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November 15, 2004

The hidden Jewish vote

Five hundred years ago, during the Spanish Inquisition, some Jews pretended to convert and hid their secret practice of Judaism from the authorities. This year, in an ironic twist, some American Jews have felt the need to hide their vote for Bush, even though they were voting for the same presidential candidate favored by a majority of their fellow Americans.

The conventional wisdom now is that President Bush received only about 25% of the Jewish vote in this election. I'm firmly convinced that the conventional wisdom is wrong. The exit polls are doubtful, and anecdotal evidence, both in the blogosphere and from my own personal experience, suggests that the Jewish vote may have been up to 5% higher. Whether Bush received 25 or 30 percent of the Jewish vote may seem like bupkes (nothing), but if I'm right, it's actually a very big deal.

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The first thing to understand is that the Jewish vote is historically a liberal, Democratic vote. No Republican presidential candidate has won a majority of the Jewish vote at least as far back as 1916. In the past seven presidential elections, the Jewish vote for the Republican has varied from nearly 40% in 1980 to just 11% in 1992. So dramatic is this propensity to vote for Democrats that it has become a bitter joke for some Jews. Cathy Seipp informs us that her friend, frustrated at the early pro-Kerry vote coming out of Florida on election night, quipped that "Bush could convert to Judaism, then complain about his colonoscopy over diet soda and knishes, and those old Jews still wouldn't vote for him."

There are many explanations for the Jewish vote, but here, the old adage applies: Three Jews and four opinions. Many liberal Jews feel they are engaging in a quest for "social justice." And there is no doubt that redistributionist principles are found in traditional Judaism, but these principles are intended for relatively closed Jewish societies trying to follow God's law. No one has adequately explained why Jews (particularly secular liberal Jews) are justified in using the power of the American government to apply these redistributionist principles to Americans in general -- not just to Jews but also to the other 98% of Americans.

A second explanation, along the same lines, cites the Hebrew prophets as the inspiration for contemporary liberal social policies. I once heard a prominent Reform rabbi on the radio praise his movement's decision to officiate at gay "marriages" by saying that the decision grew out of "prophetic Judaism." The image tickled me: the prophet Elijah at Mount Carmel taunting the prophets of Ba'al . . . because they didn't allow gay marriages.

My own partial explanation of Jewish liberalism is that American Jews still have a shtetl mentality. They fear that, just as on the shtetls of Eastern Europe, they are somehow at risk of being attacked by the local gentiles. Of course, I don't mean physically attacked; the fear is of what one official called "stealth evangelism." Many Jews feel more comfortable with a secular society in which religious beliefs are kept private than with open religiosity. This is not surprising for members of a minority religion, but many Jews have taken it to such an extreme that they rationalize rejecting evangelical support for Israel by denigrating the evangelicals' good faith. They also have expressed fear of the "moral values" of Christian conservatives, even though those values are in large part consistent with the moral values of traditional Judaism. (Liberal Jews who actually respect traditional religious teachings tend to "compartmentalize" them.)

The fear of Christians may have made sense in the "old country," or in Europe, but it verges on the absurd in contemporary America. Give an American Jew the following multiple choice question: A Jew should be afraid of (a) Christians, or (b) Muslims. The answer "(a)" deserves no credit.

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Whatever the explanation for Jewish liberalism, the lopsided vote of Jews in favor of Democrats is not much of a surprise when you consider that fully 75% of American Jews live in "blue" states. (Add Ohio and Florida, the two largest almost-"blue" states, and you get seventh-eighths of the Jewish population.) If Jews simply voted the way the majority voted in their states, the vote would be 75% to 25% for Kerry. I've described this 75-25 split as the "equilibrium point" for the Jewish vote. I've hypothesized that we might have to shift our traditional 50-50 benchmark to measure Jewish voting in order to have a realistic basis for comparison.

In fact, this 75-25 split is almost exactly what occurred in the 2004 elections, at least according to the conventional wisdom. Three exit polls (AP, CNN, and Frank Luntz) placed the Jewish vote for Bush at 23%, 24%, and 25%, respectively. As a result, Republicans see an increase in the Jewish vote and are pleased. Democrats see an overwhelming vote for Kerry and are all but spiking the ball in the end zone. But this conventional wisdom is entirely based on exit polls, and I'm convinced those polls don't tell the true story.

To begin with, in an election cycle in which exit polls were so famously off the mark, why would anyone accept exit polling as the gold-standard in determining the Jewish vote? Stanley Greenberg, a pollster for Democrats, claims that the numbers were later adjusted to take turnout into account, but let's face it: You just can't make that pig kosher.

Even the poll taken by Luntz, the most respected among these exit pollsters, doesn't tell us much. Luntz limited his survey to Jews in Ohio and Florida, using a sample of 484 voters. Although that sample size is probably large enough for the vote in those two states, the national Jewish population is eight times larger. A quibble? Maybe. But Luntz also undermined his survey by drawing broad conclusions about subgroups like Orthodox Jews, who could have constituted only a small fraction of those 484 voters. Let's assume 10% to 15% of respondents were Orthodox. How does one draw valid conclusions about Brooklyn based on 48 to 72 responses in Ohio and Florida?

