Jewish Journal

Prediction Misses

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

Posted on Nov. 11, 2004 at 7:00 pm

Once again, despite predictions to the contrary, Jewish voters stuck with the Democrats. By a 3-1 margin, Jews backed Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) against President Bush.

Some Republicans took comfort in a slight uptick of Jewish support for Bush from about one-fifth in 2000 to about one-quarter in 2004. Republican pollster Frank Luntz noted that in his small survey of 484 voters in Florida and Ohio, Orthodox Jews voted for Bush and younger Jews were more likely to support Bush than older Jewish voters, but this remains to be confirmed with larger samples.

With only 484 voters in his sample in the first place, it's extremely dicey to draw conclusions about even smaller subgroups such as younger and older voters.

Peter Beinart argued in The New Republic that the pro-Bush voting of Orthodox Jews is a sign that Jews are becoming like everybody else, divided between religious and secular. But given the small share of Jewish voters who are Orthodox, his declaration that 2004 marks the end of the Jewish vote is hard to support.

In fact, Republicans were profoundly disappointed by their showing among Jews on Nov. 2. According to the Los Angeles Times national exit poll, Jews went 74-26 for Kerry. By contrast, non-Jewish whites went 57-42 for Bush. Catholics, normally a somewhat Democratic group, voted 55-44 for Bush. CNN had it 76-24 for Kerry. The National Election Poll pegged the Jewish ratio at 78-22. In California, according to the Times statewide exit poll, Jews were even more Democratic, voting 80-20 for Kerry and 87-12 for Sen. Barbara Boxer over Republican Bill Jones.

The true distinctiveness of Jewish voting in California can be seen not only in partisan elections but on two key ballot propositions.

Proposition 71 authorized the state to issue $3 billion in bonds to support embryonic stem cell research. Jews were the No. 1 group in support, with 77 percent backing it. Proposition 71 passed easily, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger defying Bush to support it.

Proposition 72 mandated employers with more than 200 workers to provide health insurance for workers and their dependents. Opposed by the governor and business interests, it went down to a narrow defeat. But Jews gave it a 2-1 majority.

There has been much talk that Democrats are now "out of the mainstream," and, therefore, are Jewish voters, too? California Jewish voters not only backed Democrats but also supported social liberalism (stem cell research) and economic liberalism (employer mandates for health insurance).

Nothing more clearly illustrates the gap between Jews and the Bush administration than stem cell research. Jews are children of the European Enlightenment, which removed the shackles of centuries of ignorance and superstition. The pursuit of scientific and medical knowledge is a central value for American Jews, and many have chosen professional paths to pursue and apply that knowledge. The use of reason to solve physical and social problems is quite natural to Jews and represents no contradiction to religious faith.

Therefore, the president's decisions to limit stem cell research, to politicize federal science policy by stacking scientific review panels with ideologues and to treat evidence in public policy as an obstacle not as a necessity may reassure his loyal base but strikes many Jewish voters as nearly medieval. By contrast, the potential affinity of Jewish voters for the moderate wing of the Republican Party can be seen in their common position with Schwarzenegger on Proposition 71.

In any case, the definition of "mainstream" has been hopelessly muddled by the unusual, perhaps unique, re-election strategy adopted by Bush. While Bush won a clear electoral victory, it was not the sort of re-election win that incumbents normally win.

Incumbents normally run from the center, and they are usually judged by their performance; they tend to win by a lot or lose by a lot. But Bush went a different way. He built a fanatical base on the right, while alienating the left and center. Kerry won a majority of independent voters.

Bush's approach gave him both a floor and a ceiling. He would not lose by a lot no matter how miserable his performance, because his base worshipped him. But he could not win by a lot, because his approach so alienated so many other Americans.

With this strategy, 51 percent was probably about the outer edge of the ceiling, and a remarkable achievement, but it may not grow much from there in Bush's second term. It's not so much a "mainstream" as a heavily mobilized, deeply ideological and theological Republican Party that commands a narrow majority of the nation.

Jews were not essential to this strategy but were to be a valuable add-on both to hurt the Democrats and broaden the Republicans a little bit. But this broadening would not be so important that it would force the Bush group to change any of their policies or approaches.

The Republican movement is a very powerful surge, that in its aggressiveness and narrowness has generated a nearly, though not quite equal, countersurge. Jews largely joined the countersurge.

The American electoral system allows huge changes in formal power despite narrow differences in popular support. Kerry simply could not survive the wave of voting by the religious right. But to be on the losing side in 2004 is not to be some cosmic outsider alien to the populace.

The Bush people now will feel no need, if they ever did, to respond to the broad social and political values of Jewish voters other than Israel. With most Jewish votes going to Kerry, they may even feel less need to be as strong for Israel, except as that stance pleases their real core: the religious right, according to an American Jewish Committee post-election report.

Moderate Jewish Republicans are in a vulnerable spot in post-election Washington. Days after the election, a Jewish Republican, the pro-choice senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, suggested that the president would have difficulty winning Senate confirmation for Supreme Court Justices who would overturn Roe vs. Wade.

A firestorm arose from the religious right, noting that they had put Bush back in the White House and demanding Specter's removal from the seniority-based succession to the chairmanship of the all-important Judiciary Committee.

Let us see how Specter and other Republican moderates fare in the right wing and even more militant Republican regime.

If Republicans ever want to permanently realign Jewish votes, they will have to change themselves. They will have to rediscover their moderation, their common sense and their respect for the wise application of knowledge and science in addressing our national problems.

Don't expect that to occur anytime soon. Political failure is a better teacher than stunning success. Losing the Jews did not keep Republicans from executing their program of national political monopoly.

Right now, national Republicans do not feel they need anybody else but themselves at the table, but the day will surely come when they will need the rest of us.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton, is the author of "The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles" (Princeton University Press 2004).

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