Jewish Surprises on Election Day

Last week just didn’t go at all like the pundits and prognosticators predicted.

The presidential election proved to be the unwanted gift that keeps on giving – with recounts, lawsuits, accusations and frantic efforts by Florida to fend off charges that it is the newest tropical banana republic.Ironically, an election in which nobody expected the Jewish vote to be important turned out to hinge on handfuls of voters in one of the most Jewish counties in the nation.

The nation was stunned to see just how haphazard the mechanisms of democracy could be. And there were a few Jewish surprises, as well.

The biggest: the Lieberman factor.

Right up to the election, the prognosticators agreed: with Sen. Joe Lieberman on the Democratic ticket, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, would be lucky to equal his father’s dismal 1992 showing among Jewish voters.

But when the votes were counted, the Republican ticket got 20 percent of the Jewish vote – more than Sen. Bob Dole won for the Republicans in 1996, a lot better than the elder Bush’s 11 percent in 1992.That 20 percent came despite widespread Jewish excitement about Lieberman’s status as the first Jew on a major party ticket.

What happened? A lot of things.

The Jewish Republican core turned out to be a little bigger and a lot more solid than many observers predicted.

Some swing voters who might have voted Democratic because of the allure of the first ticket with a real live Jew may have been turned off by what that Jew said on the campaign trail.

Most Jews didn’t change their votes because Lieberman said he “respects” Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, but a few probably did. Ditto his offhanded comments about intermarriage.

Al Gore’s close identification with the Clinton administration’s Mideast policy was a plus for most Jews, who still regard this as the most pro-Israel administration ever. But a vocal majority insist that Clinton has pressured Israel into suicidal concessions at the peace table.

That may have tipped some ardently pro-Israel voters into the Bush column despite the presence of Lieberman, an unquestioned supporter of Israel, on the Democratic ticket.

The result: Bush’s Jewish vote, while hardly stellar, was significantly more than anybody predicted.That was all the more surprising because of the late emergence in the Bush campaign of controversial figures such as former Secretary of State James Baker lll, whose “bleep the Jews” comment during the first Bush administration still infuriates Jewish activists.

Jewish Republicans will tout Bush’s 20 percent as proof of a Jewish surge in their direction, but the reality is more like a trickle.

Still, it can’t be good news for Jewish Democrats that the GOP held steady with Jewish voters despite Joe Lieberman, who wore his Judaism on his sleeve and just about anywhere else he could put it.

Another surprise: the Arab American vote turned out to be a bust.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Michigan became a must-win battle ground for both candidates. Bush and Gore were in a dead heat in the electoral-vote-rich state, and the big Arab American and Muslim community was poised to tip the balance.

Both parties furiously courted those voters; both used surrogates to hint of shifts in U.S. Mideast policy, which Arab Americans see as hopelessly biased in favor of Israel.

So what happened?

Michigan went decidedly for Gore on Nov. 7, and the Arab American and Muslim votes turned out to be largely irrelevant. Those voters couldn’t even reelect the only Arab American in the Senate, Sen. Spencer Abraham, a well-financed Republican who lost his bid for a second term.

It was the befuddled Jews in Palm Beach, mistakenly voting for arch-nemesis Pat Buchanan, not Arab American grocers in Dearborn, who played the kingmaker role.

But don’t start uncorking the champagne just yet. In reality, the Arab and Muslim groups are just beginning their climb into the big-league political arena. And 2000 was a net plus for them.

Their numbers are growing at a rapid rate; in recent months they have effectively used the issue of Jerusalem to unify and galvanize a diverse community.

They are a genuine swing constituency, worth significant investments by both parties.

The Muslim groups, in particular, have been expanding their activism on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and aid to parochial schools, which has made them an attractive target for Republican leaders.

In the battle for clout, they are still far behind the Jews, lacking campaign finance clout and a national grass-roots infrastructure.

But these groups, which openly emulate their Jewish counterparts, are on the political ascent. The inroads they made this year provide a good base for growth; their expanding connection to the Republicans on core domestic issues is likely to flourish and may ultimately spill over into the foreign policy realm.

If their leaders act wisely, the Arab American and Muslim communities could become a counterforce in politics and government to a Jewish community that, up to now, has had the field pretty much to itself.