Jewish Democrats

For nearly a century, one party has captured the vast majority of Jewish votes.

The following essay was written soon after the 2000 elections and describes the strong Jewish proclivity, still present today, for supporting Democratic candidates. Reprinted with permission from an essay entitled “Still Liberal After All These Years? The Contemporary Political Behavior of American Jewry,” which appeared in Jews in American Politics (Rowman & Littlefield), edited by L. Sandy Maisel and Ira N. Forman.

Despite diversity on particular policy issues, American Jews constitute a fairly cohesive voting bloc in electoral politics. Since early in the 20th century, Jewish Americans have associated themselves with the Democratic Party. They supported Woodrow Wil­son and Al Smith, and lined up solidly behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s candidacy for governor of New York and president of the United States.

Loyal Voters

Through the early 1960s, Democratic presidential nominees generally followed in Roosevelt’s footsteps by earn­ing substantial majorities among Jewish voters. In the late 1960s, however, Jewish polit­ical patterns appeared to shift away from the Democrats, dropping from a 3-1 to a 2-1 ratio. The low point for Democrat fortunes occurred in 1980, when Jews deserted Jimmy Carter en masse, many voting for the independent John Anderson and some even de­fecting to the Republican Ronald Reagan.

democratic donkeyThose who interpreted this erosion as a foretaste of partisan realignment among Jews were surprised by the resurgence of Democratic support thereafter. As the Republican Party became more closely identified in the public mind with Christian fundamentalists, Jews returned in large numbers to the party of FDR. Jewish Americans gave Democratic presidential candidates two-thirds of their votes in the 1980s, cast an astonishing 80 per­cent of their ballots for Bill Clinton in 1992, and despite ongoing scandals, cast 78 percent of their votes again for Clinton in 1996. In the [2000] elections, 79 percent of Jewish voters threw their support with Al Gore.

This Democratic loyalty is evident in congressional elections as well. According to the exit polls, two-thirds to three-quarters of Jewish Americans have supported Democratic candidates for the House since 1980. Thus, with the sole exception of the 1980 presidential race, Jews have supported Dem­ocratic candidates more than has the nation as a whole.

Jews Buck the Trend

This constancy of Jewish support for the Democratic Party stands in stark contrast to the defection of other key elements of the New Deal coalition. Southern white Democrats, for example, fled the party in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement and federal intervention in school desegregation and voting rights. Catholics, to a lesser degree, have come to resemble their Protestant counterparts, though a major­ity continue to vote Democratic. Only African Americans have remained as solidly in the Democratic camp as have Jewish Americans.

Over the 1990s, nearly 60 percent of Jews identified with Democrats, as did three-quarters of African Americans. These percentages remained relatively constant. In con­trast, in the same period, fewer than half of Catholics and a third of white Southerners saw themselves as members of the Democratic camp. This shift represents a significant decline in Democratic identification among non-Jewish voters once considered at the heart of the New Deal coalition.

What accounts for the persistence of Jewish identification with the Democratic Party in the face of the flight of other white voters? While white Southerners began their flight from the Democratic Party in the early 1960s, Jews supported federal efforts to secure civil rights for African Americans and played a prominent, if at times controversial, role in the civil rights movement. Jewish Americans strongly identify the Democratic Party as the party of civil liberties and individual rights. Jewish Americans give the Democratic Party a strong advantage over the Republican Party, believing the Democrats do a better job of protecting individual rights by a 40-point margin.

After the upheavals of the 1960s, moreover, the parties polarized in a number of ar­eas on which Jews and non-Jews exhibit important political differences. For instance, between 1972 and 1992, the parties and their adherents diverged sharply over cultural and social issues such as abortion, school prayer, and attitudes toward homosexuality. Christian Right leaders such as Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan failed to appeal to Jewish Americans, despite the pro-Israel proclivities of the evangelical Christian com­munity. 

Representing Jewish Values

Geoffrey Levey suggests that Democratic Jewish loyalty stems from precisely this association of the Republican Party with the Christian Right and with the Chris­tian overtones of the “family values” agenda. According to the Jewish Public Opinion Study, non-Jews are twice as likely as Jews to call themselves supporters of the reli­gious right, and 64 percent of Jews say this designation does not describe them well at all. Thus, Jewish Americans see the Democrats as better at “encouraging high moral standards and values,” a conclusion that stands in stark contrast to non-Jews who see Republicans as better on that issue.

