The Conversation Of The Jews (Waxing Roth About The Jewish Vote; Part One)

Barack Obama: I always joke that my intellectual formation was through Jewish scholars and writers, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Whether it was theologians or Philip Roth who helped shape my sensibility, or some of the more popular writers like Leon Uris.

The last time I used that quote, it was in a piece inspired by amongst other things, then candidate Obama’s departure from the church where one Jeremiah Wright served as pastor. I named the piece after the title of Roth’s then current novel:

Exit Ghost.”  

By contrast, this piece, about the likely decline in Barack Obama’s Jewish vote, and the long range trend of Jewish voters towards a lower level of support for the Democratic Party, is  named after an early Roth short story collected in the volume named “Goodbye Columbus,” (itself the capital of a swing state where the Jewish vote may yet prove decisive, both for the Presidency and for control of the US Senate).

As Roth might say, Now Vee May Perhaps to Begin.”  

"Why American Jews Will Support Barack Obama" was the Panglossian title of the forum the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) held in Charlotte as part of the carnival of events swirling around the Party’s National Convention.

I’d meant to post something about the forum weeks ago, but was overtaken by events at home.

Another thing we can blame on Vito Lopez.

The forum’s moderator was the NJDC’s David Harris, who, I was disappointed to learn, had never been married to Joan Baez.

The panelists were pollster Anna Greenberg, former Texas Congressman Martin Frost and US Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland.

Greenberg was first out of the box, noting that Obama’s numbers among Jews were strikingly similar to the numbers he’d posted at the equivalent point four years before.

What Greenberg failed to note was those 2008 numbers, in the range of 57%, potentially meant the loss of states like Florida, and that between the time of those numbers and the election (where polls indicated that Obama took 78% of the Jewish vote) two things happened:

Sarah Palin and an economic meltdown.

The forum was held Labor Day week, and whatever else one can say about Paul Ryan, he never saw Russia from his window or thought the Bush doctrine involved waxing. It was clear by then that there would be little or no Palin factor.

More to the point, an economic meltdown, if it happened this time, was unlikely to help the Democrats.

The closest Greenberg got to acknowledging any change in Obama’s standing amongst Jewish voters was to concede that any erosion in Obama’s support amongst Jews merely reflected his weakened standing in all demographic groups.

This is true as far as it goes, and echoes one of my longtime points: that assimilation with the larger society leads Jews to behave more like other Americans:

As long as Jews labor under the delusion that they are “white people”, they are going to act like them, or at least those “white people” with whom they have the greatest cultural commonality, which, for most Jews, would seem to be non-“born again”, non-evangelical, mainstream white Protestants. Teddy Roosevelt once called Episcopalians "The Republican Party assembled for Prayer"; but these days things have changed; according to exit polls, non-“born again”, non-evangelical white Protestants cast the majority of their votes for Democrats, but by margins far smaller than those amongst Jewish voters. However, as time goes on, it is likely that the number of Jews who embrace what we think of as "Jewish Cultural Values" is going to decrease with each passing year…when one is no longer an outsider, and one’s values are replicated in society at large, then one is more likely to vote their interests.”

I think such assimilation accounted for the ability of the GOP to make great inroads among elderly Jewish voters using on the “Obama is cutting Medicaid” argument, helping Congressman Ron Klein to lose his seat to Allen West.

But Greenberg was deploying this point not to illustrate a long-term problem, but to deny a present one.

Well, at least she didn’t says, as Adam Serwer did in Mother Jones,  that “If Obama's approval were the same among white voters generally as it is with Jewish voters, he'd be running away with the 2012 election."

Which though true enough, would beg the concomitant point that if Obama's approval dropped in the same proportion among white voters generically as it has among Jewish voters, the GOP would be running away with the 2012 election.

Harris and Greenberg spouted pre-chewed talking points from inside a bubble; Cardin was also obviously trying to stay within the approved narrative, but sometimes let it slipped out that he knew better.  

Recalling a Florida campaign event geared to firing up the Jewish vote, Cardin said “I must tell you they asked very tough questions — very tough questions,”

Frost let a bit more truth slip out, noting a large-scale loss of Jewish support might not be necessary for Romney to claim victory in swing states:

“It’s not a question of Obama getting 50 percent of the Jewish vote, It’s a question of Obama getting 70 percent of the Jewish vote, or something like that.”

And that is why all this matters.

As Palm Beach County Republican Chair Sid Dinnerstein observed in 2010:

As you take slivers of the core Democratic strength, those matter…We need one-third of the Jewish vote and 20% of the black vote, and the Democrats don’t win anything”

As I noted in 2008:

According to Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky in their study, “Jewish Population of the United States, 2006,” Jews account for 2.2% of the overall US population. In only two states and the District of Columbia do they account for over 5%. They manage to break the 2% mark in eight more states, and in eight others   manage to crack 1%. Were it not for America’s convoluted way of electing our President, Jews would not matter as a national voting bloc (as opposed to as a source for raising money). But, Presidential Electors are elected by states, and Presidential campaigns generally allocate funds only to where there’s a real contest. According to today’s map in “Real Clear Politics,” the number of states classified as either “too close to call” or “leaning” to either party is 13. And, for all intents and purposes, nothing else matters.

