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Republican Jews

When he addressed the Republican Jewish Convention on a campaign stop through Washington last year, Rudy Giuliani drew attention to a sea change that many believe is agitating the Jewish community. "A lot of you are the first Republicans in … Read More

By / November 2, 2008

When he addressed the Republican Jewish Convention on a campaign stop through Washington last year, Rudy Giuliani drew attention to a sea change that many believe is agitating the Jewish community. "A lot of you are the first Republicans in your families," he declared, pointing his finger at the audience. "Right? Am I right?" Smiling and raising his arms in a gentle oy vey iz mir gesture, he drew attention to his own journey from Democrat to Independent to Republican. At the time, he and Hilary Clinton were the candidates with the most support in the Jewish community, and Giuliani got plenty of wry laughs from the choir.

At the time it seemed the Republican Jews had a lot to be happy about. The Republican share of the Jewish vote has increased steadily since Ronald Regan’s presidency. In 1992, 11 percent of Jews voted Republican. In 1996, 16 percent. The numbers rose to 23 percent in 2004, and the latest poll by the American Jewish Committee, released last month, shows McCain holding at 30 percent. That’s still one vote for every two Obama picks up, at 57 percent, but it’s a definite dent in comparison to John Kerry’s 69 percent this time four years ago (he won the undecideds to take 77 percent of the final Jewish vote). If those numbers hold, they will mark a huge swing in the Jewish vote, which has reliably delivered its 4 percent of the total vote to Democrats each election. Across election cycles, exit polls have repeatedly confirmed an average of 80 to 90 percent Democratic support within the Jewish community. Demographers have shown the Jewish tendency to vote blue equals that of blacks, Hispanics and the unemployed. With their high proportion of registered voters, the group is small but always courted in elections.

While Orthodox Jews have an accepted tendency towards conservatism, political or otherwise, they only make up 8.9 percent of the Jewish electorate. (This number is lower than the proportion of Orthodox in the Jewish community since a larger share of of Orthodox are under the age of 18.) A 1997 study by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, "American Liberalism: Unraveling the Strands," showed that the majority of Jews are more likely than non-Jews to identify as liberals (47 percent vs. 28 percent). This liberality is followed through in almost all issue areas–including, your grandma will no doubt be delighted to know, a firm "commitment to permissive social codes, sexual codes in particular." Jews are especially liberal when it comes to our support of abortion rights and aversion to school prayer. However, the gap between Jews and non-Jews begins to pale on issues of equal rights for women and blacks and opposition to capital punishment. On these civil liberties issues, only 5 percent more Jews identify as liberal than non-Jews, a very narrow margin of error for a much vaunted-Jewish liberalism.

Obviously but understandably, Jews are particularly concerned about Israel’s safety and the threat of Islamic fascism. They have been dismayed by Barack Obama’s perceived over-eagerness to talk with Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who has made destructive comments about the Jewish State. "When it comes to issues of national security, Israel’s security, there’s no margin for error," said Suzanne Kurtz, press secretary for the Republican Jewish Coalition. The organization ran a series of controversial ads that questioned Obama’s record and intentions, asking and answering their own question: "Concerned about Barack Obama? You should be." "Republicans are seen as having a muscular foreign policy, not a philosophy like Obama who’ll sit down unconditionally [with backers of terrorism]," Kurtz insisted.

This line of thinking has a prominent advocate in Jewish Republican convert Senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman votes with the Democrats in the Senate on many issues. But his support of the Iraq War aligns him with the Republican Party.

It also has swayed voters like Robert Mouro, 38, who I found waving a McCain-Palin placard at the protest against Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in New York last October. Mouro voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988, and twice for Bill Clinton; in his opinion, he’s stayed in place while the Democratic Party has left him. "I’m a perfect example of a neocon," he explained. "I’m what you heard about. Socially I’m a liberal, but national security is more important. The War on Islamic fascism began November 4, 1979 [the date of the Iranian hostage crisis]."

The National Jewish Democratic Committee refutes the notion that McCain’s proposed policy towards Iran is any different from Obama’s. "Iran is part of a larger issue which the right-wing has fostered about Obama, an aura of somehow this guy is not trustworthy," said Ira Forman, executive director. The NJDC believes it’s not McCain’s hawkishness, but his perceived status as a moderate Republican that is the biggest threat to Democratic hopes for the Jewish vote.

This is worrying news for those who believe that the Democratic platform best speaks to Jewish voters, but comforting for those who worry that foreign policy will decide the Jewish vote. Although the Jewish community, as with all small groups, is notoriously hard to poll, the latest numbers from J-Street, the progressive Jewish lobbying group, show that 55 percent of respondents chose the economy as one of the two issues that would most influence their presidential and congressional vote in November. Thirty-three percent chose the war in Iraq. Health care and national security tied at 21 percent, and Israel came seventh on the list at 8 percent.

Something else to bear in mind is that politics is always in flux, and voters can blush from red to blue just as easily as the other way around. Despite traditional expectations of its 21,000 Jews, Nassau County on Long Island has traditionally been a Republican base: "When a Republican dies and goes to heaven it looks a lot like Nassau County," said the late president Ronald Reagan. But this month, Democratic registration in the county took the lead with 328,604 to the Republican 328,477. Though a small margin, the Democrats have closed a nearly 100,000-vote gap since 1970. It goes to show that voting patterns never stand still; the Republican Jewish vote is growing, but perhaps more in visibility than in numbers.

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