Now that Rick Santorum has dropped out of the Republican primary, the long-anticipated election showdown between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is beginning to heat up. And one thing is becoming clear even at this early stage: The 2012 presidential race, between a Mormon Republican and a Christian Democrat, is shaping up to be one of the most Jewish elections in American history.
Yes, you read that right.
We’ve had very Jewish elections before, perhaps none more than 2000, when Joe Lieberman was on the Democratic ballot as vice president. That race also featured the spectacle of South Floridian bubbes and zaydes who thought that they might have voted for Pat Buchanan over Al Gore because of the infamous “butterfly ballot.”
At least so far in 2012, there are no Jewish candidates on either major ticket. But this year, the involvement of Jews in all elements of the political process, combined with increased Jewish confidence and security as a community, is manifesting itself on the political stage—most notably, on both sides of the political aisle. These factors, as well as the potential for Mitt Romney to take advantage of President Obama’s rough patches with Israel to peel away some of his Jewish support, have made the Jewish role in the 2012 election more prominent than in any previous race.
Though Jews seem to be everywhere in politics these days—as candidates, strategists, officials, fundraisers, commentators, and more—the high level of Jewish involvement in national politics would have been unfathomable in the 19th century. In 1813, for example, President Madison appointed Mordecai Manuel Noah as U.S. consul to Tunis, only to have the Islamic government there object to having a Jew in the role (so much for the idea that Islamic anti-Semitism is a post-Israel phenomenon). The State Department, headed by future president James Monroe, acceded to the request, and Madison blamed the recall on “the ascertained prejudice of the Turks against his Religion.” It would be 40 years before there was another equally prominent Jewish appointee in the form of Democratic fundraiser August Belmont, whom Franklin Pierce named U.S. minister to The Hague in 1853.
Jews did emerge in presidential politics during the Civil War—but not in a positive way. In 1862, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous General Orders No. 11 expelled Jews from the Department of the Tennessee, an area under Union Army Control. A delegation of Jews lobbied President Abraham Lincoln to rescind the order, a request that the president quickly granted. Yet the order became even more relevant when Grant ran for president in 1868. Grant’s candidacy presented a real challenge to American Jews, who, for the first time, faced the question of whether to cast their votes as Jews or as Americans. As a result, Grant had to reach out to Jews in unprecedented ways for a presidential candidate. As president, he delivered: Grant was the first president to attend a synagogue dedication and, later, the first one to visit Palestine. He also appointed more Jews to his administration than had any other president.
Even so, Jews still faced a glass ceiling for the remainder of the 19th century, with a number of Jews serving in ambassadorial positions, but none attaining Cabinet rank.
The Jews broke through in the 20th century, when Theodore Roosevelt named Oscar Straus to be Secretary of Commerce, making Straus the first Jewish Cabinet secretary. William Howard Taft became the first president to invite a Jew—Sears President Julius Rosenwald—to dinner at the White House in 1912. In addition, 1920 GOP candidate Warren G. Harding benefited from a campaign song written and performed by the Jewish entertainer Al Jolson, titled “Harding, You’re the Man for Us.”
Despite these groundbreaking steps taken by Republican presidents, for the most part Jews have been an assumed part of the Democratic coalition since Franklin Roosevelt built his New Deal majorities. Furthermore, widespread Jewish acceptance into mainstream society following World War II meant that Jews were becoming more involved in politics, but mainly on one side of the aisle. This imbalance meant that Democrats could take Jewish votes for granted in national elections, while Republicans could run for president, and even secure the GOP nomination, without much need for or hope of Jewish electoral support.
Over the last century, no GOP candidate has won the majority of the Jewish vote, although Harding—perhaps thanks to Al Jolson—did secure a plurality in 1920. Democrats have won, without fail, the Jewish vote in every election since FDR. Yes, Ronald Reagan was able to get 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980—but 16 percent went to third-party candidate John Anderson, leaving Carter with only 45 percent.
In 2008, Barack Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote—just one percentage point lower than the 79 percent Al Gore received in 2000, when he had a Jewish running mate. Peter Beinart, a Jewish critic of Israel, recently came out with a book in which he attributes Obama’s Israel policy and general worldview to Jewish influences—going so far as to call Obama America’s first Jewish president. This may be a bit of a stretch, but it’s certainly the case that the president has had a number of high-profile Jewish events, including the first White House Passover Seder, and appointed a number of Jews to senior positions. Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was Jewish. Obama’s second chief of staff, Bill Daley, wasn’t—and he did not work out so well. In January, Obama replaced Daley with Jack Lew, who is not only Jewish but Orthodox to boot. David Axelrod, the Obama campaign’s chief strategist, is also Jewish, and Obama shows no signs of replacing him with a non-Semitic alternative.
Despite these overt and symbolic nods, over the past four years, President Obama’s relations with Israel have increasingly become the subject of intense debate inside and outside the Jewish community. Obama’s given everyone—particularly the Republicans—a lot of material on this subject, with his refusal to take a picture with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March 2010; his hot-mic criticism in November 2011 of Netanyahu during discussions with French President Nicolas Sarkozy; and his orchestrated rebuke of Israel after Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Jerusalem in early 2010. It is not surprising that Jews obsess endlessly about the state of the relationship between the United States and Israel, but the mainstream media have been following this question just as closely this time around.
