The American Jewish vote that has been traditionally overwhelmingly Democrat may very well change dramatically in the next Presidential election. The reason is the potentially substantial gap between the significant pro-Israel policies of President Donald Trump and the objections to some if not many of these policies by the likely Democratic nominee. Historically, the American Jewish community has shown signs that when there is a gap between the candidates concerning Israel twenty percent or more of the Jewish vote may change and go to the candidate who is considered the one more favorable towards Israel.
A recent example came in the 2018 Florida governor’s race, in which now-Gov. Ron DeSantis made Israel an important issue in his campaign against Democrat Andrew Gillum. DeSantis was the leading member of Congress involved in moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and, during the Florida gubernatorial race, he proclaimed that, if elected, he would be the most pro-Israel Governor in the United States. Gillum also asserted that he was pro-Israel, and he had visited Israel three times, though he did not support the embassy move and clearly was not in the same league as a friend of Israel as DeSantis. Gillum won the Jewish vote in Florida by a 65-35 margin; however, considering that Trump had received around 24 percent of Florida’s Jewish vote in the 2016 presidential election, DeSantis’s 35 percent of the Jewish vote represented around a 50 percent increase in support for a Republican candidate by Jewish voters in Florida.
The Florida election may prove to be a strong predictor as to the Jewish vote in the 2020 presidential election because Florida’s gubernatorial candidates will likely be similar to the candidates in the upcoming presidential election. DeSantis was closely aligned with Trump, and Gillum is closely aligned with the Democratic anti-Trump views as he supported the impeachment of Trump. Further, given Florida’s large Jewish population, that state’s 2018 gubernatorial race was one of the very few statewide elections in a major contested state in which Israel was a major campaign issue. Sen. Rick Scott did not make Israel a major issue in his Senate victory against Sen. Bill Nelson, and as a result, he won only 27 percent of the Jewish vote. The difference between DeSantis winning Trump’s 24 percent level of support and his receiving 35 percent of the Jewish vote ultimately proved to be the decisive factor that DeSantis needed to win the election.
Historically, the Jewish community was not always voting Democrat by big margins. The Jewish community voted 40 percent for Republican Dwight Eisenhower. It then dropped to 18 percent for Nixon against Hubert Humphrey, but when George McGovern was perceived as not favorable to Israel, Nixon won 35 percent of the Jewish vote in 1972 against McGovern. President Gerald Ford was not perceived well by the Jewish community due to his pressuring Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. As a result, President Jimmy Carter received 71 percent of the Jewish vote, which proved decisive in Carter’s close win against Ford. President Carter was then perceived as not being a friend of Israel and Ronald Reagan was viewed as a friend of Israel and as a result Carter received only 45% of the Jewish vote against Ronald Reagan’s 39 percent of the Jewish vote with the rest going to independent John Anderson. In 1992, George H. W. Bush received 35 percent of the Jewish vote against Mike Dukakis, but with Secretary of State James Baker publicly blasting Israel alleging that Israel did not care about peace, Bush’s support in the Jewish community dropped to 11 percent, and he lost the election as Democrat Bill Clinton won 80 percent of the Jewish vote.
The Republican Jewish vote finally got to 30 percent in 2012 when Mitt Romney faced President Barack Obama, specifically because many American Jews viewed Obama as being unfriendly towards Israel and, specifically, hostile towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Like Gillum in Florida in 2018, Obama tried to claim that he was pro-Israel, and yet his support in the Jewish community changed more than any other group between his two elections, as he won 78 percent of the Jewish vote against McCain in 2008, but just 69 percent of the Jewish vote against Romney in 2012. In 2016, support in the Jewish community dropped for the Republican presidential candidate (Donald Trump) to 24 percent, and yet he was able to still win the election. The reason for his vote drop in the Jewish community was because the Jewish community largely perceived Hillary Clinton as pro-Israel from her days as a New York senator, and they viewed her doing the bidding of Obama when she was Secretary of State. Trump did not make a significant effort to make Israel a prominent issue in the last election as Israel barely came up in the debates, in his campaign speeches or in his Convention speech.
