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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Which Way Will the Jewish Vote Go?

Let's begin with the fact that there really is no such thing as a Jewish vote. The idea of a "Jewish Vote" is a relic of late 19th and early 20th century Democratic machine party politics in which wards and urban political machines took control of entire ethnic communities and drummed up the Irish Vote, the Italian Vote and the Jewish Vote.

While Democratic machine politics is alive and well, it has mostly moved on to the Black Vote or less reliably the Latino Vote, newer immigrants and economically depressed groups with a sense of victimization that can more reliably be controlled.

That's not to say that the reliable well oiled machine is not a factor in the Jewish vote. It certainly helps insure that millions of Jews and Non-Jews remain registered Democrats in cities such as New York where you're either a registered Democrat or you might as well stay home during the primaries, and often on election day too. But the idea of a Jewish vote is mostly a collective myth.

Jews do vote fairly predictably but the most predictable percentage of the Jewish vote breaks down into three categories, senior citizens who grew up with FDR or the memory of FDR and treat the Democratic party as a safety blanket against fascism and the depression, Jewish women for whom gender is highly important and are career oriented and thirdly an assimilated class of politically liberal yuppies with very little in the way of a Jewish identity.

McCain is making inroads with the seniors, for a number of reasons. They are more likely to have serious concerns about Obama's candidacy and genuinely worry America and Israel. Obama relates very poorly to seniors, his Class President style of campaigning plays great with college kids and fairly well with baby boomers, but leaves many senior citizens suspicious of his flippancy and cold to his charm. Lieberman's endorsement and speech have made a serious difference there, but more seriously they feel the country and the world is in a crisis which requires serious leadership, something they see in McCain, but fail to see in Obama. Palin is a mixed bag for this demographic and alienates as many as she attracts. These form some of Obama's most passionate and dogged critics, rejecting him often by instinct alone.

Jewish middle class women play a significant role in sliding the statistics for the Jewish vote to the Democratic party. Career oriented, many of them identify with Hillary Clinton's challenges and aspirations. Abortion plays less of a role here than social aspirations for women in general particularly for middle aged women. They see a crisis in America and a threat to Israel, and while they may not be hawkish per se, McCain has made inroads here by having more credibility to wield, by showing a willingness to take personal responsibility and handle difficult situations and to some degree because of Palin, though not necessarily her personally.

This group should not be underestimated though, they have already made a big difference in the blogsphere, and a shift here would be a seismic shift.

McCain will however not make a great deal of inroads with the latter category of younger liberal yuppies because they are liberal first, followed by a catalog card of identities, with Jewish and American appearing on the list somewhere in the back or not at all. Which is why asking why they don't vote following Jewish interests or Israel is pointless, because they really don't consider themselves particularly Jewish. And really they aren't.

There are tens of millions of Irish-Americans and people of Irish descent, but how many of them genuinely care about Ireland or could tell you what Ireland needs right now? How many of them base their vote in any serious way on Ireland? If you checked back a century and a half ago or even 75 years ago, you would have a much more sizable number than you do today. Run the same numbers for Italians or Norwegians and then map it over on Jews. Yes there many Jews who care about Israel, but not as many as you think. That's the cover charge for assimilation into the Great American Melting Pot.

While having a Jewish identity of some sort may be trendy, in the way that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day, that doesn't translate into a real identification or a commitment to anything. Surveys and studies often count people with a single Jewish parent or grandparent as Jewish, who are not Jewish in any meaningful way. And it is commitment that makes identity meaningful rather than just a genetic statistic.

So what does this all boil down to?

I would not necessarily invest too much in predictions of McCain pulling in Reagan sized numbers of the Jewish vote, though I wouldn't rule it out either.

The Obama campaign has been hurt by its own limitations and inexperience. Those in charge have been very clumsy about reaching out to Jews who aren't like them and the campaign has been light not only on substance, but on rhetoric too.

Jewish seniors will form a major part of the defection from the Democratic base and with the heightened concern for Israel, more Orthodox Jews who often do not bother voting may turn out for a national election and aside from some liberal Modern Orthodox Jews, the sentiment there is 100 percent McCain.

Many Jewish voters still fall into the undecided column and may not make their mind until the final week of the campaign. Many are waiting for the debates to hear both candidates before they make their decision. Obama's biggest problem with the Jewish vote is that more of it is in the shaky column than ever, and with a troubled party and a hostile former opponent whose base is in New York, he lacks the local cooperation he needs to even begin fixing the problem.

Still the Republicans are not likely to take New York, as wonderful as that would be. Florida though is another matter and Lieberman and the senior factor are going to seriously undermine what should have been safe territory for the Democrats. Meanwhile the Obama campaign insists on playing defense with Congressman Wexler, an unloved not so local politician with some serious ethical questions and slime you can practically slip on. Like most of their approach it's dangerously youth oriented and clueless.

McCain though has his own problems with the Jewish vote. While his credibility on Israel is better than Obama's, it's fuzzy at best. Obama is a mostly known negative but McCain is a wild card and even people like me who are pro-McCain and will vote for him, believe that he will continue the disastrous policies of the second term of the Bush Administration. Palin's role is a mixed bag, particularly when it comes to the issue of religion, but not all that significant one way or another to undecided Jewish voters.

Many Jews, like many Conservatives, are not comfortable with voting for the lesser evil which keeps them in the undecided category. McCain's personal biography is compelling but his policies are a mixed bag and don't really provide much to be enthusiastic about. As the safe bet, he will pull in a sizable amount of Jewish votes, but how many and what impact they will have won't be known for quite some time.

2 comments:

Keli Ata said...

I'm not thrilled with either candidate but I figure in the four years he'll be in office McCain won't do nearly as much to but the US in danger as Obama. Obama can do a lot of damage in four years.

I think you're right on the senior vote. My parents regarded FDR as almost a savior largely because of his Civil Conservation Camp program. What they needed most were jobs and the CCC camps provided that. Were it not for that, a lot of really struggling families would not have been able to keep their heads above water.

For the longest time my mother said that the Democrats were for the poor people but as she got into her 60s she started voting Republican.

Keli Ata said...

*typo--Civilian Conservation Corps.

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