Analysis: The Jewish vote mattered more than we thought in 2020

Trump’s better-than-expected showing, despite many Jews thinking that he’s a hatemonger, speaks volumes about the chasm between the two warring Jewish political tribes.

By Jonathan S. Tobin, Editor-in-Chief, JNS

We already knew that the chasm that separates those Jews who vote for Democrats and those who vote for Republicans was already wide. The partisan split between all Americans who vote for the two major parties is growing all the time. But is there any gap greater than that between two branches of the same ethnic/religious tree that separates the Jews who voted for former Vice President Joe Biden and those who voted for President Donald Trump?

As a general rule, analyses of the Jewish vote in presidential elections tend to be a sterile exercise that has more to do with a contest for what amounts to nothing more than bragging rights between Jewish Democrats and Republicans. But this year, measuring the breakdown of the Jewish vote turned out to be more significant than that.

By doing a lot better among Jewish voters than his opponents expected, Trump demonstrated that there may actually be some persuadable voters among Jews and that they can be won by appealing to their attachment to the State of Israel.

Unified Jewish community: a myth

Yet in doing so, this election also proved that the gulf between those who were willing to cast their votes for him and the majority who didn’t is more than a spirited disagreement. It’s a function of a stark demographic reality in which the notion of a unified Jewish community has been proven again to be a myth.

The only way to understand the 2020 campaign is to realize that the talk of two distinct warring American Jewish tribes that neither understand nor want much to do with each other is not a metaphor. It is a harsh reality that must be acknowledged and taken into account in every discussion about communal life.

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More data will be forthcoming in the future as the vote is studied in detail. But the initial exit polls of the 2020 electorate do demonstrate that Trump improved upon his performance in 2016 when he won approximately 24 percent of the Jewish vote nationally.

The AP Votecast showed Biden beating Trump among Jewish voters by a 68-30 margin. That poll roughly overlapped with a poll commissioned by the Republican Jewish Coalition that showed the breakdown as 60.6 percent for Biden and 30.5 percent for Trump with 9 percent split between minor party candidates and those who wouldn’t reveal their vote.

Another poll sponsored by the left-wing lobby J Street showed a better result for the Democrats with Biden beating Trump 77 percent to 21 percent, but it appears that, unsurprisingly, their sample overcounted progressive voters and undercounted Orthodox Jews.

By contrast, the AP and the RJC polls dovetail not only with a Fox News Voter Analysis that showed Biden besting Trump by a 69-30 margin, but also with a previous poll of American Jews taken before the election by the Jewish Electoral Institute that also showed Biden getting 67 percent and Trump 30 percent.

That makes the J Street poll the outlier. The other surveys all showed that Biden’s percentage of the Jewish vote appears to be the lowest total for any Democrat since 1988 while Trump is the best showing for a Republican since that same year.

The AP poll was also able to give us a breakdown by state of the Jewish vote published in The New York Times. Among the most significant were the totals for the battleground state of Florida, where Jews comprised 3 percent of all voters.

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The AP showed that in Florida, the gap between the candidates was closer than elsewhere with Biden only winning by a 58-41 margin. Translated into actual votes that meant that Trump got about at least somewhere in the vicinity of 150,000 Jewish votes. In a competitive state where he wound up winning by only 377,000 votes, that’s significant, especially if it was far more than he got in 2016.

Given that the RJC invested heavily in ad buys aimed at persuading Jewish voters that Trump deserved their votes because of his record on Israel, this demonstrates that the effort succeeded to some extent. Indeed, as the RJC poll showed, those voters who considered Israel and foreign-policy issues to be their priority went for Trump by a whopping 87 percent to 6 percent margin. This validates the conventional wisdom that Orthodox voters, who went for Trump by a 70-19 margin, look to Israel as their litmus test.

Jews, like other Americans, generally vote along partisan lines for the candidates of the party with which they affiliate. However, it also reveals that it’s still possible for politicians to increase Jewish support, albeit marginally, by demonstrating—as Trump has done—that they are a friend of Israel.

There’s something else going on that needs to be put into context and understood.

This election was no ordinary political contest. It was as nasty as any in living memory. That was especially true among Jews. Jewish Democrats didn’t just disagree with Trump’s stands on the issues; they presented him to the public as nothing less than the moral equivalent of a Nazi bent on destroying democracy and presenting a physical and existential threat to Jewish survival.

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Whatever people think about Trump, when you consider that he did more to mobilize the federal government to fight anti-Semitism, as well as align the United States more closely with the Jewish state than any of his predecessors, that’s an astonishing and false assertion.

Clash of worldviews

While up to two-thirds of American Jews really do think Trump is some kind of Nazi, about a third thought he was not just worthy of re-election yet also Israel’s best friend.

People can agree to disagree about policy choices. However, the gap between thinking someone is akin to Joseph Goebbels (as Biden termed him in an interview) and believing Trump to be a righteous gentile is a clash of worldviews, not a polite disagreement.

We already knew Orthodox and politically conservative Jews disagreed with the majority of Jews who are non-Orthodox and politically liberal. But when you realize that a lot of those liberals really do think their Jewish brethren voted for an authoritarian and anti-Semite, then that is a fact that must be reckoned with.

The pious talk, which I have always believed more out of hope than as a result of empirical proof, that what unites Jews is greater than that which divides them may be just that, mere words rather than reality.

This election provided encouragement for Republicans to keep working to win Jewish voters, even as Democrats can rightly point out that the overwhelming majority of Jews are loyal to their party. Yet those who are tasked with trying to bring us together need to stop pretending that the divide isn’t so great and begin to acknowledge that these are two warring Jewish tribes that have less and less in common than ever before.