One of the many ironies of American politics is that while top Republican politicians are eager to show their support for the state of Israel, Jewish voters in the U.S. remain overwhelmingly in the camp of the Democratic Party.
For example, according to the New York Times’ exit polls, in the 2008 Presidential election, the Democrat candidate Barack Obama received 78 percent of the Jewish vote, trouncing Republican John McCain who gained only 21 percent.
“Jewish voters tend to be liberal, whatever their income level,” said Howard L. Reiter, president of the New England Political Science Association and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Connecticut.
“They have an egalitarian ethos and sympathy for the underdog.”
Moreover, going back over the past eight presidential elections (dating to Republican Ronald Reagan’s first victory), Jews have consistently voted Democrat, sometimes by substantial margins. Jewish support for Democrats seemed to reach a zenith in 1992, when Bill Clinton’s name was entered in four out of five Jewish ballots (the Republican George H. W. Bush got only 11 percent).
Ronald Reagan did best among the Jewish electorate in the past three decades, garnering a respectable 39 percent of Jewish support in 1980 (versus 45 percent for the Democrat Jimmy Carter).
However, Jewish identification with Democrats goes back at least to the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who espoused a strongly anti-Adolf Hitler platform, as well as unveiling the ‘New Deal’ economic program.
Nonetheless, Republican presidential candidates have made a visit to Israel almost a requirement of the whole process of raising the profile of their campaigns.
The governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour will be the third potential Republican candidate – behind Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee – to visit the Jewish state recently. Like his GOP predecessors, Barbour will visit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and see some holy sites.
All while Egypt and some other Middle Eastern nations sink deeper into political turmoil.
Indeed, Huckabee used the political unrest in Egypt as a pretense for warning about the dangers of fundamentalist Islam in the region while supporting the building of Jewish settlements in disputed lands, including East Jerusalem.
However, Reiter suggests that many younger Jewish voters in the U.S. might not consider Israeli issues central to their political universe.
“There's a generational divide among Jews, with younger ones less focused on Israel and more likely to be critical of Israeli policies.” he said.
Reiter does not believe the majority of U.S. Jews will move significantly into the GOP’s arms.
“The stances of right-wing Republicans make it hard to appeal to a generally liberal Jewish electorate,” he noted.
Still, within local and regional elections, Jews are likely to vote for Republican candidates. For example, New York Jews overwhelmingly supported mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani.
“Every local election is different,” Reiter said. “In New York, there may be more of a tendency to back candidates who cater to Israel; some of the Jewish subcultures there are more pro-Israeli.”