Does the Jewish vote still matter and if so, how? Exit polls indicate that 70 percent of Jews voted for President Obama, compared to roughly 39 percent of white voters overall. However, with California and New York, which have large Jewish populations, guaranteed to go Democratic, the Jewish vote may have mattered only in Florida.
As usual, most attention on the Jewish community has been focused on whether Obama’s 70 percent Jewish support represents a serious decline from the either 78 percent or 74 percent (depending on the source) that he received from Jews in 2008. We spend so much effort on the beaten-to-death question of whether Jews will ever vote Republican that we miss something more important — the potential role Jewish voters can play in a society that is in profound demographic and political transformation.
The 2012 election may well turn out to be more historic than Barack Obama’s 2008 election. It revealed the flowering of the transformation of the American electorate, a trend that was obscured in 2008 by the hope and change that surrounded Obama’s first campaign, and that brought about a momentary appearance of consensus. The rough, tough re-election campaign of 2012 clarified the lines of conflict in the electorate.
This is especially true in California, but also nationwide, where the Democratic surge was powered by a new electorate that includes growing cadres of both younger and minority voters. Sleeping giants awoke. Latinos increased their share of the overall vote to 10 percent and broke in huge numbers for Obama, giving him between 70 and 75 percent support. Young voters comprised a larger share of the vote than they did in 2008. Single women, who represented 20 percent of the vote in 2008, comprised 23 percent in 2012 and cast 67 percent of their votes for Obama, according to a study by the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund. In California, these constituencies carried Proposition 30 to an historic upset victory and may have helped to give Democrats two-thirds dominance of the Legislature. Nationally, one swing state after another fell into the Democratic column.
At the same time, Mitt Romney increased — to 59 percent — the Republican share of the white vote over John McCain in 2008. A majority of whites were on one end, especially those who are older and those who live in the South, while communities of color, especially if younger, were on the other.
And then there are the Jews. The overall demographic transformation is so startling that there has been less attention on the Jewish vote this year than in 2008. Republicans have much bigger problems than not winning over Jews, starting with their staggering defeat among mobilized African-Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans as well as among single women.
Yet Jews voted for Obama in numbers comparable to Latinos, echoing conservative legendary plaint that “Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” (Well, also like single women and also like Asian Americans — 73 percent.) Only the gigantic support of African-Americans surpassed all of these groups.
It’s less important that Jews frustrated Republicans than that Jews, an older, largely white demographic, represent a refusal to be predictably polarized along lines of race, age and class. This block of voters adds a more realistic perspective to the simple assumption that there are two Americas, one ascendant and the other on the decline, one nonwhite and the other white.
The Jewish vote, whether or not it determines who wins states, offers an important reminder that whites are not a monolithic block of voters. After all, more whites voted for Obama than any single minority community. The 39 percent Obama support among whites, among the more than 70 percent of votes cast, represents roughly 27 percent of all votes. In his 2007 book, “Boomers and Immigrants: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America,” Dowell Myers argued that in order to maintain support for such programs as Social Security and Medicare, the aging boomers, who are disproportionately white, need to be in alliance with immigrants. Bridge building will be essential. Jewish voters never joined the parade of immigrant bashing, and opposed such anti-immigrant measures as California’s 1994 Proposition 187. Nor did Jews turn away, even in political hard times, from the social liberalism on abortion and gay rights that this year became politically popular for the first time.
One underappreciated role of the Jewish vote in American politics is in bridge building. Even in Los Angeles in the mid-1800s, when it was a rough-and-tumble frontier city filled with diverse groups, the small Jewish population was civically active and a positive contributor to local governance.
When American cities were torn apart by racial polarization in the 1960s, a small block of white voters, principally Jews, supported embattled black mayoral candidates in Gary, Ind., Cleveland, Newark, N.J., and Chicago. In Los Angeles, the relationship between African-Americans and Jews flowered into a full-fledged, coalition of equals, with Mayor Tom Bradley drawing from African-American and Jewish supporters. For many African-Americans and for many whites, the black-Jewish coalition became a path across which new friends and allies could be encountered and cooperation nurtured, and also a framework for working out intergroup conflict.
Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have been working for decades with those in minority communities who fight for equality and justice. As communities of color push further into the center of state and national power, the bridge role played by the Jewish community will continue to matter.
The Jewish political role will not disappear in local, state and national politics. There has indeed been a noticeable decline of Jews in office in Sacramento, but Jews continue to hold many national offices, especially in the House and Senate, as well as in the states. In Los Angeles, high voter turnout among Jews means that city candidates will continue to consider the Jewish voice in local elections. It will still be important to have candidates and elected officials who are sympathetic to the interests and values of the Jewish community.
There is no question that the Jewish vote still matters. But the future for Jewish involvement may extend even beyond electoral strength to reconnecting with the bridge role that a state and nation of isolated communities may value.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.