The Ethnic Revolution

Contrary to the ever-hopeful predictions of the Republicans, Jewish voters proved remarkably resistant to change in this month’s congressional voting.

But that predictability — Jews voted overwhelmingly Democratic, with a few regional exceptions — belies a seismic shift in ethnic politics. Several groups came out of this year’s electoral brawl strengthened — a message that is being heard loud and clear by politicians.

The rise of these groups, along with decreased electoral participation by Jews, may threaten Jewish political clout if community leaders do not heed this month’s wake-up call.

“Assimilation has a political as well as cultural impact,” said a leading Jewish political analyst. “Fewer Jews may be voting as Jews. At the same time, there’s a danger we will succumb to the trend of indifference we see in the electorate at large. What we need now that other groups are coming into their own is more Jewish turnout, not less, [and] more identification with our community’s core issues.”

Complacency, this analyst said, could turn the gains by other ethnic groups into a zero-sum game — with Jews on the losing end.

The raw numbers on Nov. 3 told an intriguing story. Jewish voters were actively wooed by both parties, and in several close races, it was expected that they could provide the margin of victory.

But when the votes were tallied, the Jewish vote made a discernible difference in only a few. Jews voted the way they always vote — about 80 percent Democratic, 20 percent Republican. There were variations, but the pattern was clear; even Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., who received about 40 percent of the Jewish vote against a Jewish rival six years ago, sank back to 23 percent, thanks to a series of gaffes and an aggressive campaign by his rival, Rep. Chuck Schumer.

Jewish “swing” voters, who can go either way, seemed scarcer than ever. Despite recurrent predictions that Jews are shifting to the GOP, political scientists say a muscular Christian right and a Republican Congress dominated by ultra-conservatives are keeping Jews firmly on the Democratic side, even though many may be attracted to the other Republican Party — the party of fiscal conservatism and individual freedom.

The African-American vote was also a lock for the Democrats. But the potential size of that bloc — and the fact that it was pivotal in a handful of contests — is not passing unnoticed by political strategists.

In Maryland’s gubernatorial contest, for example, a last-minute Democratic get-out-the-vote effort in the black community propelled the lackluster incumbent, Parris Glendening, to a convincing victory over challenger Ellen Sauerbrey.

Other ethnic blocs are rising even faster. The huge Hispanic vote came out in force, boosting Democrats in California, Republicans in Texas and Florida. Hispanic voters represent an emerging swing vote, which makes them a particularly worthwhile investment for party tacticians. Just behind them are Asian-American voters, by some accounts the next great untapped swing vote.

In a number of states, the message politicians heard was this: The black vote is increasingly important to the Democrats because of the big numbers that can be turned out under the right circumstances, and the burgeoning Hispanic community can be a swing constituency worth fighting for.

The Jewish community, in contrast, is numerically small, increasingly fragmented and utterly predictable — a constituency easy to take for granted, or to write off entirely.

GOP leaders say that they’re not going to slacken their Jewish outreach, but it’s hard to see how the party can justify the effort, given election after election of disappointing results.

Democratic officials are confident that the Jews will stay put, leaving them free to devote greater energy to the larger but less active black community — and to ethnic swing constituencies, including Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

A shift to the center in the Republican leadership could change that calculus, but there are no indications that is likely to happen.

So where does this leave the Jews? Some pillars of Jewish strength are unchanged, but there are alarming signs of a weakening at the polls.

Jews remain disproportionally involved in financing political campaigns; no other group has exploited the controversial campaign finance system as effectively.

“Elections today are decided by money, and Jewish contributions — especially to the Democrats — are substantial,” said American University political scientist Amos Perlmutter. “That means Jewish influence will remain strong, particularly on the Democratic side.”

The Jewish community is also unusually effective in lobbying and in working with state and local officials who may someday run for Congress, a long-term strategy that is already paying big dividends. Other groups are playing catch-up, but they have a long way to go.

Although the community is increasingly divided over the Mideast peace process, Israel continues to offer a focus for activism that multiplies Jewish power. The emerging Hispanic bloc, by way of contrast, is divided by economic class and country of origin. Their numbers and involvement may be growing, but translating that into effective political action will be difficult without an overarching issue.

And Jews continue to be disproportionately involved in politics as campaign consultants and workers, as party officials, as congressional and administration staffers.

But as intermarriage and assimilation continue to deplete the Jewish demographic presence, Jewish political power at the voting booth may stand on an increasingly narrow base.

Most Jewish analysts say that turnout, traditionally higher than among non-Jewish voters, is declining, although statistics are scarce. If that is true, the rise of other ethnic groups — the big story in 1998 — will erode Jewish power.

Apathy and indifference, the poisons of democratic political life, may be particularly toxic for Jews. Finding antidotes — including new ways to get Jews to the polls and new ways to educate them about the Jewish importance of political issues — is the major challenge facing the community’s political leaders in this new era of energized ethnic politics.