First, some raw facts. In the 2006 midterm elections, 87 percent of Jews voted for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives. Last week, in the 2014 midterm elections, 66 percent cast ballots for Democrats. That's a 21-point drop in eight years—and, it might seem, a major cause for celebration among the likes of the Republican Jewish Coalition and philo-Semitic political strategists everywhere.
But while Jewish support for Democrats has definitely declined over the last decade, the context is important. Poll numbers show how people are voting, but it's more difficult to figure out what they mean for the role of Jews in American politics.
And for such a small group, that's a big question.
Here are some of the other constituencies that make up 2 percent of the American electorate: customer-service representatives. People who participate in archery and bowhunting. AOL users. Residents of Indiana. So why all the attention?
"The importance of the Jews isn't their votes," said Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. "They account for a huge share of the activist base of the Democratic Party and account for much of the money available to Democratic candidates. If you are a Republican strategist, it seems fairly obviously that if you can shift Jewish support even a little bit away from the Democrats, it makes the Democratic Party less competitive."
Historically, Republicans have had mixed success with this strategy. Jewish support for Democratic presidential candidates peaked during World War II; 90 percent of Jews voted for Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944, who won 55 and 53 percent of the overall popular vote in each of those years, respectively. Barry Goldwater, by contrast, was wildly unpopular among the Chosen People, winning only 10 percent of the Jewish vote in the 1964 presidential election. Almost three decades later, George H.W. Bush won only 11 percent of the Jewish vote in the 1992 presidential race. At times, Republicans have also had a bad habit of saying and doing things that seem anti-Semitic—like Bush Senior's secretary of state, James Baker, who infamously said "fuck the Jews" in a private conversation about Israel with a co-worker, or Richard Nixon, who had one of his staff members count the number of Jews who worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
On the other hand, Jimmy Carter only won 45 percent of Jews' votes in his doomed run against Ronald Reagan in 1980; Walter Mondale won 67 percent of the Jewish vote in 1984. The point is that "the Jewish vote has ebbed and flowed over the years," said Herbert Weisberg, a professor emeritus at Ohio State and the author of a forthcoming book on historical Jewish voting patterns.
"Particularly during the Clinton years, [support for Democrats] really increased, reaching nearly 80 percent," he said. "But when you look back at the '70s and '80s, Republicans were getting about 30 percent of the Jewish vote. It looks like it’s going back to where it was [then]."
Midterm elections are also distinct from presidential races, particularly in terms of the issues people care about.** When the president is unpopular, it seems to work in the favor of the opposing party. This happened in both 2006 and 2014: At a time when George W. Bush was very unpopular, Democrats did well among Jews and American voters in general; and last week, Obama's unpopularity had the same salubrious effect on Republicans. It's also worth noting that overall voter turnout plummets during midterm elections, and in general, midterm voters tend to be older and more male, and this may have affected the poll results among Jews. (The 2010 data collected from exit polls about how people voted didn't have a big enough sample size of Jews to make meaningful comparisons with how they voted that year.)
For Jews in particular, it's usually assumed that Israel is a decisive factor in influencing voters' decisions. But Weisberg said that's unlikely in midterm elections; if anything, Israel would be more influential in presidential elections.
Even then, said Ester Fuchs, a professor of political science at Columbia University, most Jews probably don't vote based on what's going on with the relationship between Israel and the U.S. Despite vast support for the Jewish state among Republicans, GOP politicians still haven't won over even close to a majority of Jewish voters. "Efforts to shift the Jewish vote over to Israel haven’t really worked," she said. "The more assimilated Jews are, the less important Israel is to them."
Evaluating the extent of Jewish assimilation is a tricky—and divisive—endeavor. But here's a snapshot: In a Pew report released last fall, only 26 percent of American Jews said that religion is "very important" to them, compared to 56 of the general public. Similarly, roughly 25 percent said they attend services once or twice a month, whereas 50 percent of Americans overall said the same. Jewish intermarriage is on the rise, and two-thirds of ethnic Jews who don't identify as religious aren't raising their children within the faith. This isn't to say that American Jewry is headed toward non-observance or extinction; among the Orthodox, for example, the number of observant Jews is actually growing.
But these statistics do provide some context for what's happening among Jewish voters. In 2006, 87 percent of Jews voted for Democratic candidates for the House, as did 50 percent of white Catholics and 37 percent of white Protestants—a 37- and 50-percentage point difference, respectively. In 2014, those gaps narrowed: There was only a 12-point difference between Jews and white Catholics, and a 40-point difference between Jews and white Protestants. Those are still big differences, obviously, but the conclusion is there: Jews are voting more like white people.
"The Republican Party is basically increasing their share of the white electorate," Fuchs said. "You see that mirrored in the Jewish vote, except that the Jewish vote starts at a different baseline."
It's unclear what all this means for the future of Jewish political activism, or whether Jewish donors like Sheldon Adelson are going to proliferate and start bankrolling more Republican campaigns. It also doesn't mean Jews are buying out the stores of Republican bumper stickers—Democrats still won two-thirds of Jewish votes in this election, even if Jews' support has trended more to the right in recent years. And as a side note, with Eric Cantor gone from the House, there will only be one Jewish Republican left in Congress: New York Representative Lee Zeldin.*
But it may be that, as a people as much as a voting bloc, Jews are becoming less influenced by their Jewishness.
* This post previously stated that with Eric Cantor's departure, there are no Jewish Republicans in Congress. We regret the error.
** This post previously quoted Ester Fuchs of Columbia University as saying, "Jews vote like everyone else." The full quote was in fact, "Jews vote like everyone else insofar as their first concern is the economy." We've removed the partial quotation and regret the error.