The debate over whether American Jews are turning to the Republican Party is not likely to be settled when the votes are counted on Nov. 5.
With midterm congressional elections just days away, Republicans cite a variety of reasons why this year's polls may not show the political shift they have been predicting for the past year. But Democrats say the election will be the best sign yet of where Jews stand on the political spectrum.
It's hardly a new debate. For years, Republican Jewish leaders have touted increasing support from the Jewish community, while exit polls continue to show that most Jews vote Democratic. Still, with a Republican president who is strongly pro-Israel and Republican voices in Congress taking the lead in support of Israel and the U.S. war on terrorism, the issue has garnered notice in mainstream media. While several indicators hint at a trend, little information exists to make a definitive assessment. That makes Election Day an important test for both sides of the argument. Any Jewish movement toward the GOP would strike at one of the Democrats' strongest voting blocs at a time when Congress is almost evenly divided.
Jews make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, but they are valuable in elections because of their high voter turnout and their geographical disbursement, said Norman Ornstein, an election analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.
"You have a lot of Jewish votes in a number of pivotal states and ones that are contentious," Ornstein said. Plus, Jews often are political leaders and key fundraisers.
The habits of Jewish voters have been a curiosity for years.
"It's a puzzle," said Ken Goldstein, assistant professor of political science and Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin. "Given their education levels, income levels and color of skin, Jews should look like Republican voters" -- but, historically, they haven't. During the 1990s, for example, Democrats won at least 73 percent of the Jewish vote in House races. Within the last two decades, Jewish support for Democratic congressional candidates peaked at 82 percent in 1982, according to The New York Times. The high point for the GOP was the 32 percent of the Jewish vote in House races in 1988.
But Matthew Brooks, Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) executive director, points to an RJC survey, showing that 48 percent of Jews surveyed said they would consider voting for President Bush for reelection in 2004. The poll also found that Bush's performance moved 27 percent to say they were more likely to vote for Republicans for other offices.
Despite such figures and articles describing a GOP tilt among Jews, Jewish Democratic leaders say the perception is wrong.
In the past, Jewish voters have feared that voting Republican would mean embracing a conservative domestic agenda, such as opposition to abortion and support for school prayer. Now, some say, closer ties between the Jewish community and right-wing Christian supporters of Israel has opened some doors.
Ira Forman, National Jewish Democratic Council executive director, says that especially during times of Mideast crisis, Jewish voting patterns reflect concern for Israel more than domestic agendas.
Given strong Israel support by Bush and congressional Republicans, it has created a perception of a Jewish-GOP embrace.
But, Forman contends, Jewish voters most often don't have to make that choice. More often, he says, they're deciding between pro-Israel Democrats and pro-Israel or neutral Republicans. When both candidates are either pro-Israel or neutral, Jews lean toward the Democrats because of domestic issues.
Forman also says that Jewish votes for GOP candidates don't necessarily reflect a shift rightward.
A Gallup Organization study found that the partisan slant of the Jewish vote has remained stable over the past decade.
No poll has enough Jewish respondents to mark a trend. But, extrapolating from its polls in the past 18 months, Gallup found that some 50 percent of Jewish voters are Democrats, 32 percent are independent and 18 percent are Republicans. That mirrors Gallup polls taken between 1992 and 2001.
Frank Newport of Gallup said patterns of party identification are very stable.
Goldstein says this Election Day may not resolve the question of Jewish voting habits, since many of key races are in states with small Jewish populations. He believes the presidential race in 2004 will be a more important indicator.
But Democrats counter that even that won't be a fair judge, because Bush's Mideast policy and his handling of the war against terrorism have made him popular with Jewish voters. Jews may vote for other Republicans because they support Bush, not because they've had a real change of heart, Forman says.
All of which means that the debate is likely to go on after November, come what may at the polls.