THE BLOG
11/09/2012 06:25 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Reflections on the Jewish Vote, 2012

Election Day polls are out, and it looks like 70 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama. The remaining 30 percent supported Mitt Romney. Since the numbers were released, there has been a food fight among partisans over what these numbers mean. The keys issues are as follows:

1. Was this an eight point decline or a four point decline among Jewish voters for Obama from 2008?
2. Why did fewer Jews support Obama in 2012 than in 2008?
3. Should Democrats or liberals be concerned about the decline?
4. Should Republicans or conservatives be jubilant about the increased support?
5. Was the many millions of dollars spent by conservative groups to sway Jewish voters effective or was it a waste of money?

Let's break these down one at a time.

1. Amongst Jewish voters, was this an eight point decline or a four point decline for Obama from 2008?

No one knows the answer to this. The exit polls from 2008 said that Obama got 78 percent of the Jewish vote. A subsequent analysis of additional polling, done by Democrats this past year, found that 74 percent of Jews supported Obama.

The Republicans like the higher number because it means the shift in votes is much larger. The downside for them is that it undermines their argument that Jews have been slowly but steadily trending Republican in national elections, since Kerry got less than 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004.

The Democrats like the lower number because it means the shift in votes is much smaller.

I say split the difference and call it 76 percent.

2. Why did fewer Jews support Obama in 2012 than in 2008?

Again, no one really knows the answer to this. The Democrats argue that the Jewish vote slipped at the same rate the national vote slipped, and this is just another example of Jews behaving more or less like other Americans, with similar priorities and concerns. The Republicans argue that the Jewish votes for Obama declined because they didn't trust the president to do right by Israel. It could also be that these Jews shared the concerns of other Americans who switched their votes due to the poor economy, concern about the deficit, or a distaste for ObamaCare.

Figuring out the answer to this is important, if you care about the values and priorities of American Jews. My sense of the Jewish community is that it is a) more liberal than almost any other group of Americans, but b) has been growing more conservative over the past 40 years. The reason this growing conservatism hasn't translated into many more Republican votes is because a) the Republican Party (particularly at the national level) has gotten way more conservative over the past 40 years, and b) the kind of conservatism the Republicans have embraced is particularly discomforting to American Jews, including Jews who lean to the right.

I have elaborated on this last point in an early post, but to summarize, 40 percent of Jews might have voted for the Mitt Romney who ran against Ted Kennedy. But only 20 percent of Jews would vote for someone like Rick Santorum. That space between 20 percent and 40 percent is where the battle for future Jewish votes should happen. But until the Republican Party changes itself in a fundamental way, this year's 30 percent may be the best they can do.

3. Should Democrats or liberals be concerned about the decline?

This is where I disagree most strongly with some of my fellow Democrats. Yes, both Democrats generally and liberals in particular should be concerned.

Jews will not remain liberal indefinitely. If you want proof that our community can shift its politics to the right pretty rapidly, take a look across our northern border. Canadian Jews were recently a reliably liberal voting block. Now they line up with the conservatives.

There are powerful forces within organized Jewish life in the United States who would like to see a much more conservative Jewish community. That is why Jewish institutions, as a whole, are considerably more conservative than the community they serve and claim to represent. Moderate, even liberal Jewish institutions are not immune from intimidation from conservative donors in their midst. And many of these donors are ready and willing to intimidate, threating to pull their funding if their synagogue or federation doesn't toe their line. Specific examples of these threats can be found in J.J. Goldberg's writing in the Forward (like this).

Efforts are being made to strengthen liberal Judaism and liberal Jewish institutions, much of it under the auspices of what is often referred to as the Jewish social justice movement. But much more needs to be done.

Note that this is not, as conservatives charge, a conflation of liberalism with Judaism. It merely acknowledges and builds on thousands of years of Jewish ritual, law, and narrative that understand Jewish values to be consonant with much of contemporary liberal thought, and also believes that Judaism is dynamic rather than static.

4. Should Republicans or conservatives be jubilant about their increased support?

Not really. As I said early, the problem conservatives have is that they are overly reliant on demagoguing around Israel as a way to sway Jewish votes. Not only is this largely ineffective, it is also dishonest and ultimately, not helpful for Israel. Why would any friend of Israel want to overstate the influence of elements genuinely hostile to Israel while mischaracterizing the actions of Israel's real allies? It empowers Israel's enemies and alienates her friends. On top of that, it divides the Jewish community, silences dissenting voices, and makes politicians look ridiculous in their obsequiousness. The fear Republican Jews express regarding Democrats and Israel is a sign of weakness, not strength. If you need to bully voters it's because you can't persuade them or have given up on trying.

5. Was the many millions of dollars spent by conservative groups to sway Jewish voters effective or was it a waste of money?

One of the more disgusting post-Election Day quotes came from major Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, when asked whether he felt his money had been spent wisely. From the New York Times:

"Paying bills," Mr. Adelson said on Tuesday night when asked by a Norwegian reporter how he thought his donations had been spent. "That's how you spend money. Either that or become a Jewish husband -- you spend a lot of money."

(It would be refreshing to see one of the many non-political Jewish organizations funded by Adelson return his gift based on this and other comments, but I'm not holding my breath. If we're lucky, groups will at least be less likely to honor him.)

The answer to this question depends on your goals. I believe that Obama was bound to lose four points in the Jewish vote this cycle no matter what. That means the tens of millions of dollars spent by ECI, the RJC, and others on Jewish outreach may have gotten them a couple of points at the polls. Someone who likes math could crunch the numbers, by that feels like a lot of money for not very many votes.

But my guess is the organizations and their donors are less interested in seeing major movement among Jewish voters and more interested in owning the public narrative about American Jews. Right now, Jews are mostly seen as a liberal community, because, Jews are twice as likely to identify as liberal as other Americans. If you are a conservative, this fact is frustrating. So while it is difficult to convert Jews en masse to conservative thinking, you can change the public perception of Jews. Sheldon Adelson's public role in this election elevated Jewish conservatism. All of the ECI and RJC ads elevated Jewish conservatism. The media coverage around the Obama's "Jewish problem" elevates Jewish conservatism.

If the public face of the Jewish community is conservative; if Jewish organizations are kept on a tight leash by conservative donors; if the media coverage of America Jews focuses on its alleged anger at Obama because of Israel; all of this, cumulatively, can have an impact on the reality of the American Jewish community. It makes Jewish conservatism more acceptable, more normal, and seemingly more authentic. Over time this transforms Jewish identity, and with that come Jewish votes, engagement, and money.

This is what the Republican donors are buying. And this is what liberal donors should be worried about.

Personally, I'm thrilled that Jews are among the small number of groups who gave 70 percent or more of their votes to Barack Obama: Blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays, and Jews. We belong in shared struggle with other communities whose experience suffering at the hands of an oppressive majority helped to shape their values. I want Jews to be part of America's future, comfortable -- indeed, attracted to -- our impressive diversity. We belong in the Democratic coalition, but staying there isn't inevitable.

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