Jewish Journal


February 17, 2000

The Way(s) We Vote Now


When Republican presidential candidate John McCain recently addressed an influential Jewish group in the East, he told them, in answer to a question about Jonathan Pollard, that he felt the man had betrayed his country and he, McCain, was not in favor of releasing him from prison.

You might think this would function as a sure turn-off. But The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations -- the group that had met with McCain -- was apparently not dismayed by McCain's strong statement. He was very candid and straight with us; that seemed to be the approving consensus that emerged from the closed meeting.

Do we read this as downplaying the Jewish factor? Or maybe the correct interpretation is that most American Jews are divided on Pollard and do not see him as a top priority issue. In which case candor would receive high marks.

The factors that determine the way we Jews vote -- indeed, that determine the way everyone votes -- are complex and multiple. Sometimes we are influenced by a spouse's party preference; sometimes by a father's. I once made a documentary film in which most people we interviewed at random indicated they voted the same way as their father. Not parent; father.

Sometimes we simply go along with friends and neighbors, and what might be called our social set. In the summer community where we lived when I was a boy, the whole town seemed to consist entirely of Republicans. There were relatively few Jews. I remember my mother complaining during the presidential conventions that she received poor service at the market, indeed was ignored, because the merchants thought she was a Democrat. Actually, that year my father voted Republican.

And of course sometimes we favor a candidate or a party because we are members of a particular special interest group. That is, we are pro-choice or pro-life and that registers high on our list of issues; or are emotionally for or against gun control. Or we are active union members; or business and industry executives; school teachers or realtors; members of the Christian Right, angry at media and loose morals; or Jews with strong feelings about Israel and the Mideast.

In short, we all vote as Americans, and register our preferences in terms of what we think is best for the nation. And we also all make (presidential) choices in terms of what I would call our different identities -- professional, sexual, religious, to cite only three.

The "new conservative" writer, Irving Kristol (Jewish, Republican and smart), once remarked that Jews had much in common with the Republican party in terms of social class, but were still voting as Democrats. Actually, he said Jewish class interests -- in terms of income, education, and residence -- suggested we should be aligned with the Republicans, but we tended to vote with the Puerto Ricans. Why is this?

Is it the presence of history and memory? In the 1920s under a Republican president and congress, the U.S. passed a most restrictive immigration law, essentially barring Eastern European Jews, among others, from entering the U.S. Many had already migrated here starting in 1890, only to be followed by succeeding generations until 1924. It was considered common knowledge that Republicans of the day often held anti-ethnic views. That meant negative feelings about Jews, Italians and Irish. Though, to be fair, so did many Democrats. But the Republicans were associated with the moneyed classes, the Democrats with the urban workers. And we definitely were counted among the latter.

Is it the memory of FDR? The myths portray him as the friend and benefactor of the common man, the underdog, the have-nots. That's where many of us were lodged in the 1930s and early '40s

Or does it come down to issues? That is, regardless of class interests, Jews often vote from the heart instead of the head, registering support for ideas and policies that resonate deeply, no matter the particularities of our education, income and residence -- at least on the presidential level.

Republicans may take comfort this time around. All the political analysts have been quick to inform us that in this election voters are looking at the candidate's character, not his political proclamations. Character, of course, changes the game. It suggests, too, why some of the primaries -- South Carolina, for instance and California, too -- are being determined by crossover voting. The slogan this year appears to be: "It's not the issues, stupid. It's the man."

How will this affect the behavior of Jewish voters? Like most of the pundits, I'll tell you after the March 7 California primary. -- Gene Lichtenstein

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