Two of the states “too close to call” are Nevada (where Jews are 2.9% of the population) and Florida (3.7%). Since Jews are known to vote in high number, it is possible that their actual portion of the votes cast in those states could be double those numbers. In five other battleground states (Colorado, Georgia, Missouri, Virginia and Ohio), Jews account for over one percent of the population, and could also play a crucial role.

The map is not too dissimilar today.

Frost added the point that the same considerations factor into many close races for the House and US Senate.

But even Frost ignored the Elephant not in the Room.

Before the Q&A period began, the panel had gone the entirety of their discussion without once mentioning either Orthodox Jews or the Russian Jewish community.

In other words, the discussion concluded that Jews will support Barack Obama by ignoring those Jews who won’t.

The September 2008 poll which had Obama beating John McCain among Jewish voters by 57% to 30% had him losing 78% to 13% among the Orthodox.

By Election Day, the numbers had improved somewhat (crashing economies will do that), but Obama lost what is now Brooklyn’s “Super-Jewish” State Senate District by a margin of about two to one.

This year, things will only get worse, as signaled by the fact that some prominent 2008 Obama backers like Simcha Felder had shifted to the other side.

While GOP conservatism on social issues may be the most important reason why the majority of Jewish voters support Obama, among the Orthodox such GOP positions are rarely a liability and often an asset.

Where four years ago, hawkish hardline members of the Zionist right were suspicious of what Obama might do in the White House, now they know, and while their worst fears have been disproven as paranoiac fantasies, the truth will suffice.

Further, the economic self-interest argument, which is the most compelling point to be made to poor Orthodox Jews, goes only so far when one is still living in a recession.

Naturally, there was a bull in the China-shop at the NJDC forum, and naturally it was me, raising uncomfortable points not only about the Orthodox and the Russians, but also about Israel.

Greenberg muttered some excuses about the difficulties of polling Jewish subgroups, all of which were surely true, but none of which excused her prior whitewash of black-hats and other inconvenient facts.

Cardin acknowledged the problems, but surprised with his seeming conclusion that more Orthodox could be won, but Russians were probably a lost cause (I personally think both are lost causes in this election, at least in the Presidential race, but that, barring an epidemic of blinding epiphanies about economic self-interest amongst poor Frummies, the Russian community actually shows more long-term opportunity for the Democrats, especially among younger voters).     

Frost was the most frank in acknowledging the problem, and even more so during the chit-chat afterwards.

An especially interesting point made by Frost was how Jewish life in the South was once dominated by the Reform movement and how the rise of Chabad had now significantly altered not merely dominational affiliation, but also the community’s conversations

The rise of Chabad nationwide is one of several reasons I’ve given for the growing importance of the Orthodox in the overall Jewish vote.

As concerns the Southern element of this rise, please note that Florida, Virginia and North Carolina are all swing states this year.  

But for all the protestations reiterating the pre-approved message that Israel was not impacting the Jewish vote in a negative way for Obama, an interruption proved that the panel and the audience  really believed otherwise.

NJDC’s Chair interrupted the discussion to announce that mention of Jerusalem had just been restored to the Democratic Party platform.

Some panicked questioning ensued, followed by a collective sigh of relief.

I will present a more detailed discussion of the impact of the Israel question on the Jewish Vote in a follow-up piece.

Suffice it to say that the fact that a majority of the Jewish community supports a two-state solution leads some to misunderstand why the Israel question loses votes for the Democrats, and not merely among the Orthodox and hardline right wing Zionists.   

To conclude here, I will note that the real question of long term trends in the Jewish vote is heading may have been postponed by intervening events.

In 2008, it was not merely the economy that melted down, but McCain himself. In a matter of days, he proved himself unfit for the job.

By his conduct, McCain lost a great asset—the belief among many that he was a mature leader ready to take charge.

This was an especially important asset among many centrist Jewish voters already thrown for a loop by the Palin nomination. Prior to Palin, many of these voters had believed McCain was suppressing his true moderate instincts.

The Palin nomination put that into doubt (as well as raising further questions about his leadership qualities, and putting McCain’s maturity, such that it was, into a negative light).

This year, even more unexpectedly, Romney has suffered a Benghazi meltdown, casting doubt upon the belief held by many Jewish moderates that he is a mature leader ready to take charge.

Further, the Boca Raton tape has jolted many Jewish moderates from their belief that Romney has been suppressing his true moderate instincts.

So, we may yet see Obama get ¾ of the Jewish vote.

I tend to doubt that, but given the impact upon the rest of the electorate, I’m no longer sure the exact percent will any longer matter.

However, as in 2008, the news outside the control of the campaigns is crucial.

And what may make it especially crucial in regard to the Jewish vote (and perhaps among the entire electorate) is whether such news comes from the Middle East.