America’s primary election season is inching closer to its conclusion: the Republican National Convention in Cleveland from July 18-21 and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia from July 25-28.
As of Tuesday morning, five candidates remained in the primary race: Democrats Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and Republicans Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), Ohio Governor John Kasich, and businessman Donald Trump.
When it comes to projecting the Jewish vote in 2016, understanding demographics might lend some semblance of sanity to an election that most observers would compare to a roller coaster ride.
While Jews represent just 2 percent of the American population, surveys indicate that more than 90 percent of Jews who are registered to vote make it to the polls, compared to 74 percent of all Americans.
Additionally, in 2013, 70 percent of U.S. Jews were living in New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, and Pennsylvania – states whose combined 167 electoral votes make up more than half of the 270 electoral votes a presidential candidate needs to win the election.
In 2013, the Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” survey showed that 70 percent of Jewish voters were Democrats, compared to 49 percent of the general American public. But the survey found that 57 percent of Orthodox Jews identify or lean Republican, while 36 percent identify or lean Democrat.
Other Jewish groups likely leaning Republican are what Cohen calls “ethnic Jews” – those who are more “culturally conservative,” including immigrant Russian-speaking Jews, who “see a conservative political philosophy as most opposed to the government that oppressed them for decades.”
While 21st century American Jews lean overwhelmingly Democrat, that wasn’t always the case.
“In the late 19th century, from roughly 1864 until roughly 1916, American Jews voted Republican in overwhelming numbers. We don’t have a lot of data to substantiate that…but what we do know allows us to make a judgment call,” said Dr. Steven Windmueller, a demographer from Hebrew Union College’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management.
Dr. Ira Sheskin, a demographer at the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami, explained that “the nature of the parties does change over time” and that “back in the 1800s, Republicans and Democrats held different views than they do today.”
From 1916 onward, the Jewish vote went to the Democratic Party. By the time President George H. W. Bush ran for reelection in 1992, he received only 16 percent of the Jewish vote, Sheskin noted.
Jews continued voting predominantly Democratic through President Obama’s two campaigns. But while Obama garnered anywhere from 74 to 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, depending on whose data is used, his Jewish support dropped to 69 percent in the 2012 election.
“Was that a reaction to some of [Obama’s] policies? His relationship with the government of Israel, or other issues? It’s difficult to say,” Windmueller told JNS, “but we think there has been some small trending over the last 15 to 20 years toward voting for more Republicans on the part of some Jews who are maybe historically voting Democratic.”
This growth in Jewish Republican votes might be attributed to younger Jews who don’t affiliate with a party and who register as independents, although only 17 percent of Jews ages 18-29 identified as Republican in Pew’s 2013 survey. America’s growing Orthodox Jewish population and single-issue voters who focus exclusively on Israel and Middle East foreign policy are additional factors that may lead to more Jews voting Republican.
Sheskin, however, cautions against reading too much into the aforementioned factors when it comes to the Jewish vote. He said the uptick in Jewish Republican voting had already started after George H.W. Bush’s 1992 campaign.