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The 2016 election: Jews and their politics

By Dr. Steven Windmueller
web posted February 8, 2016

Every four years America goes through a civic ritual, the election of a President. Jews have become active participants in this political encounter as Jonathan Woocher observed, "Politics is the civil religion of American Jewry."

In 2016 Jews are once again embedded in this political drama of electing a new national leader. Twelve principles of American Jewish political practice are introduced here as a way to provide a roadmap to understand the nature and character of the Jewish community in this election year:

Principle One:

The deep ideological political divide within American society is also present within the Jewish community and this battle over ideas and personalities is being played out as part of the 2016 presidential campaign.

At the end of last year I wrote about the "state" of this Jewish divide:

Jewish political frustration is broad and encompasses the perspectives of Jews both on the left and the right. For liberal Jews there is growing unhappiness over the absence of legislative initiatives dealing with immigration reform, gun control, and the protection of voting rights for minorities across the country. Jewish conservatives, who were already critical of the Obama Administration in its handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship, would become enraged by the Iran Nuclear Accord Agreement, the management of the American response to ISIS, and the general tenor of the nation's commitment to security. The grievances and differences among Jews have created what some have framed as the "great divide," where the political tension can be defined as deep and uncompromising. The degree of angry rhetoric and the heightened levels of communal tension serve to affirm this schism.

Just as Jews are caught up in the negativity of the campaign and its issues, Americans in general appear invested in finding an "outsider" who in their mind can break the "Washington paralysis" and will be responsive to the interests and needs of the middle class. A level of fear seems to also grip portions of the voting public who are uncertain about their own future and the country's direction. The "political normal" at this point in this election marathon might best be described as an unsettled and angry electorate in search of the "ideal" candidate.

Principle Two:

The political behavior of American Jews while difficult to predict in this election year is partially reflected in this Survey of American Jewish Opinion (August 2015).

In this study individuals were asked to describe their political identities:



Lean Liberal


Moderate, Middle of the Road


Lean Conservative




The participants in that study were asked to identify their party affiliation:







The individuals were randomly selected for this survey study but tend to reflect the general breakdown of the "Jewish Vote" as demonstrated by prior studies. In Mellman, Straus, and Waldman's work from a few years earlier as well as the Pew Study of 20135 one finds substantial confirmation of the liberal orientation of the Jewish community. Indeed, most studies continue to show this general pattern, but it remains unclear at this point whether various recent events, involving global terrorism and domestic uncertainties, will alter the Jewish political mindset.

Jewish voters remain much more Democratic than the rest of the electorate. Since 1984, Jewish support for Democratic candidates has been 21-34 points higher than the support from the national electorate. Similarly, the Jewish percentage of the two-party vote has been 22-32 points more Democratic than the national electorate.

Jews have given even higher levels of support to Democratic congressional candidates ranging from 71 percent to 80 percent of the two-party vote between 1976 and 2000 and from 71 percent to 88 percent since 2002.

"Liberalism" as a political notion is being reclassified, just as American conservative thought has taken on different dimensions. Liberals from 50 years ago, for example, would probably not recognize some of the characteristics and policy preferences that comprise the contemporary framework of American politics. Similarly, Barry Goldwater's 1964 "conservatism" would not resonate with today's politics.

Principle Three:

Political loyalties are deeply embedded.

In this "non-normal" election, among Jewish voters, it remains uncertain if we are likely to see any significant political movement.

In that same survey of American Jewish community members, the AJC reported the following results as it pertained to specific candidate preferences:8

Hillary Clinton (D)

39.7 percent

Bernie Sanders (D)


Donald Trump (R)


Jeb Bush (R)


All other candidates in that survey received less than 5 percent of this group's endorsement. As the campaign unfolds other surveys registering Jewish support for specific candidates will become available, reflecting further on the impact of the campaign and the core issues in helping to clarify political preferences.

The leading candidates at this time reflect the various political threads of Jewish Americans. Clinton appeals to mainstream "liberal Democrats" as she seeks to draw on her husband's base of support within the liberal community. On the other hand, Bernie Sanders appeal has evoked the memories and sentiments of Jews whose family roots are tied to the labor Zionist camp and to the various socialist ideals present within the American Jewish community.

In turn, the free-enterprise ideas and national security priorities of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush, among other Republican candidates, have attracted a range of Jewish entrepreneurs, Orthodox Jewish funders, and pro-Israel activists who have provided support to an array of Republican hopefuls.

