The week before the special election in New York’s 9th congressional district, the Democratic National Committee meeting in Chicago focused on three main areas of concern that required improved “messaging” for the 2012 campaign: jobs, health care, and Jewish voters — an odd list to be sure. The Obama campaign hired the former long-time head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, to help with this third task.
A poll out last week from Gallup suggested that Obama’s approval level in the Jewish community is now 55%, down 5% from the prior survey, with net approval at 15% (55 to 40 — down from 60 to 32, or 28%). This is getting closer to the president’s overall national approval number of just below 44%.
And then came the New York 9 results. In a district that is believed to have the highest percentage of Jewish population to total population of any of the 435 congressional districts, the Republican candidate, Bob Turner, won the special election — the first GOP winner in this district since 1922. The district has been redesigned every ten years after a new redistricting plan was adopted, and a portion of the district that is in Queens was represented by a Republican as recently as the 1960s. But it is safe to say that New York 9 has been a Democratic seat for a long time, usually with big margins for the Democratic nominee (22% for Anthony Weiner in 2010, a good GOP year nationally).
Various writers last week estimated the Jewish percentage of the population in New York 9 at a level as low as 25%, and as high as 40%. The defeated Democratic candidate, David Weprin, estimated a level in the middle of this range, at a third of the district’s population, with Orthodox Jews a third of the Jewish population.
Since voters do not register their religion and ballots are secret, estimates of how Jews voted on Tuesday is guesswork. The Brooklyn section of the district, which is estimated to have a higher Jewish percentage and a higher Orthodox Jewish percentage than the district as a whole, voted about 2 to 1 for Turner, while Weprin won a much smaller majority (about 5%) in the larger Queens portion of the district. Overall, it appears that Turner may have won a small majority of all Jewish voters.
Democratic elected officials and party leaders were quick to dismiss the results, claiming that New York 9 is not representative of the national Jewish population. The message not stated in this dismissal of the results was that this district has too many Orthodox Jews, and presumably the real Jews who matter (liberal, secular Jews) are still firmly in the Democratic camp. One Jewish congressman, Henry Waxman from California, went off-script, however, arguing that Jewish voters more broadly (and not just Orthodox Jews) are shifting allegiances because they misunderstand President Obama’s Israel policies (hence, these Jews are stupid and easily misled) and because they want to protect their wealth (imagine that!).
Leave it to a Jewish congressman to feed a centuries-old stereotype of the greedy Jew.
Jews are about 2% of the population, but as one of the oldest age groups, and with high voter participation rates, Jews represent a larger share of the electorate, probably between 2.5% and 3%. Jews are concentrated in states Democrats usually win, with over 60% of the nation’s Jewish population in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Illinois, and Maryland, and another 20% in the five battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia.
Do the results in New York 9 signify a major shift in Jewish voting patterns? If they do, how will this impact the 2012 presidential and congressional races?
The national exit polls and earlier surveys suggest that the last Republican who won the Jewish vote (by a plurality, not a majority) was Warren G. Harding in 1920. In that race, the Socialist, Eugene Debs, garnered 38% of the Jewish vote, doubling the Jewish share for the Democratic candidate.
In more recent times, the last Republican to run close to the Democrat among Jewish voters was Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter in 1980 (Carter 45%, Reagan 39%, John Anderson 15%). Carter, of course, suffered a humiliating defeat in his re-election run, winning only six states, 49 Electoral College votes, and just 40% of the national popular vote. Carter’s Jewish percentage was only 5% higher than his national vote percentage.
In 2008, Barack Obama won 53% of the national popular vote, but was estimated to have won 78% of the Jewish vote, a 25% difference. If approval levels are indicative of intent to vote for a candidate, then the current gap is 11% (55% approval for Obama among Jews, 44% among all voters).
The New York 9 results suggest that the higher number of Orthodox Jews in the district is not sufficient explanation for the strong performance by Turner among Jewish voters. In heavily Orthodox and Russian precincts in New York in 2008, Jews voted 2 to 1 for McCain over Obama. Since these two groups comprise, at most, 15% of Jewish voters nationally (Orthodox Jews are a younger than average age cohort, with larger average family size), their votes among the total Jewish vote would have been 10% for McCain and 5% for Obama. All other Jews would have voted 73% to 12% for Obama over McCain (or by a six to one margin) to get to the 78% to 22% overall vote among the Jewish community.
Assume that the Orthodox plus Russian vote (estimated at 7% of Jews in the district) was 40% of the total in New York 9, and assume it went by 3 to 1 for Turner — a stronger result than for McCain — or 30% for Turner and 10% for Weprin, who is an Orthodox Jew himself. If the overall Jewish vote in the district was 50% for each candidate, then the non-Orthodox, non-Russian vote among Jews was 40% for Weprin and 20% for Turner — a 2 to 1 margin, down from the 6 to 1 margin among this group for Obama in 2008.
Now take these results by subgroup and apply them to the national Jewish voter distribution in 2012, assuming the Orthodox/Russian group is up to 16% of the total thanks to a slightly faster population growth than all Jews. If this group goes 3 to 1 for the Republican, that is a 12% to 4% split. If the remaining 84% of Jewish voters break 2 for 1 for Obama, that is a 56% to 28% split. In total, the Jewish vote for Obama would be 60% and for the Republican it would be 40%. The last Republican to earn 40% of the Jewish vote was Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. No wonder messaging to Jews has become a big issue for Democratic strategists.
One can adjust Obama’s percentage within each category by a point or two, without impacting the overall results all that much. If Obama receives 65% of the Jewish vote, it would still be the worst performance for a Democratic presidential candidate since Walter Mondale in 1984.
There is a long way to go until the 2012 vote. I think Waxman is right that some Republican candidates would do better among Jewish voters than others (Romney in particular). Jewish liberals seem to have an allergic reaction to any GOP candidate who is too visibly or outspokenly Christian. But if Obama’s margin among Jewish voters were to drop sharply (from 56% in 2008 to 20-30% in 2012), that would represent a net shift of about 100,000 to 125,000 votes in Florida, and close to half that range in Pennsylvania. Elections have been decided by a lot less than this.