However, since his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, Trump has impressed the Jewish community with his strongly pro-Israel positions and actions—most significantly, the United States recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Trump closed the Palestinian Authority office in Washington, D.C., and significantly cut financial aid to the Palestinian Authority (now it has been ended by the P.A. itself) because of their official policy of promoting and financing rewards for the murder of Israelis and American Jews. Trump also designated the Jerusalem Consulate as subordinate to the Jerusalem embassy. He withdrew America from the Obama-era 2015 Iran nuclear deal which, because Iran routinely calls for Israel’s total destruction, was a major issue to the Jewish community. Considering the fact that very few Democrats supported Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and because the embassy move is now a reliable component in every speech Trump makes before even non Jewish audiences, indicates that Trump will make it a big issue in the 2020 campaign. Regarding the large Jewish voting bloc in Florida, the fact that Trump won Florida with 24 percent of the Jewish vote makes a Trump victory in Florida even more likely as his Jewish support is projected to increase substantially in the next election. It is important to note that Israel is a much more important issue for Jewish voters in a presidential election than it would be in a gubernatorial election.
There were two Democratic aligned polls by the Mellman Group and J Street that claimed that the Jewish vote either did not care about Israel or that Trump’s Jewish support was not likely to increase from its 24 percent level. However, the Fox exit poll in the Desantis-Gillum race was a much more scientific poll and likely a better predictor re: 2020 as DeSantis closely tied himself to Trump. It appears that Mr. Mellman now realizes the danger the lack of support for Israel could have for the Jewish vote with the Democratic Party, as he has begun an organized effort to try to strengthen support for Israel within the Democratic Party.
However, the Democratic Party has been going in the opposite direction as recommended by Mr. Mellman as it regards Israel and this could lead to a significant change in the Jewish vote. New Democratic members of Congress Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have been public with their support for the boycott, divestment and sanction movement against Israel, of which the international definition of anti-Semitism includes as an anti-Semitic movement. The failure of the Democratic Party leadership to publicly condemn and disassociate from them as the Republicans did with Representative Steve King for his outrageous comments will hurt the Democratic Party with the Jewish community. Representative Alexandria Occasio-Cortez decision to speak to British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will further hurt the Democrats, as more than 80 percent of British Jews view Corbyn as anti-Semitic. Corbyn’s election to lead the Labor Party in England led to a massive overwhelming shift of Jewish support to the conservative British Tory Party, led by Prime Minister Theresa May.
The recent Pew study shows that while support for Israel among Republican voters has increased substantially to very high levels it has decreased significantly among Democratic voters. Though the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate and on major committees are strong friends of Israel, this will not be relevant if the Democratic Presidential candidate is not a strong friend. The recent vote on the anti-BDS Senate bill authored by Sen. Marco Rubio saw virtually all of the likely Democratic presidential candidates opposing the bill despite overwhelmingly bipartisan support for the legislation. The opponents included Sen. Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Sherrod Brown.
DeSantis has moved quickly to keep his campaign promise to be the most pro-Israel governor by quickly having Florida recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, taking action against the BDS support by the Airbnb rental company and announcing that his first foreign trip will be to Israel. His actions will likely increase support for Trump as well in Florida within the Jewish community.
Trump may not win the election in two years and he may not win Florida, but if things continue as they now stand Trump will surely significantly increase his support of the Jewish vote because historically and currently the Jewish community does consider a candidate’s support for Israel as a major concern when it comes to casting their vote. The Jewish vote could decide who wins Florida; if the Democrats lose the state, then their pathway to victory in 2020 becomes very narrow. The Democratic candidate for president may win the nomination without being a strong friend of Israel, but if that is the case, they likely they will have a more difficult time winning the presidency.
Farley Weiss is president of the National Council of Young Israel. He is an intellectual property attorney for the law firm of Weiss & Moy.