American Jews are political animals, deeply passionate about politics, as generally more than 80 percent of eligible Jewish voters participate in the electoral process. Throughout American history, Jews have held a special regard for their civic responsibility.
Throughout much of the 20th century, Jews have supported Democratic Party candidates. Over time, there has been a debate about whether "the Jewish vote" remains static, or whether Jews are possibly shifting their party loyalties.
Last year, in a study done of American Jewish voters, McLaughlin and Associates reported that 42 percent of those polled would support President Barack Obama's re-election, while 46 percent indicated that they would support another candidate. Among Orthodox/Chasidic voters, some 69 percent noted that they would likely support someone else, in comparison to 17 percent who expressed support for the president.
Among Conservative-affiliated voters, the proportion was 50 percent to 38 percent. Reform Jews, by a slim majority of 52 percent, supported Obama, while 36 percent indicated they would consider someone else. Fifty percent of the Jewish voters polled in this study expressed support for the president's handling of U.S. relations with Israel. Thirty-nine percent said they disapproved. These numbers become significant when one recalls that the president received approximately 78 percent of the Jewish vote, just two-and-a-half years ago.
Without a significant body of research in hand and absent a national Jewish population study for this decade, there is an increasing interest in examining the political behavior patterns of the Jewish voter. What factors contribute to Jewish voting? Does geography, education, income, age or gender tell us much about political tendencies?
Or are we more likely to see certain issues trigger a higher rate of political activism, such as Israel or specific domestic considerations? Similarly, what is the correlation between involvement and giving to political causes and to candidates and the Jewish vote? This latter area has not been extensively researched and deserves further analysis.
There is some data available to reflect a growing disconnect between voting patterns in national elections, and those related to state and local campaigns. Are Jews increasingly voting their self-interests and pocketbook concerns in the case of the more localized elections, but expressing their ideological beliefs and party loyalties when casting their ballots in national ones?
Maybe more significant to all voters is the role that political parties play within the electoral process. Increasing evidence suggests that among younger voters, including Jews, there has been a significant increase in the class of "independent" voters.
There also appears to be a more general shift in the reshaping of "liberalism" on the part of the Jewish electorate, where moderate positions are replacing the more traditional left-of-center political perspective. This shift seems evident as voters become more selective in identifying with liberal causes and, in turn, are redefining how they interpret the nature of their ideological credentials and voting positions.
I am launching a new study that will seek to confirm or clarify this trend, while also seeking to understand the scope and influence of Jewish conservative politics. This study will provide some early indicators as to how Jews may be viewing the growing list of presidential hopefuls for 2012, and how their interest in and support of particular individuals might play out in the course of the coming election cycle. It should also offer some insights into the issues that engage our constituencies.
Among the emerging areas of interest pertinent to this survey will be an exploration of how Jews see the impact and importance of the Tea Party movement, in addition to other political expressions in this country. Also of special concern will be to evaluate whether or not there are generational and demographic distinctions that have not previously been identified that may signal certain changes in Jewish voting behavior.
No study of this type can be definitive about the "Jewish vote." Nor should we have the ability to project such outcomes, as that in part is the miracle and excitement of elections — the absence of certainty. At best, this study will offer a snapshot in time about where the Jewish community currently is when it comes to politics.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College's Los Angeles campus.