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Adlai Stevenson, JFK, Obama and the Jewish vote

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

October 28, 2008 | 2:43 pm

Adlai Stevenson

One of my earliest political memories is the 1960 presidential campaign. 

We were an Adlai Stevenson family and as a little boy I rooted for the former Illinois governor and presidential candidate to come from behind to win the Democratic presidential nomination. 

Stevenson, however, could not overcome a young, dynamic Senator from Massachusetts named Jack Kennedy.  And although Stevenson did not win,  he left the stage with great dignity and even humor.  It was Kennedy’s time and he made the most of it.  And as president, Kennedy gave Stevenson the chance for his greatest public moment—his confrontation as U.N. Ambassador with the Soviet envoy over the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I don’t think that anyone will confuse John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign with that of Adlai Stevenson’s final effort. 

In the campaign’s final days, McCain and his party have basically fired off all the rockets at the end of the Fourth of July celebration, a collection of vile smears without rhyme or reason except rage at losing to a young, dynamic (not to mention black) candidate. 

Much of the dirty work is being farmed out to state Republican parties, but McCain and his odd partner Sarah Palin show no signs of letting up with the attacks.  They both placed calls to the young woman who falsely claimed that she had been attacked by a black Obama supporter and her story was spread by the party in Pennsylvania.  Also in Pennsylvania, Jewish voters have been warned by the state Republican party not to make the “same mistake” Jews made in the 30s by not seeing the coming Nazi wave.  I have no words . . .

And it looks like more and more Jews are moving toward Obama.  For months, it appaeared Jewish voters were going to give McCain the highest share of the Jewish vote of any modern Republican.  The latest Gallup poll now gives Obama 75 percent of the Jewish vote, comparable to the share received by John Kerry in 2004.  This shift must help explain how Obama has gone from well behind to slightly ahead in Florida.

Polls are notoriously shifty, and we have to see many more to know how the Jewish vote will shake out.  The exit polls will provide a wealth of data.  If such a shift is happening, it will likely have the same explanations as the overall shift to Obama: the economy, the debates, and Sarah Palin.  But I think there will also be some elements that are more specific to the Jewish community and its political style.

Another story.  When my mother was alive, we often talked by phone across the country.  She would have already read the New York Times, listened to All Things Considered, and was waiting for what was then the McNeil-Lehrer Report to come on.  (In her spare time she did the Times crossword puzzle.)  Her level of political information was staggering. 

I can only imagine what she would have thought when Sarah Palin could not name a single source of information about public issues.  Or how she would have reacted to the comparison in the debates between a thoughtful, calm, intelligent candidate and an angry often incoherent opponent.  These things matter to a community that values public debate and political knowledge.

At a certain point, the scurrilous emails must have lost some of their sting.  There has been a lot of communication within the Jewish community to counter these emails.  The nastiness of the McCain-Palin campaign must have made it believable that their team would lie and smear Obama.  So maybe it did not happen all at once, but as a process something seems to have happened.

There is still a week to go, and who knows which smears will hit home?  But it is more than interesting to see how these charges have lost some of their sting as voters look more closely at the ideologies, the capabilities, and the temperaments of the candidates.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Paris VIII.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Raphael J. Sonenshein (born 1949 in Nutley, New Jersey) was a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton. He is also served as chairman of the...

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