Against the Tide — Again

Can California’s new Republican governor make inroads among traditionally Democratic Jews? Jewish voters aren’t likely to abandon the Democratic party anytime soon, but will likely give Arnold Schwarzenegger a chance to prove that he can govern in a bipartisan, moderate manner.

Every election, Republicans dream that Jewish voters will abandon their long-standing Democratic loyalty and vote their pocketbooks. Nothing is more maddening to Republicans than Milton Himmelfarb’s epigram, “Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”

Republicans had high hopes that the recall would break the back of Jewish Democratic loyalty. The Los Angeles Times exit poll, conducted regularly in statewide elections, can tell us what actually happened with Jewish voters on election day.

The Jewish vote is taking on increasing importance in California elections. With 3 percent of the population, Jews cast anywhere between 4 and 6 percent of the statewide vote. Democrats need Jewish voters more than ever to close the disturbing gap in minority participation since Gray Davis’s first election as governor in 1998.

As the state’s population becomes more diverse, the voters are becoming more white. In 1998, whites cast 64 percent of all votes, but 73 percent in the 2000 presidential race. In Davis’ 2002 reelection, whites cast 76 percent of all votes, and in the recall 72 percent. These figures reflect declining minority turnout, from a high of 26 percent (13 percent black and 13 percent Latino) in 1998 to 17 percent in the recall (6 percent black and 11 percent Latino).

So what happened to Jewish voters in the recall? According to the Los Angeles Times exit poll, Jews once again swam against the largely white tide, voting heavily (69 percent) against the recall and by a majority for Democratic replacement candidate Cruz Bustamante (52 percent). Whites in general (including Jews) supported the recall with 59 percent of their votes, and gave Schwarzenegger 53 percent and Bustamante only 27 percent.

Jews were 28 percentage points more likely than whites in general to oppose the recall. (Since Jews are included in the white category, the difference is probably even greater.) Only African Americans (79 percent) were more opposed to the recall than Jews. Latinos were divided; only 55 percent voted against the recall, and 55 percent for Bustamante.

Jewish opposition to the recall was not enough to overcome Latino ambivalence and low African American participation. White preferences carried the day.

While Republicans lost Jews on the recall, they could take some comfort in the 31 percent of Jews who voted for Schwarzenegger (equal to the 31 percent of Latino votes Arnold received). This is somewhat higher than Jewish voting for Republican statewide candidates in the last several elections, but still far short of a realignment of Jewish voting. Jewish voters obviously focused most heavily on defeating the recall.

Clearly, though, Schwarzenegger made some inroads among Jews. Jews were more familiar with Schwarzenegger than any other candidate on the ballot other than Davis. He is a Westsider married to prominent Democrat Maria Shriver, a huge figure in the entertainment industry, and close to Richard Riordan, who is well-known and liked among Jews. When charges emerged that Arnold had spoken well of Hitler, leaders of the Wiesenthal Center rushed forward to offer support. He is apparently pro-choice on abortion, a critical voting test for Jews.

Despite Jewish opposition to the recall, Schwarzenegger might have done better with Jewish voters had his campaign not been so adolescent and anti-intellectual in tone, marked by assertions that the people don’t care about numbers, and by the avoidance of serious debates. Jewish voters, probably the best-informed in the electorate, were unlikely to be impressed with smart-alecky one-liners from the movies. Arnold’s AM radio campaign was unlikely to appeal to FM radio Jewish voters.

Despite much resentment about the whole recall process, Jewish voters will likely give Arnold a chance. In the first several days after his election victory, Schwarzenegger showed signs of being an elected official who might expand his Jewish beachhead. Such expansion would not be the result of making Jewish voters into Republicans, but rather making Republican leadership seem less alienating and threatening to Jews.

Selecting a transition team with a few active Democrats was a move that might reassure Jewish voters that he would not seek to impose the sort of harsh, us-against-them partisan edge that George W. Bush brought to Washington, D.C., after another disputed election. Arnold has seemed more interested in being a grown-up as governor than he was as a gubernatorial candidate.

Schwarzenegger will have trouble with Jewish voters if he seeks to use these symbols of bipartisanship as a cover for a budget agenda that hurts public services and education. Avoiding questions about the sexual groping charges (“it’s old news,” now says the governor-elect) after promising to clear the air after his election will not do wonders for his credibility. Jewish voters are highly attentive to political news, and are unlikely to overlook such a clear contradiction.

But if Schwarzenegger truly seeks to solve the state’s problems without being a tool of right-wing forces, and with an open-minded, progressive approach, he may find a surprising number of friends among California’s Democratic-leaning Jewish voters.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton. His column appears monthly.