Two decades ago, Jimmy Carter was closing out a stunningly unimpressive four years in the White House. His approval ratings were lower than Richard Nixon’s had been on the eve of his resignation, and even American Jews, that most doggedly loyal constituent group of the Democratic Party, were not immune to the disaffection with Carter suffusing the nation.
At the same time, Jews were hardly rushing to embrace either of the two main alternatives to Carter in the November 1980 election – Ronald Reagan, the conservative Republican former governor of California, and John Anderson, the little-known liberal Republican congressman running a quixotic third-party campaign.
What was it that in the end finally tilted the majority of Jewish voters against Carter (39 percent chose Reagan while 16 percent went with Anderson)? According to various exit polls and post-election studies, the issue that most resonated with a wide cross-section of American Jews – more than the basket-case economy or the Iranian hostage situation or Carter’s uninspiring leadership style – was what they perceived to be the steadily deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Israel.
(Now, had times been good and Carter viewed as a great success, many of those Jews who voted for Reagan or Anderson would likely have gone with their reflexes and stuck with the Democratic incumbent, despite his increasingly chilly demeanor toward Israel. It was the unusual combination of Carter’s general ineffectiveness and his problematic handling of Israel that ultimately closed the deal for many Jews.)
But 1980 is an anomaly when compared with virtually every other U.S. presidential election going back to the very founding of Israel.
With the possible exceptions of 1948 (when Truman kept a wary eye on the polls as he navigated the minefields of Palestinian partition) and 1976 (when fresh memories of Ford and Kissinger’s “reassessment” of American-Israeli relations, short-lived as it was, helped many in the Jewish community overcome their initial discomfort with the unfamiliar born-again Southerner Carter), Jews have repeatedly demonstrated that when it comes to choosing a president, domestic issues clearly outrank concern for Israel.
It’s true, of course, that a relatively small number of Jews who might otherwise have been disposed toward Bob Dole in 1996 voted instead for Bill Clinton because they were uncertain of Dole’s commitment to Israel. And it’s equally true that some Jews who voted for George Bush in 1988 abandoned him in 1992 because of his Middle East policies. But one has to go all the way back to 1980 for the last presidential election in which the votes of an appreciable number of Jews were decided primarily by concern for Israel.
The one unchanging political rule of thumb in American Jewish life is simply this: It matters little whether a candidate is the incumbent or the challenger, whether his record on Israel is solid or not, whether Israel is at peace or at war. Ultimately the lion’s share of Jewish votes – anywhere from 65 to 90 percent – will go to the Democrat.
The average Jewish vote for Republican presidential candidates since 1948 has been just under 25 percent.
The phenomenon might be understandable in elections where there is no discernable difference between the candidates’ views on the Middle East – Eisenhower vs. Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, Bush vs. Dukakis in 1988 – but it takes on a more mystifying aspect when viewed against elections where the Republican candidate is clearly superior on Israel-related issues – Nixon vs. McGovern in 1972 and Reagan vs. Mondale in 1984 come immediately to mind.
In 1972, Nixon defeated McGovern in the country at large by a landslide margin of 60.7 percent to 37.5 percent (49 states to 1), and while Nixon did double his share of the Jewish vote from the paltry 17 percent he received four years earlier, the startling fact remains that McGovern – a weak candidate with no strong ties to Israel or the Jewish community running against an incumbent with a solid record on Israel and a relatively moderate domestic agenda – actually did better among Jews than Adlai Stevenson, a liberal Democrat beloved by Jews, had in 1952 and 1956.
Despite the requisite lip service by Jewish leaders and elected officials, Israel has rarely emerged as a decisive issue for Jews at election time (segments of the Orthodox community excepted). The reason for that is the slavish (no other word will do) devotion of most Jewish voters to liberal ideology and the Democratic Party. The rest is commentary.