This election season has seen an unceasing torrent of speculation about the Jewish vote. As a supposedly swing constituency in many of the largest swing states, Jews are a special focus for both sides in the US presidential race.
Republicans in particular have invested millions of dollars in attempting to lure Jews away from their traditional staunch support for Democratic candidates.
But according to Dr. Steven Bayme, a renowned essayist and expert on American Jewish society and politics and the national director of the American Jewish Committee’s Contemporary Jewish Life Department, this enormous interest in the Jewish vote is based on something deeper than electoral math.
“Put aside the number of Jewish votes,” Bayme told the Times of Israel in an interview on Thursday from his New York office.
‘I think the most interesting thing about this week’s debate [was that] you had both candidates effectively vie for who is more pro-Israel. Were they basing that vying only on the number of Jewish votes? I think they were addressing a broader American fabric’
“The real question” underlying the two parties’ interest in Jews “is that so much of the political discourse in America – and I think this is one of the great things about American Jewry, and it’s good that Israelis understand this – owes so much to Jewish intellectual influence. Jewish political influence in this country is not limited to the number of votes, but includes the power of Jewish ideas, of Jewish thinking.”
Jewish ideas are prominent across the ideological spectrum, Bayme adds.
“Jews are writing for publications. Jews are giving speeches. Open up virtually any [political] magazine – Commentary, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard – to say nothing of the major newspapers. In any major news magazine — you’re going to find a large number of Jewish intellectual contributors.
“If you can affect those people, if you can get at Jewish thinking, you in turn will do very well for yourself” in national politics.
That influence is an outgrowth of “one of the great things about America: that in the open, free society of America Jews have made their voices known, and no candidate of either party wants to be known as somebody who is not a friend on Jewish issues.”
Political campaigns often speak of “opinion makers” as a crucial audience, because they are able to transmit ideas and messages to larger audiences, often with more authenticity and reach than the campaigns themselves.
Jews make up a disproportionate part of America’s opinion-making elite. So any effort to target Jewish opinion “will have a multiplier effect through these intellectual contributors,” Bayme says.
“I don’t think that the Republican Jewish Coalition, or for that matter the National Jewish Democratic Council, were simply an attempt to appeal to the few million Jewish votes. Obviously that’s the stated emphasis. But beyond that there’s the unstated emphasis that so much of the political conversation in America is conducted by Jews.”
This social dynamic partly explains Israel’s own strong position in American public discourse.
‘The only Jewish sub-populations Obama will have problems with are the Orthodox and Jews from the former Soviet Union…but for different reasons’
“I think the most interesting thing about this week’s [third presidential] debate, [was that] you had both candidates effectively vie for who is more pro-Israel. Were they basing that vying only on the number of Jewish votes?”
He laughs at the question he poses and continues. “I think they were addressing a broader American fabric” of Jewish intellectual culture “which is deeply influenced by pro-Israel culture.”
As for Jewish voters’ actual votes, Bayme doubts there will be a meaningful shift in this election from past elections.
“The standard rule of Jewish political behavior is clear, and whether this is good or bad is up to other people to decide, because we’re not a partisan organization. The standard rule is that Jews will vote for the more liberal candidate so long as that candidate is not seen as hostile to Israel. Since 1928, Jews have voted heavily for the Democratic candidate, from a low of 60-65% for Mondale to a high of 90% for Roosevelt in the 1940s. That’s been the reality since 1928, with the exception of 1980 when Carter ran. Carter lost heavily [among Jews], but that shouldn’t be a surprise when you consider his views on Israel.”
Obama, he adds, will continue to enjoy a large majority of Jews.
“I don’t see any reason why that standard rule of Jewish politics will be any different this year. As far as the Jewish vote, Obama might slip a few percentage points from 2008, when he won about 77% of the Jewish vote, but not by a significant amount. The only Jewish sub-populations Obama will have problems with are the Orthodox and Jews from the former Soviet Union. Both sub-populations vote more Republican, but for different reasons.”
The Orthodox, though a minority of perhaps 12% of American Jewry, will likely heavily favor Romney.
“That’s a pattern that’s been building for at least a decade if not more,” Bayme notes. “That group has demonstrated time and again that they are more likely to vote for a Republican candidate. That was true in 2008 and 2004.”
In 2008, for example, while Obama won some 77% of the Jewish vote, “McCain captured 69% of the Orthodox vote. That’s quite a gap. Orthodox Jews are far more likely to vote Republican.”
The only recent exception was the 2000 election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, “but then you had [Democratic vice-presidential nominee Senator Joe] Lieberman running as a ‘favored son’ candidate.”