The Obama campaign is apparently well aware of the discontent in the Jewish community regarding Obama’s positions on Israel—perhaps one of the reasons behind the president’s talk yesterday at the Holocaust Museum. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch has been a bellwether voter in years past, with a tendency to desert the Democrats when concerns about Israel outweigh domestic political considerations. After Koch noisily backed Republican Bob Turner in the New York race to replace disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner in order to send a message to the White House, the Obama Administration put on a full court press to secure Koch’s support, including a personal meeting with Obama and an invitation to a state dinner. While this effort moved Koch from opponent to supporter, at least for now, it is too costly an approach to employ on every disaffected Jewish voter. (The poll numbers show that there is at least some disaffection: A February Pew poll found that “Even Jewish voters, who have traditionally been and remain one of the strongest Democratic constituencies, have moved noticeably in the Republican direction.” A more recent poll shows that 62 percent of Jews would back Obama in November—an improvement, but still lower than what he received in 2008.)
Jews have also found themselves in the middle of some recent, broader campaign missteps as well. Hilary Rosen, the Democratic strategist who said earlier this month on CNN that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” is Jewish. So is Danielle Gilbert, the DNC aide who caused a kerfuffle with the discovery of her Facebook posts that showed her and her girlfriends holding wads of cash and calling themselves “Jewbags.” Gilbert was hired by Jewish DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who declared that she would stand by Gilbert, the daughter of Mark and Nancy Gilbert, important Democratic fundraisers.
Of course, it is not surprising to have Jews a major part of the conversation on the Democratic side of the aisle. Democrats typically can count on at least 75 percent of the Jewish vote, and Jewish money, much of it from Wall Street and Hollywood, is crucial to funding the Democratic Party. Furthermore, 13 of the 53 senators who caucus with the Democrats are Jewish—almost 25 percent. Two of those 53 senators are Independents, both of whom are Jewish. There are 26 Jewish members of Congress. Twenty-five of them are Democrats. (The one who isn’t, Eric Cantor, is the House Majority Leader.)
So, why is this year different from all other years? In how much the Republican conversation has focused on Jews as well. Newt Gingrich made a splash in the Jewish world—and everywhere else—thanks to Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Adelson’s Israeli-born wife, who single-handedly allowed Gingrich to stay in the race months after he seemed to have run his course. Adelson and his family kicked in over $16 million to help a pro-Gingrich SuperPac, which led to Adelson profiles in the New York Times and The New Yorker, among other publications. The running theme in the profiles was how Adelson’s support for Gingrich would potentially influence Gingrich’s already hawkish pro-Israel views.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who may have been the least Jewish candidate ever on Lenny Bruce’s famous Jewish v. Goyish scale, held a fundraiser in New York specifically targeted at reaching out to Orthodox Jews. Yet, it was another highly goyish candidate—the staunchly pro-Israel Tea Party Republican Michele Bachmann—who tried to use the word “chutzpah” in a Fox News appearance. Suffice it to say, it didn’t go well, and the choots-pah clip flew around the Web.
As for the GOP candidate, Mitt Romney has busted out the “ch” word as well, accusing Joe Biden of chutzpah for criticizing Romney on the economy. Biden, for his part, has said that Romney has chutzpah for calling Obama “out of touch.” Both men got the pronunciation mostly right—or at least more right than Bachmann.
Romney has also declared that his first foreign trip as president would be to Israel. The New York Times recently ran a front-page story on the decades-long friendship between Romney and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who met at the Boston Consulting Group back in 1976. The article showed how Netanyahu has influenced Romney on a number of issues, and not just with respect to the Middle East. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador the United Nations, has joked that the friendship between the two means that Netanyahu could expect to get at least a sandwich and a cup of coffee from a Romney White House, a reference to the time that Obama left Netanyahu and his team alone in the White House while he went off to get dinner without the Israeli leader.
There are a number of reasons why the Jewish community gets so much attention in a nation that is about 98 percent not Jewish. Part of this stems from a strong Jewish presence in key election battleground states such as Ohio and Florida, as well as Jewish involvement in the political, fundraising, and media worlds. But it is also a testament to this country—the way it not only welcomes immigrant groups but also folds them into the fabric of American life, while allowing them to maintain what makes them distinctive. As the great Daniel Boorstin wrote in 1953 in The Genius of American Politics, outside religions such as Judaism and Catholicism, “while accepting the moral premises of the community, can still try to judge the community by some standard outside its own history. But even these religions often take a peculiar American complexion and tend toward validating themselves by their accord with things as they are.”
It is unclear at this point how much the Jewish vote itself will shape the election come fall, or what the final outcome will be. But, as Boorstin suggested, the American Jewish community will continue to both seek validation through the electoral process, as well as provide validation to the country as a whole. And through their outsized role in multiple aspects of the presidential campaigns unfolding before us, Jews will continue to shape the race.
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Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide. His latest book is Fight House: Rivals in the White House from Truman to Trump.
Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Institute. He is a former White House aide and the author of four books on the presidency, including, most recently, Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump.