Republicans came out swinging, accusing a number of well-known Democrats of hostility and insensitivity to the needs of Israel.
The Democrats responded, first defensively, by countering that most Democratic officials are pro-Israel and accusing the Republicans of harming Israel by weakening bipartisan support. Later, the Democrats attacked the Republicans for their support of those right-wing positions that most Jews find objectionable.
Beyond the ads lies the political reality. The Bush administration has been very supportive of Israel, defending its right to wage war in Lebanon and attacking one of Israel's most violent enemies, Saddam Hussein. It also lowered taxes, providing an economic boost to the relatively high-socioeconomic-status Jewish community.
On the other hand, the Iraq post-war policy continued to be a costly failure, the administration effort to help the victims of Katrina was largely incompetent and ineffective and the Republicans were disgraced by a series of scandals, several involving a noticeably and actively Jewish lobbyist, Jack Abramoff.
Then came Election Day. So, who won the battle? It depends on what poll results one examines. This year, there is an unusual disparity between the National Election Pool (AP, plus six major television networks), executed by Edison-Mitofsky, and a larger (though highly questionable) sample done for the Republican Jewish Committee by Arthur Finkelstein, a noted Republican campaign adviser.
The television polls put the Jewish Democratic congressional vote at an unusually high 87 percent, whereas the Republican poll had it at 74 percent. A third exit survey, the Los Angeles Times Poll, conducted only in California, showed that for lieutenant governor and attorney general, two races that tend to reflect a purely party vote -- because less information is available about the candidates -- the Jewish totals were 74 percent and 75 percent. And Jews in California tend to be like Jews across the country, though a little more liberal on noneconomic questions, and thus less Republican.
After some convoluted and thoughtful (I hope) manipulation, I came up with a figure of the Jewish two-party congressional vote -- including absentee ballots that have always been more Republican -- of about 78-81 percent Democratic and 19-22 percent Republican. So what does this 80 percent tell us?
First, the Jewish vote is not static. Without fail, it moves in the same direction as the larger vote. When the larger American electorate votes more Republican, Jews vote more Republican. Between 1952 and 2004, the difference between the Jewish vote and the non-Jewish vote almost always fluctuates between 15 and 26 percentage points -- the Jews always more Democratic. Accepting my estimate, this year the difference is 26-27 percentage points at the upper limit of the historical margin.
Second, this election is not unique in the charge that leading Democrats are less supportive and sensitive to Israel than are Republicans. In 1972, the same charge was laid against the South Dakota populist George McGovern and was repeated in 1980 against Jimmy Carter.
And just as the larger American vote became decidedly more Republican both years, so, too, did the Jewish vote but again within the range of the differences between Jews and non-Jews. (The year 1980 is a little more complicated, because of a substantial Jewish vote for a third-party candidate, John Anderson.)
Third, who won the ad wars? The most direct measure comes from the work of Finkelstein, who found that in heavily Jewish areas, 35 percent of those who read the ads voted Republican, as opposed to presumably 22 percent who did not read the ads. (This is based on my recalculation.)
It should be noted, however, that in heavily Jewish areas, those who read political ads in Jewish newspapers are probably more likely to be strong Israel supporters and more religious than those not reading the ads. For the less strongly Israel-oriented, those ads will have a much more limited appeal. What can we learn from the vote in 2006? Israel is important to Jews, but we know that it is most important to the Orthodox and more important for older, rather than younger, Jews.
The Orthodox already tend to lean Republican, and they are still a relatively small proportion of American Jewry, so there are not many bodies available to switch. Older people have a longer and stronger tie to the Democrats, so it is harder to pry them loose.
Most American Jews tend to be liberal or moderate, so their natural instincts tend to be Democratic. In addition to the failed post-war policy in Iraq and the incompetence of post-Katrina efforts, Bush and friends fundamentally disagree with American Jewry on a wide range of issues, particularly in the realm of civil liberties: a woman's right to choose, limited police invasion of privacy, separation of church and state, rights of gays, sensitivity to the needs of immigrants (where Bush is more centrist than many of the congressional Republicans) and especially support for science -- in particular stem-cell research, where, according to a report in The Jewish Journal, even many Orthodox oppose Bush's position.
Republicans charge that Jews are politically na?ve and vote against their own interests, especially when it comes to low taxes and support for Israel. As Jews grow wealthier, their opposition to low taxes starts to melt, but it is not as important an issue as for their non-Jewish neighbors. And, second, there is, indeed, strong support for Israel by almost all leading Democratic officeholders, and a few of the most anti-Israel votes are cast by Republicans.
The Republican political ads in leading Anglo-Jewish newspapers like The Jewish Journal have evoked a strong response on the part of politically interested Jews, especially those actively involved in Democratic organizations. But for most Jews, this is just a sideshow.
Jews, like all voters, pick the party that they think better represents their political positions, and for Jews that is still the Democrats. One is hard put to resist the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Alan M. Fisher is a political science professor at California State University Dominguez Hills and a member of the Movable Minyan.