion. Even the contributions of the most ambitious Jewish donors will pale next to these numbers.

What does this mean when it comes to advocating for the interests of American Jews and the pro-Israel community? First, Jews must make sure their parochial interests speak to a broader electorate. That means working with coalitions and making sure they share the “Jewish” stake in issues like Israel, separating church and state, and government assistance for nonprofit safety net agencies.

Second, they must intensify their advocacy for general and national issues, like immigration, that appeal to potential coalition partners. Jews will be heard and listened to by their elected representatives and candidates to the degree that their positions translate into votes. American Jews still retain their access, but they also need to accept that the politics of the 21st century is changing.

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