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Is Biden worrying about losing the wrong voters?

A poll shows New York Jews preferring Trump to Biden. Perhaps Democrats should be more concerned about the impact of left-wing antisemitism.

A pro-Palestinian protest in New York City on Oct. 20, 2023. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A pro-Palestinian protest in New York City on Oct. 20, 2023. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Maybe President Joe Biden and his White House handlers are looking at their re-election problems through the wrong end of the telescope. Their top priority these days is doing something about their problems with the intersectional left-wing activist base of the Democratic Party that is unhappy about the administration’s support for the right of Israel to defend itself, as well as for the eradication of Hamas from Gaza after the Oct. 7 massacre in southern Israel. A main focus of that effort, at least as far as the Biden campaign is concerned, is trying to win back the affections of Arab-American voters in Michigan, a key swing state in the 2024 presidential election.

Earlier this month, the White House sent a delegation of policymakers to apologize to Abdullah Hammoud, the pro-Hamas mayor of Dearborn, Mich., for the president’s pro-Israel statements, even though he had already begun to shift towards a more even-handed stance. The latest demonstration of their worries about Michigan was the decision to send Vice President Kamala Harris to the state to address the concerns of the increasingly loud voices within the party that are calling the president “genocide Joe” for his continued refusal to cut off the supply of arms and ammunition to Israel, as well for vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions that attempted to impose an immediate ceasefire that would effectively enable Hamas to survive. While the unpopular Harris (her approval ratings are even lower than the president’s) is considered politically toxic outside of deep-blue enclaves, she was considered a good choice to send to Michigan because, as The New York Times put it, she “is seen as more critical of Israel than the president.”

While the president’s re-election campaign staff is laser-focused on Arab Americans and Muslims, is it possible that the Democrats are ignoring potential problems with what is, by any measure, the far larger number of voters who are Jewish and support Israel?

A surprising poll result

That’s a thought that may have crossed the minds of some political strategists this week when a Siena College poll of registered voters in the state of New York produced a rather surprising piece of data. The breakdown of the survey showed that those voters who identified themselves as being Jewish supported former President Donald Trump over Biden by 53% to 44% in a head-to-head matchup. When third-party candidates were offered as an alternative, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West, Trump still maintained an advantage among New York Jews, beating Biden by 46% to 38%.

If the poll is an accurate rendering of Jewish public opinion—and there are reasonable arguments to be made that it’s not—it reflects something of a revolution in American Jewish opinion.

While everything changes in politics, the one data point that has remained constant for the last century is that the overwhelming majority of American Jews have remained loyal Democrats. No Republican presidential candidate has won the Jewish vote since 1920. And, the Siena Poll notwithstanding, the chances of Trump doing so this year remain unlikely. But even if this result is an outlier, it should cause Biden and the Democrats to ponder whether their near-hysteria about their problems in places like Dearborn—which thanks to the openly antisemitic pronouncements of various imams in the mosques of a city with an Arab-American majority, coupled with the mayor’s support for the Oct. 7 atrocities, was dubbed the nation’s “jihad capital” by The Wall Street Journal—is a mistake.

Muslims, Arabs and left-wingers who buy into the intersectional myths that falsely label Israel a “settler-colonial” and “apartheid” state of “whites” oppressing Palestinian Arab “people of color” are a real problem for Biden right now. Their laments about the fate of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who have suffered as a result of Hamas’s decision to commit the Oct. 7 pogroms and start a war with Israel are being amplified by corporate press coverage in publications like the Times that liberals and Democrats still consider credible.

But most American Jews are understandably fixated on the surge in antisemitism in the United States, particularly since Oct. 7. While most Jews are accustomed to thinking of antisemitism as primarily a right-wing phenomenon, they know that the primary engine of Jew-hatred right now comes from the left—from some of the same voters that Biden is so worried about losing in the fall.

Growing concerns about antisemitism

The mobs chanting for the destruction of Israel (“from the river to the sea”) and for terrorism against Jews wherever they live (“globalize the intifada”) on college campuses and in the streets of American cities not only dwarf the tiny number of far-right extremists and neo-Nazis that so scared Jews in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. They also have more political influence—as evidenced by the virulent hostility for Israel that has become commonplace among left-wing Democrats and especially members of the congressional “Squad” led by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), whose numbers have grown with more House progressives joining them since they made their debut in Washington in 2019. Their views are also routinely echoed by columnists and editors in the Times and The Washington Post, where anti-Zionism and smears against Israel are so frequent as to be no longer noteworthy.

This has sent shockwaves throughout the American Jewish community, including among liberals who felt most at home at the very same institutions that enable the demonizing of not just the Jewish state but American Jews.

