There’s an old joke that where there are two Jews, there will be three opinions. For many years, however, there seemed to be only one political affiliation for American Jews — they were a monolithic Democrat voting bloc. Now, the Democrats are scrambling to ensure the support that they have increasingly taken for granted. Last Friday, Nancy Pelosi accused Republicans of “exploiting” American Jews, and Democrats are organizing a super PAC to push back against Republican advances. Can Republicans win more Jewish votes? It’s all up to the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC).
Originally the National Jewish Coalition, the Republican Jewish Coalition was founded in 1985 to connect the leaders of the Republican and Jewish communities. Since then, the RJC has worked to expand the Jewish Republican vote. Jews in America have an outsized impact on elections because they turn out in higher numbers than other demographic groups: Over 90 percent of registered Jewish voters regularly vote in elections. Furthermore, there are sizable Jewish populations in the important swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. By virtue of their higher turnout, Jews are able to translate their position of only 4.5 percent of Florida’s population into 8 percent of the vote.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, with support from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, has launched a hard-hitting, $6.5 million ad campaign entitled “Buyer’s Remorse” to win Jewish votes away from Barack Obama. These ads feature testimonials from former Obama supporters for whom the president’s economic policies and his treatment of Israel have led them to regret their previous backing of him. One of their most recent ads features Renie Tell, an older woman who voted for Obama in 2008. She lists all of President Obama’s failings from the economy to the Middle East that have convinced her to vote Republican, but her closing statement demonstrates the difficult task before the RJC in winning further votes: “When the stakes are this high, you don’t have to feel guilty over voting Republican.”
Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director, remains optimistic that, over time, his organization can overcome this deep-seated Jewish antipathy to voting Republican. “Republicans have unmistakably and unimpeachably been gaining market share in the Jewish community while Democrats have been losing,” he maintains. The overall trend is favorable for Republicans: In four of the last five presidential elections, Republicans have increased their share of the Jewish vote. In 1992, the Republican share of the Jewish vote was 11 percent. By 2004, the total had more than doubled, as George W. Bush captured 24 percent of the Jewish vote. The Republican Jewish vote did slip to 22 percent in 2008, but this may well have been an aberration related to Barack Obama’s across-the-board trouncing of John McCain.
Matt Brooks and the RJC hope to keep chipping away. They understand that it is unlikely that they will ever win the votes of the single-issue Jewish voters for whom abortion or gay marriage is paramount; instead, they are targeting their efforts at those who are concerned about the economy and Israel. Furthermore, the Jewish vote is changing in ways that are favorable to Republicans. The most fervent Jewish Democrats are from the New Deal–era generation, and their descendents are more willing to vote Republican because they do not have the same historical attachment and identification with the Democratic party. Brooks also sees further advantages in the growth of the Orthodox Jewish population, which is now the fastest growing constituency in the Jewish community: “Over half of [them] are Republican voters, so you have interesting things taking place that really bode well for us making inroads into the Jewish vote.”
Multiple polls this year lend credence to the Republican Jewish Coalition’s belief that they are on the path to success. If their results are accurate and the currently undecided Jewish vote splits, Mitt Romney could secure over 30 percent of the Jewish vote. Such a performance would approach the highest levels of Jewish Republican support since Ronald Reagan won 39 percent of the vote in 1980. According to polling by the American Jewish Committee in the spring, the most likely Jewish Republican voters were those who cited either national security or U.S.-Israeli relations as one of the most important issues in deciding their vote. Thus, the RJC’s “Buyer’s Remorse” campaign, with its foreign-policy themes, is well-targeted to increase Republican votes.
But Democrats continue to believe that Jews will persist in voting for them at the same rate. Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz scoffed at polls in July that showed increased backing for Republicans: “There actually has not been an erosion of support.” But the Democrats’ willful ignorance will cost them. Brooks argues that the Democrats’ position is comparable to the technology market: “The Democrats still sit back and say, we still got 70 percent of the Jewish vote.” In his view, the Democrats are Microsoft, once the dominant power in the personal-computer marketplace, while the Republicans are Apple: “While Microsoft sat and twiddled its thumbs, Apple went and became the dominant player — and now the roles have been reversed.”
This election could be a watershed moment for the Republican Jewish Coalition. The same economic issues that are driving voters to Mitt Romney may also move Jewish votes to the GOP’s column. And Obama’s mistreatment of Israel should inspire Jews to give Republicans a chance. The president has insisted on putting “daylight” between America and Israel’s positions, and made the unprecedented demand that Israel return to its indefensible 1967 borders. The RJC is prepared to welcome Jewish Democrats into the fold.
— Nathaniel Botwinick is an Agostinelli Fellow at National Review Online.