As the Republicans prepare for their quadrennial political conclave, they face several challenges. Their incumbent president lags in the polls. Their prospects of retaining control of the Senate are dimming. Their likelihood of attracting votes from minorities who, each election, comprise a growing share of the population, is diminishing. And their chances of capturing a large chunk of the Jewish vote seem minimal.
There are few constants in American political life more robust than the Jewish affinity for the Democratic Party. Indeed, in all the elections of the 21st century, the share of the Jewish vote that went to Democratic nominees varied little, from 79 percent (Al Gore in 2000) to 69 percent (Barack Obama in 2012, though Obama recorded 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008). Only one in seven Jews identifies with the GOP, according to a Gallup poll taken last year. Hillary Rodham Clinton took 71 percent of the Jewish vote in 2016 against Donald J. Trump.
That does not mean that the Republicans who are conducting a Trump convention this month are not making an effort to win Jewish votes.
Trump has made enormous efforts to court Jews, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem (after a clutch of presidents balked at doing so) and embracing Benjamin Netanyahu (even amid the Israeli prime minister’s continuing political, legal, and ethical crises). He abandoned the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement. He has supported Israeli settlements in the West Bank. At a White House Hanukkah party last year the president, speaking of Ivanka Trump and his grandchildren, said, “I’m truly grateful to have the Jewish faith woven so deeply into my family.’’
The president and his team believe he may have made some inroads by his actions and his words. But many Jews recoiled at the notion of a Jerusalem embassy, oppose the settlement movement, view Netanyahu with skepticism at best, and, moreover, believe Trump is too tolerant of intolerance.
Indeed, most experts believe that former vice president Joe Biden will attract the usual three-quarters of the Jewish vote in the general election.
“The Jews whom Trump is appealing to are the ones he appealed to in 2016,’’ said L. Sandy Maisel, the Colby College political scientist who was co-editor of “Jews in American Politics,” a book published in 2001. “He didn’t win the Jewish vote last time and there won’t be any improvement this time. There are loads of Jews who are concerned about Netanyahu and are certainly not going to move away from the Democrats right now.” (Full disclosure: I wrote a chapter and the prologue in the Maisel book.)
Like many immigrant groups, Jews have been drawn to the Democrats across the generations, an allegiance hardened in the New Deal years (1933-39) and by the party’s emphasis on social justice. “This political love affair of American Jews with the left,” wrote Edward Shapiro, a Seton Hall University expert on Jewish history, “has persisted despite rapid economic and social mobility, suburbanization, and the changing focus of the left from economic issues involving taxes and the regulation of business to cultural issues concerning status and identity.”
Which is not to say that Jews will forever be a part of the Democratic coalition. As Jews moved from being visitors in America to being part of the American host community, they have acquired some of the classic indicators of conservatism, including a stake in the status quo and positions in the commanding heights of the economy, the academy, and the media.
Those who believe Jews are ripe for the picking for conservatism and Republican allegiance cite the group’s emphasis on hard work, family, prayer, and tradition – all vital elements of conservatism. At the same time, the warmth that religious conservatives have for Israel provides a bridge to a vital part of the GOP coalition. Ralph E. Reed Jr., the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, extended a hand of welcome a quarter-century ago when he vowed to move religious conservatives “beyond the pain of the past and the uneasy tolerance of the present to genuine friendship.”
That remains the (unfulfilled) hope of Republican strategists who eye the Jewish vote as a potential addition to the party’s coalition.
But it has been a third of a century since Alan J. Steinberg, a self-described “Reaganite conservative Republican’’ and “pro-Zionist Orthodox Jew” who worked for George W. Bush, called for American Jews to “enter into a new covenant, a covenant with political conservatives.” It hasn’t happened – and, moreover, Steinberg himself ended up voting for Hillary Clinton and will vote for Biden this fall because “I could not support a candidate like Trump who had a record of racism, nativism, xenophobia, and issue ignorance and whose mendacity exceeded that of almost every public figure I had ever encountered.”
And yet Republicans cling to the hopes that Jews – especially the Orthodox, but perhaps others as well – will align themselves with the GOP, in part in reaction to the leftward drift of the Democratic Party.
“The identity politics, left, revolutionary, anti-Israel people in the Democratic Party, have become emboldened, and it is kind of getting scary,’’ Victor Davis Hanson, a conservative theorist at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said in an interview. “If Biden gets in there as president, a lot of Jews will be very worried. They may not be ready to say they will vote for Trump – but I wouldn’t be surprised if one in three Jews ended up going for Trump.”
That would approach the vote harvested by Mitt Romney in 2012, whose 30 percent of the Jewish vote is the largest amount any Republican has won in the 21st century. (The largest Republican vote in modern times came in 1916, when Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes took 45 percent of the Jewish vote against incumbent President Woodrow Wilson.) But many political professionals and scholars believe Jews’ allegiance to the Democrats is too strong for the Republicans to pierce it, especially in 2020.
“I can’t see Trump increasing his Jewish vote,’’ said Thomas E. Patterson, a Harvard Kennedy School scholar. “Some of it is simply legacy. People don’t give up their loyalties that quickly. And most of the Jewish voters are in line with the Democrats on social welfare questions. That is a place where they are at home, a place where they are comfortable.’’
David M. Shribman received the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his writing on American political culture. A North Shore native, he was executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 16 years and led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life massacre that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.