Yet, with each scenario, there are countervailing themes that are unsettling to different Jewish constituencies. With Clinton and Sanders, their levels of commitment to national security and their budgetary proposals are seen by some as being unrealistic and costly. With the Republican candidates, a segment of American Jews appear nervous over their social values propositions (church-state, personal choice, etc.) as well as their positions in connection with minorities and immigrants.

American Jews likewise remain concerned over which candidate(s) has the capacity to govern at a time of such international complexity and domestic uncertainty.

Principle Four:

This election will turn out to be not only the most expensive campaign in history but also where one finds more divergent income sources in support of candidates as a result of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission).

As in the past, Jews provide significant financial support to both political parties and to many candidates. Some analysts project that as much as 50 percent of all monies raised by Democratic presidential candidates are from Jewish funders; similarly, 25 percent of the Republican donor base is comprised today of major Jewish contributors.

One of the newer elements shaping the role of Jews in the political arena has been the arrival of Orthodox Jewish funders who are playing an increasingly important role through their financial engagement. Further, it remains unclear how Jewish millennials will involve themselves in the 2016 campaign, as they may represent the most significant voter cohort where voting experts have minimal information on their likely political behavior.

Principle Five:

Foreign Policy as a Driving Factor: The issues of foreign policy in the 2016 campaign are uniquely tied into domestic national security policy. Concerns over terrorism and national security are now linked with what type of international profile the United States should portray in order to reassert its role in the world. This question has positioned candidates on both sides of the isle to debate America's future role in the world, and more directly within the Middle East. The issue likewise has created a secondary debate over the appropriate balance between one's individual rights to privacy and the priorities of national security.

Principle Six:

The American Political Agenda and the Jewish Vote One must understand that Jewish voters enter the political fray with a broad range of interests. This is dramatically demonstrated in the AJC study and confirmed in a number of other opinion surveys. What are the concerns of American Jews?


41.7 percent

National Security:


Health Care:


Income Inequality:


U.S.-Israel Relations:


Supreme Court Appointments:


Other issues that were listed included the Iranian Nuclear Program, Race Relations, Immigration, and Church-State Policies. As is quite evident, the "U.S.-Israel Relationship" scored fifth among the primary contending political and economic issues. This pattern of projecting a highly diversified set of political priorities has been a constant within the Jewish electorate, as it mirrors the range of issues that Americans in general consider important.

Indeed, since the AJC survey was conducted (August 2015), a number of key events have unfolded including the terrorist attacks in France and San Bernardino (California), America's engagement with Iran, including the implementation of the Iran Nuclear Accords and the completion of a prisoner exchange, and an expanded conversation on U.S. foreign policy within the Middle East and more directly, the America's role in managing the war against radical Islam.

These same individuals were asked a series of questions pertaining to Iran and its nuclear program. The more than one thousand participants were deeply divided over the Iran Nuclear Accords, reflecting the political reality within the Jewish community around this question:

Approve strongly


Approve somewhat


Disapprove somewhat


Disapprove strongly


Principle Seven:

The Rule of Marginal Effect: When Israel and its American supporters seek to pursue their interests in Washington, unless there are competing national security concerns that take precedence, the pro-Israel community has been uniquely and overwhelmingly successful.

"Overall the Israeli lobby is effective because it enjoys advantages in every area considered relevant to interest group influence, according to Dr. Mitchell G. Bard. "It has a large and vocal membership; members who enjoy high status and legitimacy; a high degree of electoral participation (voting and financing); effective leadership; a high degree of access to decision-makers; and public support.12

No other country can claim the same level of political and personal connection as the State of Israel has enjoyed with the Washington establishment. Each of the presidential candidates has produced statements and/or made public comments defining their views on the Middle East, and more particularly, identifying the special status of Israel within the American orbit.

Every candidate seeking the presidential nomination has seen the need to reference his or her special connection to Israel, often invoking a reference to their personal relationships and/or political ties to the Jewish State. In each of the primary debates, candidates have taken the opportunity to refer to Israel as "America's ally" or to acknowledge some other particular identification.

The pro-Israel framework is true for all candidates in this field, with the possible exception of Senator Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky. The Senator's views, while including a reference to Israel, reflect nonetheless the isolationist perspectives of some within the Republican Party.

Building Political Influence:

The Jewish community over the past half-century has developed a political framework for accessing and building relationships with political candidates. In a related document this author was able to spell out the 10 key steps employed by the pro-Israel community in the United States to foster these connections with politicians.

