November 17, 2018

For Whom Poll Tolls

The Gallup Poll recently released its newest data on Jewish political attitudes, and it holds bad news for George W. Bush and for Republicans searching for Jewish votes. Based on polling from 1992 through May 2004 (of admittedly small, rolling samples of Jewish voters), the Gallup organization found great stability in Jewish identification with the Democratic Party and a significant decline in Jewish approval for Bush. Jews continue to differ dramatically from Protestants and Catholics on these measures.

From 1992 through the present, a remarkably consistent 50 percent of Jewish voters have called themselves Democrats, roughly one-third independents and 16-18 percent Republicans. When "leanings" are analyzed, however, the picture gets even more strongly Democratic. In the most recent surveys, conducted between 2002 and 2004, 68 percent of Jewish voters lean Democratic, and only 28 percent Republican. By contrast, 51 percent of Protestants lean Republican and only 43 percent Democratic. (Presumably, the difference between Jews and non-Jews would be even greater if African Americans, the majority of whom are Protestants, are taken out of the equation and the comparison is made with white Protestants.)

The Gallup Poll found low approval ratings for the Bush presidency among Jews in the latest surveys; only 39 percent of Jews approved, compared to 63 percent of Protestants. And Bush’s approval rating has dropped farther among Jews over the last several years than among other religious groups, a 17 point free-fall from an earlier 56 percent rating.

Based on this data, Gallup staff writer Joseph Carroll concluded that "Bush will be hard-pressed to win the votes of Jewish Americans." What happened to the high hopes of Republicans that this was finally their year to win over the Jews? Early polls had shown a significant bloc of Jewish voters considering voting Republican in 2004.

Bush has pursued an unprecedented and risky plan for winning Jewish votes. He has thumbed his nose at every issue that has ever counted for the majority of Jewish voters: choice on abortion; fairness in economics; standing up to the religious right; respecting the viewpoints of Democrats and moderates in the formation of public policy; respect for international alliances.

He has given Jewish voters one thing, and one thing only: absolute support of Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That is no small thing, and it has certainly won some goodwill and trust among many Jewish voters; unconditional love is hard to turn down. But Bush’s plan presumes that Jews will trade everything that has characterized the American Jewish political ethic going back to the eras of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt for a single-minded Middle East approach devoid of nuance or long-term thinking.

It also assumes that the Democrats will nominate a national ticket that abandons Israel. With John Kerry as the presidential candidate, and any of the short list of vice presidential candidates currently being considered, the Democrats are likely to select strongly pro-Israel candidates with significant foreign policy experience who are in close accord with Jewish voters on other issues.

Had the Iraq war gone as advertised, many Jewish voters might have felt that Bush’s unilateralist vision of the Middle East would make Israel safer: perhaps, as the Bush folks promised, "the road to Jerusalem passes through Baghdad." But instead, Bush has bequeathed a quagmire, strengthened the regional hand of Iran, another foe of Israel (possibly even allowing Iran to obtain critical American military secrets), and endangered the political position of Israel by linking it to an increasingly unpopular war and by weakening and diluting the American political, fiscal, diplomatic and military strengths that have been pillars of Israel’s security.

Bush will probably lose badly among Jews, therefore, for the same reasons that he is in trouble across the board, and his narrowcast pro-Israel position will not solve the problem.

So will Republicans, ever vigilant for Jewish votes, learn the obvious lesson? The key to winning Jewish support lies not in changing Jews, but in changing the national Republican Party. The right wing’s semi-biblical attachment to Israel and to little else about Jews is a dead end. We would never want America to buy world popularity at Israel’s expense. But an isolated, even hated, America is less able to exert its influence on Israel’s behalf.

The case of Ronald Reagan, however, gives one pause. Here was a Republican right -winger, who by this analysis should have completely alienated Jewish voters. While Reagan never won a majority of Jewish votes, his pro-Israel stance did make it respectable to be a Jewish Republican. Democrats, wandering in the foreign policy wilderness during the Reagan years, seemed insufficiently strong and determined in world affairs.

But as we can see in the increasingly intense battle between Reaganites and the Bush administration about who owns the Reagan legacy, Reagan’s assertiveness in foreign policy lacked the unilateral and interventionist zeal of the Bush group. Reagan, who was tough in rhetoric but inclined to avoid risky military conflicts, would have been unlikely to undertake and pursue the misguided and incompetent Iraq adventure. Even though many foreign leaders were initially alienated from Reagan, by the time he ran for re-election in 1984, he was seen as less dangerous overseas than he had been at first. One senses an impending world celebration, by contrast, if Bush is defeated.

Other than unusual characters like Reagan, who could mix conservative ideology with an appealing persona, the people who hold the key to Jewish support are precisely the Republican moderates so reviled by conservatives. History shows that numerous moderate Republicans have won substantial Jewish support. Republican politicians who have won Jewish votes have never sought to turn Jews into conservative Republicans. While Reagan was an aggressive Republican partisan, he was largely content to turn lifelong Democrats into temporary "Reagan Democrats," a strategy that avoided the traumas of seeking partisan conversion.

To see an example, one needn’t go any farther than Sacramento, where Republican Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger is following a path likely to win many Jewish voters over. Schwartzenegger is socially liberal, listens to the views of Democrats and moderate Republicans, and shows at least some interest in the human impact of cutbacks in state budgets. And he visits and supports Israel. As a result, the prospects for California’s Republicans to win significant Jewish support (even without a partisan conversion) have suddenly gone from hopeless to hopeful. At the national level, by contrast, it will take an extreme makeover by Republicans and a suicidal wrong turn by Democrats to turn the tide of Jewish voters in 2004.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University Fullerton, is the author of “Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles” (Princeton U. Press, 1993).