Every election season brings another round of predictable essays about the Jewish vote. Variations of these essays have been going round and round for decades without getting anywhere. So let's begin by demystifying the Jewish vote.
Let's begin by breaking down the Jewish vote into thirds as a way to get a larger overview of the picture on the ground.
The first third is conservative. They may be socially conservative, economically conservative or both. This covers everything from Hasidic Jews who are worried about moral decay to gay millionaires who are fans of Ayn Rand. It covers the Russian Jewish immigrant who is active in the Tea Party and the former liberal living in the suburbs who slowly finds herself drifting to the right.
This group will vote Republican if there are available and viable candidates. But it has its own fault lines, such as social conservatives who don't commit to banning abortion and gay marriage, and economic conservatives who get turned off by exactly that. This is not just a snapshot of Jewish conservatives, it's also a snapshot of what conservatism looks like in many northeastern states. It's why New York State has a separate family values party and why Republicans donor helped push through gay marriage in the state.
The second third is liberal. This group ranges from hard core leftists to more mainstream liberals. It will rarely if ever vote for Republicans, unless they are of the Bloomberg type, and even then it will usually vote for the party's choice. It is strongly socially liberal and for big government. It is somewhat liberal on foreign policy issues. Its positions on Israel vary from hard core antis to pro-peace and pro-security.
This is the progressive camp. Its influence significantly outweighs its numbers, because it includes a greater share of academics, media figures, writers, organization executives and other opinion leaders. When someone claiming to represent the Jewish community speaks out on an issue, it's usually one of them. And rising to the top without being in this camp is difficult.
The final third is moderate or middle of the road. This group is squishy, it typically does not hold very strong political opinions. It usually follows the majority or whatever the conventional position seems to be. It believes that government should help people, but is less enthusiastic about many. social issues. It is fairly strong pro-Israel, but believes that the Democrats and Republicans are both equally pro-Israel. But members of this group do sometimes begin to worry about radicals like Carter or Obama.
This is a group that likes to think of itself as moderate and reasonable. It prides itself on giving everyone a chance. It grouses about high taxes, but rarely assigns blame on a party line. It is more likely to vote Democratic, because that is the mainstream view it gets from newspapers and the public figures who are presented as serious thinkers. It is wary of anything associated with "extremism" and it can be easily frightened of a candidate who is presented as "extreme" or "nutty".
When serious doubts are raised, then members of this group become the swing vote. The entire group never shifts, but percentages of it do.
This is just a rough snapshot. These numbers derive from a Jewish community in flux. Underneath this there are deeper demographic issues.
For example the Jewish vote becomes more conservative out West, and more liberal back East. This isn't surprising, as it mirrors national patterns. It also suggests that liberal conformity begins to break down the farther you get from the Northeastern centers.
Then there's immigration. The Jewish immigrants of the 1990's and onward tend to be Russian or Middle-Eastern and conservative. Unlike the Russian and Eastern European immigrants of the 1890's-1930's who were fleeing right wing tyrannies, the 1990's Russian and Eastern European immigrants were escaping totalitarian left-wing regimes. And that has given them a worldview closer to the Cubans. The Middle-Eastern immigrants also tend to be socially conservative, with a bias toward free enterprise.
Russian immigrants garnered some attention when they came out strongly for Bush in 2004 and showed up at Tea Parties since. Syrian Jews have been quietly voting Republican for decades without anyone really noticing. As is typical for the close knit community. Iranian Jews are less visibly politically active, but drift conservative.
These communities are also typically isolated and misunderstood. Liberal Jewish institutions have never been able to come to terms with their conservatism, and run critical stories about them, while cultivating "young leaders" for them, that they have selected themselves. The challenge for those communities is to maintain their integrity against attempts by the left to take them over. The Syrian Jewish community has thus far resisted all such efforts, but some inroads have been made in the Russian and Iranian Jewish communities. The situation is not unique, with the left following a similar program to break down the Cuban (Non-Jewish) community.
The biggest demographic factor however is religious. Following a general pattern in American religious life, the more conservative religious movements are marrying earlier and having more children. Among Jews that means a rising demographic trend for the orthodox, who are claiming a larger percentage of the 18-29 population. The trend is not as definitive as in the UK, where three out of every four Jewish births are orthodox, but it will still define the future.
How significant is this? In a 2011 survey, 67 percent of Orthodox Jews found the Tea Party "refreshing" . Some exit polls placed the Jewish vote for Obama at 78 percent. But Orthodox polling showed that the 78 percent went the other way, with McCain polling at 78 to Obama's 13.
What are the results on the ground? Take a look at Florida's Precinct 4145. Gore took 68 percent of that district. Kerry took 42 percent. Obama didn't even manage 40. In Lakewood, NJ, Gore took 51 percent. Kerry took 33 percent. Obama took 31. What is significant about those numbers is that they are not a hasty reaction to Obama's candidacy, but part of an ongoing trend. The long term results of that trend will be significant. The short term results however will not arrive that quickly.
The Jewish vote will not change overnight, but its trajectory is slowly shifting. The American Jewish population in a generation will be more conservative, less urban and less tied to the dinosaur leftist organizations that have exerted a death grip on Jewish life. It will be a day when The Forward is gone, the ADL is history and the Federations have lost their Jewish identity and have merged with other charities into a non-denominational grouping.
The divide will be sharper. Much of the moderate third will no longer exist. It will have been added to one side or another. The Jewish vote will look more like the way it did before the full impact of Eastern European immigration altered the scales. Roughly divided between both parties. And the political clock will have been turned back to the early 20th century.