In recent years, two of the Monitor’s stimulating offerings elicited more than the usual amount of reader consternation. One of those columns argued against the presidential viability of a certain Alaska governor turned television oddity named Sarah Palin (remember her?); the other dismissed any hopes then being expressed by Republicans that President Obama would lose a significant amount of Jewish support in 2012.
Not to say the Monitor told you so but…the Monitor told you so. Three years ago, both on Commentary magazine’s Contentions blog and in The Jewish Press, your modest correspondent argued that Obama enjoyed two important advantages that made it all but certain he would enjoy another landslide victory among Jewish voters: He’s an articulate, non-threatening black man (a factor not to be underestimated when considering the voting psychology of liberal and moderate Jews) and he is adamantly opposed to and by the Christian Right.
The Monitor suggested that readers look to the presidential election of 1984 for a little historical context.
For a Republican, Ronald Reagan had done well among Jews in 1980, winning 39 percent of their votes and holding the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, to a 45 percent plurality. (Third-party candidate John Anderson got the rest.)
And then came the 1984 National Survey of American Jews, conducted between April and August of that year, which found that while 39 percent of respondents acknowledged having voted for Reagan in 1980, some 53 percent said that, in hindsight, Reagan was the candidate they would have preferred.
So Reagan seemed poised to at least hold on to his 1980 share of the Jewish vote and quite possibly exceed it.
In addition to Reagan’s performance in office, there was, in 1984, the Jesse Jackson factor. The civil rights activist was running for the Democratic nomination, and during the course of the campaign many of his past derogatory comments about Jews and Israel resurfaced, fueled both by his reference, in what he thought was an off-the-record conversation, to New York City as “Hymietown” and his reluctance to separate himself from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
The Jackson factor was widely thought to threaten the Democratic Party’s decades-old hold on Jewish loyalties. But once the votes were counted in November, Reagan actually ended up losing significant ground among Jewish voters. Exit polls on Election Day indicated Reagan only won between 31 and 35 percent of the Jewish vote, while between 65 and 69 percent went to Democrat Walter Mondale.
Indeed, roughly 30 percent of those Jews who had voted for Reagan in 1980 went for Mondale in 1984.
Reagan’s increasingly vocal embrace of the New – specifically, the Christian – Right scared Jews more than anything said by either Jackson or Farrakhan. Nearly 80 percent of Jews, for example, had an unfavorable opinion of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the most visible face of the Christian Right (never mind that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had presented Falwell with the Jabotinsky Prize in recognition of his strong support of the Jewish state). Falwell, in fact, was significantly more unpopular among Jewish voters than Jackson.
How does this relate to Obama and Jewish support?
For one thing, the Republican Party’s identification with the Christian Right is immeasurably stronger today than it was 28 years ago, making it unlikely that liberal or moderate Jews will find a comfort level with the GOP anytime soon. For another, the current generation of American Jews is not nearly as supportive of Israel and Israeli policies as were their parents and grandparents – and support for Israel was the one factor that in the past might have swayed some liberal Jews to vote for a Republican.
But never mind 1984. If Jimmy Carter, fresh off a disastrous term in office and displaying a palpable animus toward Israel, could, in 1980, still outpoll his Republican opponent among Jews (and absent the Anderson candidacy Carter would have won at least 55 percent of the Jewish vote), there was never any reason to believe a mediocre Democratic president – especially a likeable African-American who talks a good liberal game – was in any danger with Jewish voters.