When President Bush announced a major shift this week in Middle East policy, the news was heralded on the Republican Jewish Coalition website with smiling photos of Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a headline declaring, “President Bush Backs Israel, Yet Again.”
Bush’s recognition of permanent Israeli settlements in the West Bank was “a watershed event” in the long, fraternal relationship between the United States and Israel, said William Daroff, the group’s deputy chief.
Republicans are hoping the shift will mark a watershed in presidential politics as well.
Bush lost almost 80% of the Jewish vote to Democrat Al Gore in 2000, a performance consistent with patterns through much of the 20th century.
But GOP strategists and some independent analysts believe Bush could markedly improve that showing in November.
Few expect Bush to draw more Jewish votes than Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, who is a long-standing friend of Israel and was quick to second the policy shift.
However, even a marginal improvement in Bush’s showing could make a difference, given the expected closeness of November’s election in several states with significant Jewish populations, such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Noting the 537-vote margin by which Bush carried Florida, Daroff said that “changing one vote per condominium in one square mile” of the state’s heavily Jewish “Gold Coast” could make the difference in November.
David A. Harris, head of the nonpartisan American Jewish Committee, agreed. “There is an elastic band of undecided voters that may be somewhere in the range of 20 to 25% of American Jews,” Harris said. “Capturing that undecided group is the name of the game for both parties.”
The test, he added, “will really be the interplay between the president’s perceived strong support for Israel and the war against terrorism ... versus the traditional American Jewish support for the Democratic Party’s domestic agenda.”
Jews make up only about 2% of the U.S. population and only about 4% of the electorate nationwide. But they are routinely among the most likely to show up on election day, with turnout averaging about 80% of eligible voters.
Jewish donors -- clustered in the population centers of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami and New York -- also have been among the most generous givers to Democratic candidates and causes. That presents Republicans with an added incentive to woo Jewish supporters away from Kerry.
While statistics are sketchy, experts say most Jews voted Republican in presidential elections from about Abraham Lincoln’s time until the 1920s.
Lincoln won Jewish support not just for his fight against slavery, but also for rescinding an 1862 order by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant that sought to remove from the Tennessee River Valley all Jews conducting business as peddlers or merchants. It was “the first and only occasion where a specific [U.S.] government action was directed against the Jewish community,” according to Steven Windmueller, a scholar at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
Jewish loyalties began shifting nationally under the administration of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who put Louis Brandeis on the Supreme Court, the first Jew named to the court, and took a strong international stand against anti-Semitism and in favor of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East.
By the time Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt began to enact his New Deal, with its far-reaching social welfare programs, Jewish voters were among his most loyal constituents.
With just a few exceptions, Jews since then have voted overwhelmingly Democratic.
“They have high education and relatively high income levels. They don’t own guns. They’re [pro-abortion rights] in overwhelming numbers,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “They are the quintessential ‘blue’ American community,” he summed up, using the political shorthand from 2000’s color-coded election maps.
That year, Bush had a particularly tough time winning Jewish support. Gore made history by picking Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an Orthodox Jew, as his running mate. Bush also put off some Jews by invoking his Christian faith, as both a personal matter and as a guide to policy.
He once said that only people who accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior could enter heaven, but retracted the statement after a 1998 visit to Israel. “I believe that God decides who goes to heaven,” he said. “Not George W. Bush.”
As president, Bush has made no secret of his faith. He has invoked God in justifying the war with Iraq and pushed to make it easier for religious groups to provide government-funded services. Even though Bush is careful to mention adherents of all faiths, the matter of church-state separation remains a concern for many Jews, Harris and others said.
And while many Christian conservatives are deeply sympathetic toward Israel, a significant percentage of Jews remain suspicious of the religious right, which is an important part of Bush’s political base.
An American Jewish Committee survey last fall found that 20% of American Jews believed that most members of the religious right were anti-Semitic, and another 21% believed that many were. Only 17% said there was little or no anti-Semitism within the religious right.
The same survey -- conducted among 1,000 people who identified themselves as Jews -- also found that 40% described themselves as at least somewhat liberal, 33% as moderate and 27% as at least somewhat conservative. That compares with roughly 27% of adults nationwide who described themselves as liberal and 41% as conservative in a Los Angeles Times poll last month.
Still, Bush has won many friends in the Jewish community with his consistently strong support of Israel and Sharon. On Wednesday, Bush embraced the prime minister’s plan for seeking Middle East peace, which includes a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and rejection of Palestinian claims of a “right to return” to Israel.
While no one -- Democrat or Republican -- suggests that Bush took that step for domestic political reasons, allies said the move would only enhance his standing with Jewish voters. “There has never been a more pro-Israel president of the United States,” Daroff said.
Nine states with significant Jewish populations account for 212 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, according to an analysis by Windmueller of Hebrew Union College. Among those, most handicappers predict the two most populous states -- California and New York -- will back Kerry, along with Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland.
Up for grabs are Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which account for 68 electoral votes.
And the Jewish vote in Michigan, Missouri, Nevada and Arizona -- though smaller than in these other states -- could be crucial in determining November’s winner in each.
The great unknown is whether Israel and the fight against terrorism will outweigh other issues in the minds of Jewish voters. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won almost 40% of the Jewish vote -- the best Republican showing in a generation -- because of doubts about President Carter’s leadership and a sense among some Jewish voters that he was trying to impose an onerous peace settlement on Israel.
Most Jews, like most voters, do not cast their ballots on the basis of any one issue, analysts said. While protecting the Jewish homeland is a concern, American Jews tend to move quickly past that issue so long as they are assured a candidate is not anti-Semitic or hostile toward Israel.
Forman, of the National Jewish Democratic Council, agreed with Daroff that Bush had been a friend of Israel. “But he’s no more friendly than [President] Clinton or Sen. Kerry,” Forman said. “Support for Israel, for combating terrorism and worldwide anti-Semitism is a bipartisan issue. So that’s not even a question in this election.”