If Jewish donors to elite universities are finally demanding that their administrations end their coddling of antisemites—and reverse their acceptance of the woke catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) that grants a permission slip for antisemitism—then why should it seem surprising that some Jewish voters are doing the same to the Democrats?

Most Jews are still Democrats

Still, it would be foolish to jump to the conclusion that the Democrats’ stranglehold on Jewish votes is ending based on just one poll. While the minority of American Jews who are Orthodox or politically conservative have always treated Israel as a litmus test when it comes to voting, the majority who are politically liberal do not. For them, it is just one among many topics they care about. Other issues, such as their support for the right to abortion, the issue of climate change and other concerns that fall under the rubric of “social justice” are ranked as much higher priorities.

Moreover, the major shift in American politics in recent years should work to reinforce the traditional voting patterns of most Jews rather than overturn them. Democrats were once known as the “party of the people” but no more. They have largely become the party of the credentialed elites and Wall Street, while in the age of Trump, Republicans are now supported by working-class voters who used to be among the most loyal Democrats. In addition to the traditional political liberalism that is closely linked to their non-Orthodox beliefs, the majority of Jews are likely to be college-educated, which makes them among the least likely to be interested in changing parties.

And at a time of hyper-partisanship when political opinions now assume the role that religious beliefs used to play in most people’s lives, the bifurcation of American life is such that most liberal Jews think of voting Republican with the same horror the Orthodox regard eating non-kosher food. Placed on top of that the intense hatred for Trump felt by most liberal voters, who were unmoved by his historic support for Israel, and the case against a shift in Jewish voting seems even more unlikely.

Seen in that light, skepticism about the Siena poll is justified. As Mark Mellman, president of Democratic Majority for Israel, pointed out to JNS when asked about it, “the margin of error for Jews in the Sienna poll is plus or minus 13 points on each number.” He thinks that “this poll tells us very little about how New York Jews will vote.”

Even if the numbers for Trump are reduced by all of those 13 points, the number of Jews saying they’ll vote for him shouldn’t be dismissed.

Is the Jewish vote shifting?

There have already been some signs of a shift in Jewish voting patterns. For example, in 2022, 45% of Florida Jewish residents voted to re-elect Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. National exit polls also showed that in 2022, one-third of Jews voted for Republicans—an increase over past years. In New York, Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, who is Jewish, did better than the average GOP candidate, sweeping in areas like Rockland County north of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn that have large Jewish populations.

While New York is not in play this year, even a slight shift in the Jewish vote in battleground states like Pennsylvania, where Jews outnumber Muslims by 3-1, could turn the election as surely as any shift in the Arab vote could swing Michigan.

Those trends are likely to be even stronger this year with even liberal Jews worrying about left-wing antisemitism, and with anti-Israel and openly antisemitic members of Congress getting more attention as a result of Israel’s war against Hamas.

That’s why we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the Siena poll or to think that Biden might not have a bigger problem with many Jewish voters than his campaign thinks.

According to President George W. Bush’s White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, the poll was “stunning.” Fleischer, a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told me: “Even if you discount this for being out of line, Biden’s frequent criticisms of Israel and the unwarranted pressure he is applying to the Jewish state during a fight for its survival, is causing his support to crater among a reliably Democratic constituency.”

He may be right.

The demographic trends that are causing a decline in those identifying as adherents of Judaism also may be redefining who it is that we are speaking about when we talk about the Jewish vote.

The impact of demography

Most of those who make up anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow that are opposed to Israel’s existence and lobbying hard to save Hamas—and who are given disproportionate coverage in mainstream media outlets—are members of a slice of the community that is increasingly less interested in claiming Jewish identity and tend to do so only to denounce the Jewish state “as a Jew.” With skyrocketing rates of assimilation and intermarriage among the non-Orthodox creating a new reality that has caused Jewish communities to become inevitably smaller, those who remain inside the tent are more likely to be more religious, as well as more concerned about preserving Jewish lives and Israel’s security than in virtue-signaling their concerns about Palestinians.

The 2024 election is shaping up to be a race unlike any other in American history. There is an incumbent in Biden with record-low favorability ratings rooted in the perception of his diminished capacities and failures in office, and a challenger in Trump who is considered beyond the pale and hated by half the country. Never mind his being under siege from a campaign of lawfare waged by Democrats determined to either jail him or throw him off the ballot. In such an unprecedented contest, anything can happen. It would still be astonishing if Biden didn’t win the Jewish vote in November. But when you consider a surge of left-wing antisemitism and a president who seems more worried about offending antisemites than winning over Jews he clearly thinks are already in his pocket, it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility of a historic shift in Jewish votes.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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