Are We Moving to the Right?

A historical look at the trends of conservative Jewish voters.

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Jews still remain liberal -- with some exceptions

Since Reagan's presidency, the Jewish vote has remained overwhelmingly Democratic, and Jews have remained far more liberal than other Americans. The nonpartisan American Jewish Committee's 2008 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion showed 44% of respondents placing themselves left of center on the political scale, 24% right of center and 30% calling themselves middle of the road. More dramatically, 56% of Jews surveyed called themselves Democrats, 17% called themselves Republicans and 25% were independent.

Still, unlike in the 1960s, there are many prominent Jewish Republicans and, as in 2008, the Jewish vote has appeared to be in play more frequently. Contrary to Sarah Silverman's stereotype, older Jews have remained reliably Democratic--although many more Jews supported Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries.

A growing percentage of intermarriage has also altered voting patterns. Younger Jews with intermarried parents, or those who intermarry, have proven to be more independent and less reliability Democratic. This might reflect the 18 to 34 set's aversion to party loyalty in general  It also may be that in growing up with a diluted American Jewish identity, these youngsters ended up drifting from the traditional liberal mindset of Jewish voters. As Steve Windmuller has written, Jews with one non-Jewish parent tend to vote Republican more often than other Jews.

2004 election leads to questions about Jewish Divide

The more dramatic surge in Republican voting among Jews has come from the Orthodox community.  Although surveys estimate the percentage of Orthodox Jews hovering between 10 and 20 % of American Jewry, the Orthodox community, unsurprisingly tends to be more united, more pro-Israel and more focused on Jewish concerns. In the 2004 election battle, George W. Bush won 25% of the Jewish vote. Close analysis of the vote uncovered a disturbing polarization within the Jewish community.

Jews who were more traditional and more pro-Israel were starting to vote Republican rather consistently. At the same time, the growing majority of secular Jews remained committed to the Democratic Party. Paralleling the often-overplayed "Red State" versus "Blue State" phenomenon, it seemed that we could start talking about "Red Jews" and "Blue Jews"--not in geographical terms but in ideological terms.

The 2008 election continued this pattern. John McCain has a long record of enthusiastic, effective support for Israel. But in the campaign against Barack Obama, McCain's support among Jews only peaked at 31% --and was as low as 22 % in the October 2008 Gallup Poll. McCain's most vocal Jewish supporters tended to be more unwavering in their support of Israeli policy, and his broadest range of support was in traditional communities.

Many of Obama's most prominent Jewish supporters, including Dennis Ross and Daniel Kurtzer, championed Israeli policies that took a softer line with the Palestinians. And quite a number of statements by Jews supporting Obama mentioned Obama's pro-choice position, especially after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as a running mate. 

When the stock market crashed, Jews joined most Americans in focusing their concern on the economy, rather than foreign policy concerns about Israel, Iran, and Iraq. In the 2008 election, as in the 1992 election, Americans focused most on "The economy, stupid," And many Jews supported Obama's proposed reforms.

Still, the common worry about the economy did not hide the growing polarization within the community. A wide range of opinions is natural in a community as diverse and disputatious as the Jewish community. But if voting patterns continue to reinforce the growing gap between traditional and non-traditional Jews, it will be harder to maintain the civility and common sense of purpose the community needs to thrive.

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Gil Troy

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.