June 26, 2019

GOP Has Little Hope of Gaining Jewish Majority

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

The ghost of President Warren G. Harding was in Las Vegas the first weekend of April. So was President Donald Trump. Both were at the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), where 2,000 attendees heard Trump make the case that the GOP’s strong support for Israel should lead to increased support from Jewish voters. 

Harding was the last Republican presidential nominee to win the Jewish vote, when he captured a 43% plurality of Jewish support in a three-way race in his 1920 election. It’s now been more than 30 years since a Republican nominee has attracted even one-third of the Jewish vote.

Trump and his supporters believe they can reverse this trend, based partially on Trump’s actions but mostly on the growing anti-Israel sentiment among a young generation of Democratic leaders. That belief is based on two faulty premises, both of which will make the Republicans’ effort to coax Jews away from the party of Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) difficult to achieve.

The first false assumption is that the choice between the two parties is a choice between absolutes. Even American Jews who oppose the Iran nuclear agreement and support moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem do not see one party as completely bad for Israel and the other as absolutely good. Rather, they see their choice as between one party that is very, very good for Israel, and another that is very, very, very good. 

That one extra Republican “very” is not sufficient to balance off the advantages that Democrats hold with most Jewish voters on abortion rights, climate change, immigration reform and many other domestic policy priorities. While most American Jews see individual lawmakers like Tlaib and Omar as unacceptable, the continued support for Israel among most Democratic leaders still leads to overall positive feelings toward the party among large majorities of Jewish voters. The challenge for Democrats is to prevent the spread of Tlaib’s and Omar’s attitudes in the party’s ranks. But barring the emergence a Jeremy Corbyn-esque presidential nominee, the Democrats have more than enough influential leaders whose strong support for Israel makes this a decidedly uphill fight for the GOP.  

[Netanyahu’s] focus on evangelical supporters of Israel reflects his realization that Jewish voters in the U.S. alone do not provide him with a sufficient base of support.

The second problem with this argument is that it assumes the majority of American Jewish voters make Israel their top priority at the ballot box. But American Jews have shifted their focus to domestic policy. A 2016 Ruderman Family Foundation study found that Israel was no longer among the top five issues influencing American Jewish voters, continuing a long-term trend. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not understand many things about American politics, but his focus on evangelical supporters of Israel reflects his realization that Jewish voters in the U.S. alone do not provide him with a sufficient base of support. Netanyahu’s approach has polarized American Jews, further blurring the definition of support for Israel among many left-leaning Jewish voters, even while evangelical voters have become more motivated. 

At the RJC meeting, some wealthy Trump supporters shared their plans to spend more than $10 million next year to persuade Jewish voters to support the president’s reelection. While they almost certainly understand that winning the Jewish vote in 2020 is impossible, a targeted effort aimed at sizable Jewish populations in swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada could affect the razor-thin margins that will determine how those states cast their electoral votes.

As anti-Israel sentiment hardens among young progressives, leaders such as Tlaib and Omar can be expected to frequently cross the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. But until those attitudes become more pervasive in Democratic circles — and until Republicans distance themselves from equally intolerant voices of nationalism and xenophobia — a sea change in Jewish partisan voting is not in the offing anytime soon.

Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University.