The far more important point, however, is that polls depend on truthful responses and representative sampling. We've always heard stories about how Republicans don't respond to telephone polls, but there's more to it than that. Pollsters have finally begun to admit that there are whole groups of people they may not be able to reach -- for example, people whose only phone is a cell phone. What we haven't yet heard from pollsters is that some people they call are reluctant to tell the truth. These respondents either refuse to respond at all or, if they do respond, give false answers (which the pollsters would be hard-pressed to recognize).

How could anyone lie to a pollster? Isn't that un-American? I don't think so. We all get so caught up in watching the polls that we tend to forget that we have a secret ballot in this country. There's a good reason for it, too.

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This was as bitter an election as I can remember, particularly on the Left, a large part of which never accepted the validity of the 2000 election results. The Left did more than just repeat the mantra "Re-Defeat Bush"; it equated Bush with Hitler. Michael Moore's infamous film, which many Democrats endorsed, portrayed Bush not just as stupid but as utterly evil. And numerous Bush-Cheney campaign offices were targets of vandalism and violence, including gunshots in more than one case.

This hostility translated into unfriendly, even uncivil, political discourse, and Jews were hardly immune from it. For example, there were ongoing battles in what Judith Weiss of Kesher Talk (who collected many of the following anecdotes) called the "condo wars." An article in the Jewish Week about two weeks before the election was headlined "Passions Rising in Palm Beach/Jew vs. Jew animosity at record levels in South Florida as GOP seeks inroads." The article quoted the executive director of the local branch of the Republican Jewish Coalition: "There's almost a new anti-Semitism within the Jewish community because of the lack of tolerance [for opposing views]."

My own experience in the Washington, D.C., area was perhaps not so bracing, but it confirmed the general tenor of political discussion. Although quite a few people who know me realized that I was strongly pro-Bush, I avoided political discussions with my fellow Jews, unless I was certain they were at least open-minded on the subject. There was no point in my alienating friends and acquaintances and becoming angry at them at the same time. And I was not alone in keeping quiet. A member of my synagogue sidled up to me at a bat mitzvah a few weeks before the election, looked around, and said confidentially, "I want to tell you something. I'm voting for Bush." After the election, a surprising -- almost alarming -- number of Jewish Bush voters "came out" to me. And, of course, every Jewish Bush voter knows others who were hounded by friends, family, and even distant relatives after mentioning they were planning to vote for Bush. This type of intimidation kept some Jews from disclosing their intentions to anyone else.

This intimidation was particularly a problem for liberal Jews who supported Bush because of his response to terrorism. Apart from Ed Koch, Ron Silver, and a few brave souls in the blogosphere, liberal Jews had every reason to shut up if they were going to vote for Bush. Judith Weiss has a liberal Jewish friend who wrote a widely read anonymous essay explaining why she, the friend, had decided to vote for Bush (with a follow-up here). Because the friend worked in the entertainment industry, however, she refused to reveal her identity.

The same was true among older Jewish voters in Florida, like Rosita Bard, a retired accountant from Lake Worth.

"Everybody I know is for anybody but Bush," she said. "And they are so hostile. … I’m afraid to tell people I’m Republican. When I do, they say they can’t believe I’m Jewish." Bard, 67 and a native of Honduras, said she is "afraid to put anything on my car that says Bush-Cheney because we have friends who had their car scratched and the Bush-Cheney bumper sticker ripped off. And it happened in the parking lot of a synagogue in Delray Beach! I can’t believe this is going on."

In Los Angeles, Jews were quietly talking to a local Jewish Republican:
"When I first supported the president in 2000, I got nothing but jeers and hate calls," said [Dr. Joel] Strom, a Beverly Hills dentist and a professor of ethics at USC Dental School. "Now, I have people coming up to me in synagogue and quietly whispering, 'Hey, I can’t believe I’m going to vote for him.'"
The comments sections of various blogs abounded with personal stories about closeted Jewish Bush voters. In one story I came across recently, the writer was among a group of Jewish women in Los Angeles who were discussing how much they hated Bush. After one woman announced that no sane person could support Bush, the writer horrified everyone by contradicting her. Later, some of the women's husbands quietly told the writer that they planned to vote for Bush because of terrorism and tax cuts but were afraid to tell their wives.

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In short, the reason I think that Bush actually did better among Jews than the equilibrium point of 75%-25% is that some Jews were hiding the fact that they voted for him, and their votes and the votes of those like them were not picked up. The only question is how many.

My experience has been that closeted Jews for Bush would generally disclose their plans to vote for him or their actual vote only to people they felt comfortable with. For that reason, I seriously doubt that they would speak openly to a stranger conducting an exit poll. I realize we are no longer in the realm of science (as if polling could be called scientific without eliciting laughter), but anecdotal evidence coupled with reasonable logical inference can legitimately undermine the validity of these surveys.

Faced with a choice between faulty polls and the anecdotal evidence I have described, I have no hesitation in going with the latter. But what of the figure I've given for the secret Jewish vote (up to 5%)? This is my best guess; a hidden vote from one out of 20 Jewish voters doesn't seem terribly unlikely. Nevertheless, I'm the first to admit we'll simply never know the real Jewish vote.

One thing I'm confident of is this: In 2000, with something like 19% of the Jewish vote, Bush was on the wrong side of the "equilibrium point." This year, he has moved to the right side, above the 25% benchmark. By most standards, looking to whether a sitting president can beat 25% lends new meaning to the phrase "soft bigotry of low expectations." In the case of the Jewish vote, it marks significant progress.