Overall, Jewish Americans believe the Democrats better represent “Jewish values” and “the interest of Jewish Americans.” Consistent with arguments about the impor­tance of tzedakah  [charity] to Jewish political identity, Jews strongly prefer Democrats as the party with “compassion toward the disadvantaged.” We should also note, however, that other non-Jewish Democrats give the Democratic Party the same advantage as Jewish Americans.

Jewish Americans do not exhibit the same political tendencies as other demographically equivalent groups. For instance, we might expect Jewish Americans to become more conservative in their beliefs and voting preferences as succeeding generations at­tain higher levels of affluence and education. In fact, Jewish Americans are among the most highly educated, professional, and affluent members of the population. In the Jew­ish Public Opinion Study, 58 percent of Jewish Americans have a college degree, com­pared to 22 percent of non-Jews. Twenty-eight percent of Jewish Americans describe themselves as professional, compared to 10 percent of non-Jews. Thirty-seven percent of Jews earn over $85,000, compared to 13 percent of non-Jews.

But when we compare these Jewish American voters to non-Jews with the same so­cioeconomic status, the Jews remain politically distinctive. White, college-educated, ur­ban, middle-aged non-Jews, as we would expect, are not nearly so Democratic in their party self-identification nor in their voting behavior as are Jewish Americans. As the exit poll data show, 39 percent of comparable non-Jews identify as Democrats, compared to 60 percent of Jews; and 54 percent of comparable non-Jews supported Democratic can­didates for the House, compared to 76 percent of Jews.

Even if Jewish Americans differ politically from non-Jews with similar socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, they may demonstrate internal political differentiation based on class, religiosity, geographic residence, and gender just as other groups do. In other words, affluent and well-educated Jews may exhibit more Republican tendencies than their poorer compatriots. Consistent with what we know about the “gender gap” in American politics, Jewish men may vote more conservatively than Jewish women. Urban residents may be more Democratic than suburbanites, since central cities tend to be Democratic strong­holds. Given the tensions within other religious communities based on level of orthodoxy the deeply religious may be more politically conservative than their secular counterparts….

Changing Times, No Change In Votes

As the discussion makes clear, the traditional liberal and Democratic tilt of American Jews endures. In fact, a number of economic, political, and cultural changes might have affected the cohesion of Jewish political identity. Contemporary Jewish Americans have assimilated to a greater degree than previous generations and are more dispersed geo­graphically. The nature of American politics has changed. Newer generations of Jewish Americans have no direct experience with the upheavals of the 1960s and the Civil Rights, student, and antiwar movements. More distant still are the immigrant experience and the Holocaust.

In the general public, we find less polarization among younger Amer­icans around race and civil rights, changes in women’s roles, sexuality, and homosexual­ity. Younger citizens generally are less partisan than their elders, and there is shrinking ideological differences between the political parties. These are powerful forces working against the maintenance of group political identity.

By almost any measure, however, Jewish Americans remain solidly Democratic and on the liberal side of the American political spectrum. Along with African Amer­icans, Jews remain the most loyal members of the New Deal Coalition, and, in all like­lihood, the nomination of Joseph Lieberman for vice president [in 2000] further cemented this connection.

On issues such as abortion, the women’s movement, gun control, civil liberties, the religious right, and the environment, Jewish Americans adopt liberal po­sitions with little internal differentiation based on class, gender, level of religious ob­servation, and geographic residence. Even in an area where Jews look more like other Americans, such as affirmative action, Jews have a less rosy assessment of the state of race relations in the United States….

Some­thing is clearly distinctive about the Jewish community that creates a lasting sense of Jewish political identity. Scholars argue that African Americans maintain their political cohesion in the face of increasing internal differentiation because they think of their po­litical interests in terms of group interests. They gauge their understanding of political and economic events by considering their effect on African Americans relative to other groups, such as white Americans.

Similarly, we can speculate that a history of religious persecution and he immigrant experience, a distinctive religious tradition, and political self-interest may create a lens through which Jews view American politics. Public policies and political leadership could be key factors be­cause of how they affect the standing of Jewish Americans in society and politics. At the current political moment, Jewish Americans see their interests as served by a par­ticularly liberal political perspective…

But this liberalism is by no means inevitable. We will have to wait and see whether broader political, cultural, and economic changes alter the enduring liberalism of Jewish Americans.

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