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Rise of the Jewish swing vote is good for the community
September 27th, 2002
Washington Last weeks Gallup poll on Jewish political affiliations had some good news for both Democrats and Republicans, but most of all, it had good news for the Jewish community.
Jewish Democrats reacted gleefully to one finding that some 50 percent of Jews identify themselves as Democrats, only 17 percent as Republicans. Thats a stinging refutation of perennial claims by the Republicans that Jews are on the verge of a great political migration.
In fact, years worth of Jewish-GOP outreach has convinced only a few Jews to don the GOP label.
Jewish Republicans are trying to focus attention on a different statistic; while they concede Jewish GOP identification is still scanty, the 33 percent who say they are independents represent a lode of opportunity for their party.
Besides, they insist, the Gallup survey is misleading because it just talks about political parties, not voting behavior.
But beneath the spin is this inescapable fact: While Jews are not flocking to the Republican ranks, Jewish votes are increasingly in play in the great partisan wars.
That is good news for a Jewish community that represents a declining proportion of the American electorate and therefore has to use its political resources wisely, starting with its votes.
Earlier this year, major newspapers were filled with stories about an impending Jewish political revolution.
President George W. Bush was getting high marks for his strong support for the hardline Israeli government and his own war against terrorism; as Jewish Republicans were quick to point out, the only criticism of Israel on Capitol Hill was coming from a handful of left-wing congressional Democrats.
This, reporters wrote in journalistic lockstep, was the start of a Jewish stampede to the GOP.
In fact, most Republican leaders never bought into this dramatic scenario.
Bush would do better than recent Republican presidential candidates if the 2004 election was held today, these pragmatists believe, but that is unlikely to translate into wholesale support for other GOP candidates.
Instead, the real Jewish-GOP strategy has been to chip away at the Democratic supremacy in attracting Jewish campaign dollars, and to focus on a few selected races where GOP candidates have proven appeal to Jewish voters.
That strategy makes sense in view of the other big conclusion of the Gallup survey: Fully one-third of Jewish voters call themselves independents.
Thats not new, the survey suggests, but political scientists say more of those independents are now willing to at least consider voting for Republicans who say the right things about the issues Jews care about, and who are not closely identified with the religious right.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani used that shift to great political advantage; it may also boost the reelection effort by New York Gov. George Pataki this year. In Maryland, Rep. Robert Ehrlich (R-Md.) hopes a modest shift by Jewish independents will help boost him to the governors mansion.
And while that change may be foreboding news for the Democrats, its ultimately good news for the Jews for several reasons.
First, it means there will be added incentives for GOP officeholders and candidates to actively listen to Jewish concerns.
The rise of a Jewish swing vote will reinforce strong support for Israel on the foreign policy front, and it may eventually serve as modest counterweight to the growing influence of the religious right on the partys domestic positions by far the biggest reason Jews remain wary of Republicans.
Second, it makes it harder for the Democrats to take the Jewish community for granted.
Over the years, the presumed Democratic lock on Jewish votes meant that party strategists could focus more on winning other constituencies that were less reliably Democratic, such as the Hispanic community, or communities in which turnout can be a problem, such as the African-American community.
The strong Jewish independent bloc, and its growing willingness to consider GOP candidates, is an unmistakable warning to Democratic leaders that its candidates must speak out more clearly on the issues Jews care about foreign and domestic if it wants to keep Jewish votes and, more important, Jewish campaign money.
The House Democratic leaders who recently rallied to support Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) in her unsuccessful effort to fend off a primary challenger apparently never got that message.
Republicans may have a greater chance of drawing Jewish votes, but not if they play the Israel card alone. Christian right candidates who are pro-Israel zealots but take domestic positions vehemently opposed by mainstream Jewish groups will not make a dent in that independent sector.
In fact, the rise of a growing Jewish swing vote could be a force for moderation in both parties.
Swing votes are more valuable than safe votes; when both parties are forced to compete actively for a communitys vote, the communitys concerns will be heard. Thats the good news just beneath the surface of last weeks Gallup poll.
Former Madisonian James D. Besser has been Washington correspondent for the New York Jewish Week, the Cleveland Jewish News and other leading Anglo-Jewish newspapers for 15 years.