The Indentured Generation

Milton Himmelfarb once famously quipped that "Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans." These days Republicans are trying to win the hearts and ballots of both Jewish and Hispanic voters.

They may have more luck with the Jews.

Republican strategists have been boasting since at least 1999 of a coming political realignment in which Jews become increasingly conservative and vote Republican. It didn't happen in the 2000 presidential contest and it didn't happen last year. But a number of factors have changed since September 11 to create a situation where even Democrats acknowledge that a portion of Jewish support is unusually up for grabs.

"President Bush has the real possibility of exceeding the total that Ronald Reagan got in the 1980 campaign," says Steven Some, a Republican lobbyist and board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group whose membership has "skyrocketed," he says, since the president took office. Bush, Some adds, "could even get a majority of the Jewish vote, which would be historic."

Though Democratic strategists doubt this—no Republican presidential candidate has won a majority of Jewish votes since Warren Harding in 1920—they don't contest the idea that Bush is likely to capture a substantial fraction of Jewish support in 2004.

A convergence of factors has led to steadily strengthening support for the president among the Jewish electorate: the Palestinian intifada against Israel, the 9-11 terrorist attacks, increasing anti-Semitism worldwide and a growing concern that the left-most wing of the Democratic Party has become more sympathetic to the Palestinians than to the Israelis. Jewish identification with the Democratic Party remains strong, according to a Gallup Poll last September. But even though only 17 percent of Jews are registered Republicans, another 33 percent are independents.

In January, the Forward trumpeted a "Historic Shift to the Right" among future Jewish voters. Pollster Steven M. Cohen had found increasing support for the president and Republicans because of security issues and a growing conservatism among younger voters. Twenty-six percent of Jews under 35 surveyed were Republican, as compared with only 11 percent over age 65. A hypothetical matchup last fall showed George W. Bush winning 22 percent of Jewish voters in a contest against Al Gore, with another 41 percent uncertain of their allegiance.

"What I think may be going on may be something of a rebalancing of traditional levels of support for Republican presidential candidates or incumbents," says Steve Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton administration. "It's fairly clear that the support that Bill Clinton got from Jews in 1992 and 1996 and Al Gore got in 2000 was something of an aberration."

Jewish support for Republican candidates has waxed and waned. The last Republican presidential candidate to capture substantial Jewish support was Ronald Reagan, who won 39 percent of Jewish votes in 1980 and 31 percent in 1984. Though Reagan's appeal was historic, it was the continuation of a fairly stable pattern of Jewish voting for Republicans dating back to 1972, when Richard Nixon won a third of the Jewish vote. George Bush Senior initially shared Reagan's appeal, winning 35 percent of Jewish votes in 1988. But his administration proved to be less supportive of Israel than many had hoped, and his secretary of state, James Baker, alienated plenty of others after reportedly saying, in a private meeting, "Fuck the Jews. They don't vote for us anyway." In the 1992 election, Jewish support for Bush dropped to 11 percent—Ross Perot got 9 percent—and the political pendulum began to swing back toward the center-left. Clinton was able to maintain a high level of Jewish voting allegiance, winning close to 78 percent of Jewish votes in 1996. The Al Gore–Joe Lieberman ticket did well, too, taking 79 percent of Jewish votes in 2000 thanks to strong Jewish support for the Democrats' policies and the presence of the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate on the ticket.

Another factor continuing to anchor Jews in the Democratic camp is the ongoing rightward drift of the Republicans, and especially the increasing control of the GOP by the Christian right. Some Jews were alienated by Baker's private comments in the '92 campaign; far more were alienated by Pat Buchanan's very public "cultural civil war" speech from the podium at the party's national convention that year.

Bush has proven himself to be a strong ally of Israel's Likud Party government during an era when Israel is finding itself with few allies in the international arena. For many if not most American Jews, however, U.S. domestic issues remain paramount, and here Jews are resolutely in the liberal camp. These voters are not likely to be swayed by the Bush administration's support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies, which many regard as an impediment to a Middle East settlement. Instead, they are more likely to vote on questions of reproductive rights, church-state separation, civil rights, education, the economy and domestic security.

"If Republicans consider it a moral victory to get back to 70 percent [voting Democratic] in 2004—if that's the number—from 80 percent [in 2000], then they will take some comfort and Karl Rove will take some comfort," says Grossman. "But that is not a historic realignment. It's a historical rebalancing."

Nonetheless, in an electorate as evenly divided now as it was in 2000 and 2002, when just a few thousand votes changed the outcome of many contests, a shift in Jewish voting patterns could make a difference. Though Jews make up only 2 percent of the population, they have very high voting rates and are concentrated in populous states with many electoral votes.

In a state such as Florida, where three-quarters of a million Jews reside and the 2000 election was decided by fewer than 1,000 votes, a 10 percentage-point pickup in Jewish support could give the president 35,000 votes in 2004, says Ira N. Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. That's enough to keep the state solidly in the Republican column. At the very least, such a shift would make the Democratic candidate's job winning this crucial state, which swung to the right again in 2002 and re-elected Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, that much tougher.

In New York state, Jewish votes are diluted by the liberalism of the surrounding community, and even a substantial shift into the Republican column is unlikely to swing the state. In 2000, Hillary Clinton won her Senate seat even as her opponent, moderate Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, captured 45 percent of the Jewish vote, according to exit polls. "The Republicans are so underwater in New York in presidential politics, even a modest realignment won't affect the balance," says Grossman. Forman thinks the Jews could play an important swing role in New York—but only if the Democratic candidate is already in trouble. "New York state has a lot of Jews who could be very important in a close race," he says. "But if it comes close to a Republican win in New York, then you've got a Republican blowout nationwide."

The Bush administration has never shied away from ambitious, improbable goals—massive tax cuts in wartime, remaking the entire Middle East—and it hasn't been shy about the idea of shooting for a win in New York, either. The Republican Jewish Coalition plans to open an office in New York City, Vice President Dick Cheney sent wealthy New York City Jews—many registered Democrats—a fundraising letter last year, and the GOP chose New York as its 2004 convention site, to be presided over by a liberal Republican Jew, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a moderate Republican governor, George Pataki, who most recently won re-election with a majority of Jewish votes.

More important than the question of winning Jewish votes, though, is the question of winning Jewish dollars and Jewish political energy. "The primary emphasis in the Republican Party has not been to win Jewish votes but to attract major Jewish giving and, at a minimum, to deprive Democrats of that giving," says Douglas Bloomfield, a Democratic former legislative director for AIPAC. Even a moderate shift of 20 percent in Jewish giving to the Democrats could have a devastating impact on the party, says Forman. Already in 2000, Bush had won the votes of 53 percent of the Jews who earned more than $150,000, according to Cohen's study.

In the short term, the Republican effort to woo Jewish donors may not have much impact. A few prominent individuals have switched over or begun to give to both parties. But Republicans are not looking just for short-term changes. They are looking to slowly peel younger Jews away from the Democratic Party and, over time, to turn the political rebalancing into a genuine realignment. They certainly have their work cut out for them. "Anyone who thinks Bush is going to get a majority or even a plurality of the Jewish vote in 2004 is smoking something," says Forman.