Principle Eight:

The Democratic Party and the Jewish Voter: Realizing the liberal or progressive orientation of many American Jews, it is important to identify the multiple entry points that help explain and define "Jewish Liberalism." Six theoretical concepts are introduced here:

Jewish Historical Experience: Scholars have suggested that since Jews often lived under arbitrary systems of rule, they as victims came to understand the need to protect themselves and other minorities from the abuse of power. As political outsiders "Jews are predominantly liberal because we are still mindful of being outsiders, even when we are insiders, and because we have a tradition that …reminds us that we should not oppress anyone and must remember that we were once oppressed."

Social Connections: The density of participation and engagement on the part of Jews with liberal institutions outside of the Jewish community has served to inform and shape their internal political behavior.

Radical Chic: Through their career choices, cultural values, educational experiences, and social ideas, Jews would be exposed to the principles of liberalism. The influence of "parental politics" and the "the role of regional concentration" (Blue-State [Democratic Party] culture) maybe among the social forces that have given expression to Jewish liberal politics. Their politics would be seen as an extension of their socio-economic orientation and would represent as well a socially accepted form of political participation.

Jewish Religious Values: The exposure to such core religious ideals as "Tikkun Olam" and "Tzedakah" served to frame the political identity of Jews.

Among various Jewish writers and activists, Rabbi David Saperstein and Albert Vorspan, leaders of the social justice initiatives within the Reform Movement for many decades have advocated that social issues ought to be examined through a Jewish lens. Jewish tradition, they would argue, can inform and challenge Jews to act in a manner that serves the collective interest of the United States.

Universal Ethic: This theory contends that liberalism serves as the great unifying force among peoples, minimizing religious, cultural, and social differences. Through this view of society, with its emphasis on the values of internationalism and universalism, it is possible to see human progress as continuous. Broad social values are considered integral to advancing Jewish political interests. Jews could align their political orientation with their religious beliefs, allowing them to construct a continuum between their personal and religious convictions and the broader social enterprise.

American Exceptionalism: The uniqueness of the American experience for Jews with its constitutional guarantees, its embodiment of diversity has fostered a different political environment. In turn, their political behavior would reflect not a conservative orientation as seen elsewhere in Jewish history.

Principle Nine:

Republican Jews: Similar to their liberal counterparts, Jewish Republicans represent a wide range of backgrounds and political interests.

"Red State Jews" reflect those American Jewish families who have a deep connection (rootedness) to a conservative political base often found in their home communities and (red) states (often from the South or Mid-West). Political scientists have focused on voters who emulate in their political practice the mantra, "being like the Joneses" where specific voting blocs or advocacy groups take on the behaviors and social characteristics of the majoritarian culture or groups that are perceived as "winners" within the society.

Jews have come to their Republicanism based on particular political ideas and values. For some, their connections to the GOP can be traced to "family tradition," as noted above, where there have been longstanding connections to the party. Yet, for others, their "conversion" to the Republican Party is tied to a specific policy area, possibly linked to their economic philosophy or conceivably aligned to their set of religious or social values (i.e. opposition to gay marriage or disagreement with "abortion on demand"). There is evidence that for others, the Republican position on church-state has evoked a particular commitment to supporting religious and educational initiatives that embrace the notion of the application of religious values and practices to the wellbeing of the social order. And for other Republican Jewish voters their connection to the party is specially tied to national security concerns and their pro-Israel commitments. For certain other advocates their ideological opposition to "big government" has positioned them to support the Republican Party.

The "big tent" Republican field includes voices today reflecting the various conservative perspectives on society and the world. The range of ideological thinking encompasses libertarian notions,17 Constitutional constructionists,18 and neo-conservative perspectives.19

Principle Ten:

The Changing Political Environment: Some Additional Observations

There is some evidence that younger Jews do not hold the same degree of loyalty to the Democratic Party (as their parents) and, as a result, are more likely to register as" Independent" or "Republican" voters. Thus, the Republican Party may have a better chance of picking up (parts of) the Jewish vote in urban areas of the country inhabited by young professionals than in retirement communities. While these numbers do not indicate a definitive generational trend, it does appear that both Orthodox Jews and Jews who are from more secular backgrounds tend to vote Republican more frequently than do other Jewish constituencies.

At times, Jewish voting patterns are also distinctively different in state and local elections. In larger metropolitan areas with significant Jewish populations, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, one finds Jewish voting patterns in local and statewide campaigns driven by self-interest with respect to financial, security, and specific public policy concerns. Similarly, the attractiveness of particular candidates may contribute to altered voting patterns. Centrist Republicans in local and state elections, as evidenced in a number of mayoral and state-contested campaigns, are often able to attract significant Jewish support.

