washington | Republican hopes for a big Jewish surge in this year’s presidential contest were dashed on Tuesday, Nov. 2, when President George W. Bush, in his successful bid for a second term, claimed only about 24 percent of the Jewish vote nationally, according to exit polls published by major news outlets.
That was 5 points above his weak 2000 showing, and it came after an extensive and expensive campaign by Jewish Republican groups and a big pro-Bush turnout by the Orthodox community, which strongly approved of the president’s Mideast policies.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, however, viewed the 24 percent tally as a victory, and part of a “clear and irrefutable” trend of Jewish voters turning Republican since 1992. In the last four presidential elections, the organization noted, Jews have awarded the Republican candidate 11, 16, 19 and now 24 percent of their votes.
What’s more, according the RJC, 32 percent of Jews ages 18 to 29 cast their ballots for Bush, while the “traditional Democratic Jewish base, senior citizens, is shrinking in numbers.”
Democratic Jewish organizations, not surprisingly, wrote off the RJC’s claims as grandstanding.
“Last time, we had the first Jewish candidate on a national ticket and this time there’s no statistical movement?” asked Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
He noted that the 22 percent of the Jewish vote Bush received in some exit polls is within the margin of error of the 19 percent he garnered in 2000 — and, this time, there was no Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) to draw Jewish votes.
“It’s embarrassing. It’s like the boy who cried wolf.”
All arguments aside, Bush’s numbers among Jews were unimpressive in the battleground state of Florida, which was the top target of the GOP Jewish outreach effort. According to exit polls, Bush garnered only 20 percent of the Jewish vote there with the rest going to Democratic candidate John Kerry.
Publicly, many Jewish Republicans were claiming only a modest victory.
“Twenty-four percent is a respectable showing in an environment in which values became so central to the success of the campaign,” said Marshall Breger, a longtime Jewish Republican leader and liaison to the Jewish community during the Reagan administration.
But in private, some expressed bitter disappointment, especially given the huge investment of time and resources aimed at wooing Jewish voters.
“Anything less than 25 percent is a disaster, given how hard the [Bush-Cheney] campaign tried,” said one Jewish Republican as the votes were being counted. “It may be that we all overestimated the influence of the Israel issue, and overestimated the influence of the Orthodox.”
At press time, there was no specific data about the Orthodox vote, but most observers felt it was probably in the range of 70-80 percent Republican. A telephone poll by Frank Luntz in Florida and Ohio found 69 percent of Orthodox Jews there voted in Bush’s favor.
That, of course, means that the non-Orthodox Jewish vote was even less favorable to the GOP than the overall exit poll numbers suggest.
Another community trending strongly to Bush was the Russian Jewish community.
An AJCommittee Election Day survey among Russian Jews in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey showed a 75-25 split for Bush. Respondents tended to explain their vote by citing Bush’s strong leadership qualities.
Why did a president who got such high marks from Jewish leaders on Israel-related issues lag behind in the Jewish vote?
One answer is that in an important sense, he didn’t really do that badly in courting Jews.
“To the extent that the Republican Party has courted Jews, it’s not Jewish voters, it’s Jewish contributors,” said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg. “When the numbers are added up, we will probably find that Jewish money was especially important to the Republicans this year.”
Still, Jewish Republicans expected significantly more than 24 percent — a number that confirmed the accuracy of recent polls by the National Jewish Democratic Council and the AJCommittee.
A number of Jewish supporters of the president said the low Jewish tally smacked of “ingratitude.”
“It is not adequate in my point of view,” former New York Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat supporting Bush, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“I’m glad it was an improvement [over the 2000 totals]. But I think he deserved much more.”
Conservative Jewish scholar Dennis Prager wrote in his weekly column “I believe more Jews than expected will vote for President Bush. There is no trait as ugly as ingratitude.”
Many Republicans believed the president would significantly broaden his Jewish base because of his extraordinary support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — seen by Bush as a comrade in arms in the fight against terrorism.
But recent polls pointed to a major flaw in that strategy: While American Jews care deeply about Israel, the issue does not rank at the top of the political agenda for a majority.
That is particularly true among the non-Orthodox.
“What these numbers mean is that Kerry was successful in getting the message out to Jewish voters that he is a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who campaigned actively for the Massachusetts senator. “It’s been his position for a long time; it’s in his heart, and he believes it.”
The GOP may have wanted to win Jewish hearts and minds, but they wanted to secure their political base even more. There were concerns in the campaign that evangelical voters might not turn out on Election Day, a potentially fatal blow to the Bush reelection effort.
The result was a strategy engineered by White House political guru Karl Rove that played heavily to the Christian right — a group most Jews continue to regard with deep concern.
“The Bush-Cheney campaign obviously got huge support from the religious right, and used ballot referenda in a number of states to bolster that support,” said political scientist Ginsberg.
In the end, many Jews were more worried about Bush’s Christian right connections than they were appreciative of his pro-Israel positions.
“I’ve found more and more people in the Jewish community who are nervous about George Bush’s interpretation of a Christian state,” Cardin said. “It makes them feel uncomfortable, and it was a factor in the election results.”
And the Republicans may have made another miscalculation; they assumed that support for Sharon was the same as support for Israel. In fact, many passionately pro-Israel Jews are not particularly supportive of Sharon’s policies.
JTA contributed to this report.
THE JEWISH VOTE