Recall Quandaries

How will California’s Jews vote in the Gray Davis recall? Will this long-standing Democratic community stay with the incumbent, support a Democratic alternative or be drawn to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger? What are the political orientations of California’s Jews?

The Jewish political stance in America has long been distinctive. Jews are significantly more Democratic and liberal than other whites. Two recent polls, by Ipsos/Cook and Gallup, confirmed this long-standing situation, showing a very large edge for Democrats over Republicans among Jews. Jews have also had an outsized impact on politics through remarkably high levels of participation. With 6 percent of the Los Angeles city population, for example, Jews cast 18 percent of the vote in mayoral elections. With 3 percent of California’s population, Jews represent an estimated 5 percent of the state’s registered voters.

The foundation of Jewish political participation was laid in New York City a century ago. New York’s Jewish precincts generated a left-of-center politics that flowed easily into the mayoralty of Fiorello LaGuardia and the New Deal presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1930, nearly half of all American Jews lived in New York state. New York City was the cultural and political center of the American Jewish community. It was here that American liberalism was born, and almost died in the interracial conflicts of the 1960s.

During and after World War II, Jews began to migrate in significant numbers to the growing Sunbelt. Florida and California were the most favored destinations, as the Jewish population of New York steadily fell. According to the American Jewish Yearbook, there were only 123,000 Jews in all of California in 1930; by 2002, there were 999,000. In 1930, only 13,402 Jews lived in Florida; by 2002, there were 620,000. By 2002, there were almost as many Jews in Florida and California combined as in New York state.

Now, instead of occupying one corner of America, Jewish voters have become a major bloc in three critical states with large numbers of electoral votes. In the 2000 election, these three states cast 112 electoral votes; in 2004, they will have 113. Only 270 electoral votes are required to win the White House. Bill Clinton won all three states in 1996. In 2000, Jewish voters in Palm Beach County essentially elected Al Gore president, only to find their votes recorded for Patrick Buchanan because of the notorious "butterfly ballot."

In California, most Jews have retained their Democratic loyalty. Los Angeles Jews became a critical element of the Tom Bradley biracial coalition, and majorities of California’s Jewish voters supported Democratic candidates at city, county, state, and national levels. With pro-Israel centrists Bill Clinton and Gore at the top of the Democratic ticket, this connection blossomed into massive support. Today, no Democratic presidential candidate can afford to ignore the fundraising base of Los Angeles Jews.

But this loyalty is not absolute. There are plenty of Jewish Republicans and even some Democrats who are drawn to what they see as George W. Bush’s pro-Israel stance. Jewish voters, East and West, have always been willing to support truly moderate and socially liberal Republicans (not the pretend, rhetorical moderation of Bush) against specific Democrat candidates who are more to the left and whose affinity for Israel’s survival and opposition to anti-Semitism is not firm and clear.

When times are tough, when there are threats like street crime or terrorism, and when the Democrats are seen as moving too far out of the mainstream, the party can lose too many Jews to be seriously competitive. Or, as Earl Raab, co-author of "Jews and the New American Scene" (Harvard University Press, 1995), once put it, "If you scratch an American Jew, you will find a Democratic voter. The complicating news today is that if you scratch somewhat deeper, you will not always find a liberal."

Democrats cannot take Jewish voters for granted.

What does this mean for the recall of the beleaguered Davis? If Davis cannot hold Jewish voters, he will have a hard time staying in office. Based on his ideological centrism, and the right-wing roots of the recall, Davis should have a chance to hold the support of many Jewish voters. The two potential candidates who could threaten Davis among Jews, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, have stayed out of the race. But Davis has the complex task of dealing with a growing Democratic leadership shift toward Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as the Democratic alternative if the recall passes. And then there is Schwarzenegger. If he captures the hearts and minds of Jewish voters, he will be formidable.

Riordan, though, would have been more likely than Schwarzenegger to win over Jews. Riordan won half of Jewish votes when he ran against liberal Democrat Mike Woo for mayor in 1993 in a time of post-riot despair and economic downturn. In 1997, running against the even more liberal Tom Hayden, Riordan won more than 60 percent of Jewish voters. Riordan is a resident of the Westside, pro-choice on abortion, the sort of "Rockefeller Republican" with whom Jews have been comfortable.

Arnold has some of that Riordan appeal. Jewish voters are not immune to the huge unpopularity of Governor Davis. Like Riordan, Schwarzenegger is a comfortable, socially active Westsider. Both are married to strong and active Democratic women. Schwarzenegger appears to be a social liberal, although many of his views remain to be clarified.

But the same persona that appeals to many alienated voters — the glamorous outsider with vague ideas and catchy phrases — is not particularly well suited for reaching highly attentive, extraordinarily well-informed Jewish voters. Schwarzenegger’s cavalier mistreatment of Riordan in the announcement of his own candidacy may not go unnoticed among active Jews. If Schwarzenegger’s media buzz begins to trail off in coming weeks because of an inability or unwillingness by the candidate to address tough policy issues, watch for it to happen first among Jewish voters.

Getting Jewish voters to support a shift in party control of the governor’s office less than a year after an election will be no easy task. Schwarzenegger may have all the excitement right now, but if he relies on his celebrity status to make his case, Jewish voters may ultimately stick with Davis, vote for a Democratic alternative, or both.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the author of “Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles” (Princeton University Press, 1993). His column for The Journal will appear monthly in this space.