Two cohort groups within the Jewish community have emerged as important new elements to observe. The growing Orthodox community is distinctively Republican and is contributing to the reshaping of political outcomes in some local and state elections. Correspondingly, Jews raised in households with a non-Jewish parent and who identify nominally with Judaism also tend to vote Republican, according to data extracted from various Jewish surveys.

Another essential part of the GOP base, according to The New York Times, is "Blue State Republicans" of whom Jews are becoming increasingly important:

… the blue-state Republicans still possess the delegates, voters and resources to decide the nomination. In 2012, there were more Romney voters in California than in Texas, and in Chicago's Cook County than in West Virginia. Mr. Romney won three times as many voters in overwhelmingly Democratic New York City than in Republican-leaning Alaska. Overall, 59 percent of Romney voters in the Republican primaries lived in the states carried by President Obama. Those states hold 50 percent of the delegates to the Republican National Convention, even though they contain just 19 percent of Republican senators. Just 11 percent of House Republicans hail from districts that voted for President Obama.

Principle Eleven:

What is the Importance of the Jewish Vote? In a close election the "Jewish vote" becomes significantly more important, and this factor is particularly true in such key "swing" states as Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. The Jewish community remains an important voting constituency in seven other states: New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, California, and Connecticut.

When looking at the percentage of American citizens who vote, these numbers are quite striking. In the 1960 Presidential Campaign some 63.1 percent participated; in the 2012 Election only 53.6 percent turned out to vote. This downward spiral is also evident in "off-year" elections as well. In contrast, despite being under 2 percent of the American population, it is estimated that 85 percent of America's Jews "vote"! This factor changes the political dynamics and influence of Jewish voters, especially in highly contested campaigns.

Principle Twelve:

Moving Beyond the Presidency, Other Political Contests and the Jewish Community: Jews remain active in American politics as represented by their high visibility as candidates for a wide array of public positions and as political insiders, participating as funders, journalists and commentators, party leaders, and active voters.

There will be 34 Senate seats (out of 100) being contested in the 2016 campaign. Currently, the Republicans hold the majority with 54 seats and the Democrats occupy 44 seats (there are two independents, one of whom is Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont). Today, there are 9 Jewish senators. For this purpose, six contests are particularly interesting and important for the Jewish community:

  • Hawaii: Senator Brian Schatz (D) is running for re-election; he is the first Jewish senator from that state.
  • New York: Senator Charles Schumer (D) is seeking re-election; should he win, the Senator will most likely assume the role of Senate minority leader.
  • California: Senator Barbara Boxer (D) will be retiring.
  • Connecticut: Senator Richard Blumenthal (D) is seeking re-election.
  • Oregon: Similarly, Senator Ron Wyden (D) is seeking to return to the Senate.
  • Wisconsin: Former Senator Russ Feingold (D) is hoping to win back his seat; he faces the incumbent, Senator Ron Johnson (R).

All 438 House of Representatives will be up for re-election. Some 20 Republican House Members and 16 Democrats have announced their plans to retire. Currently, there are 247 Republicans and 188 Democrats. In the 114th Congress there are 19 Jewish members (18 Democrats and 1 Republican). Among the current Jewish members, Representative Steve Israel (D) of New York who served eight terms has announced his intention to retire at the end of this term.

Among the races of interest, Brad Schneider (D) a former member of the House from the Chicago area is running against Nancy Rotering (D), the Mayor of Highland Park. In this Illinois, 10th District contest, one finds two Jewish candidates, who interestingly enough held opposing views over the Iranian Nuclear Agreement.

Currently there are 32 Republican and 17 Democratic governors with one independent. This fall 12 states will host election campaigns for their governorships; a total of six governors are retiring (5 Democrats and 1 Republican). Over the course of American history some 24 Jews have served as governors, ranging from Alaska and Hawaii to New Mexico and New York.

Concluding Thoughts

As this election campaign unfolds, American Jewry will continue to be critical players through their financial support and political advocacy.

American political analysts remain uncertain at this point on the course of this campaign. As this article goes to press, it remains most difficult to measure the Jewish political temperature, as the primary season is about to be launched and as there remains the possibility for yet other candidates to enter the 2016 Presidential Sweepstakes (Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, in particular).

No doubt, as in the past, Jews will play significant roles in supporting specific candidates. Some have even suggested that the 2016 election for the American presidency may be the "most Jewish ever" noting the many family connections of candidates to the Jewish community.

Not only does one find Jews captivated and invested by the allure of this American political ritual but they also will continue to be significant players as the 2016 election unfolds. ESR

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. Professor Windmueller is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center. His writings appear on his website, www.thewindreport.com.





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