(November 16, 2020 / JCPA) The 2020 presidential election in the United States presented unique circumstances in light of unprecedented early, mail-in and absentee voting, but also provided a focus on the role played by the so-called “Jewish vote,” especially in “battleground states” such as Pennsylvania and Florida. We have been conducting studies of the Jewish-American community over the past two years and examined voting behavior in this election as another data point in helping us understand the community’s attitudes and behavior.
Shortly following the close of polls on Election Day, we launched a survey targeting Jewish Americans. Our goal was to provide insight on several key questions, the results of which are presented here. However, prior to presenting and describing these results, a word of caution. While our sample of 540 respondents had a 4 percent margin of error, the presence of a skewed sample needs to be considered.
Our goal was to conduct a reasonably expedited study, something which can lead to the overrepresentation of certain elements and underrepresentation of others. While our sample was well-balanced insofar as gender is concerned (51 percent male, 48 percent female), it was overrepresented by individuals above 60 years of age. While the Jewish-American population does tend to be older than the general population, 85 percent of our sample was above 60, more than twice the estimated actual percentage in the Jewish-American community. Additionally, only a little of 3 percent of our sample described themselves as “Orthodox,” below the estimated 10 percent of that denomination in the actual community.
While these technical issues need to be considered, it should be pointed out that (as will be seen later) the general trends in the 15 percent of our sample below the age of 60 were almost identical to those above that age. Moreover, given the nature of our questions, it is likely that conclusions in a younger segment of the community, who would be expected to be less traditional “Jewish voters,” would be at least as valid as our conclusions based on our sample that tended to be older.
We looked at several elements to gain an understanding of how Jewish Americans voted. First, we wanted to see if there was consistency between the stated positions of voters and actual voting behavior. In other words, did people vote for whom they said they would vote? Second, we looked at the role Jewish identity played and asked about “pro-Israel” attitudes. We also looked at which issues played a role in determining how Jewish Americans voted.
The ‘shy’ voter
While there was little relative difference between the “public” position of our sample and their actual vote, the practical implications of the small percentage changes loom large. We found about 80 percent of our sample publicly stating that they planned to vote for Joe Biden, with 97 percent of that sample actually voting for Biden on election day or in mail-in voting.
While the percentage may be small, if this statistic is accurate, the 3 percent decrement may represent a larger raw vote total of “shy” voters over the entire Jewish-American voting population. But we also found a change in the stated position of those who publicly held a pro-Trump position, with almost 5 percent of that sample not voting for him.
While our sample of total Trump voters may be too small to draw definitive conclusions (88 in our sample), the notion that “shy” Biden voters may have been present in certain sections of the Jewish-American community also warrants attention.
After polls closed and results started coming in, our sample subjects were confident in their choice, with less than 3 percent indicating that they regretted their vote at all.
Israel, Jewish identity and voting behavior
What is becoming clear in a number of surveys, analyses and discussions is that the utility of the term “pro-Israel” for Jewish Americans may be fading, replaced by a more focused and issue-specific attitude. Many Jewish Americans are no longer reflexively “pro” Israel, but rather look at issues and policy when it comes to Israel with no less a critical eye than they would with any other issue.
For some, “pro-settlement” activity is decidedly also “pro-Israel,” but can we also say that Jewish Americans who oppose settlement activity, as many Israelis do, are not? Similarly, those Jewish Americans who supported withdrawing from the JCPOA [Iran nuclear deal] were clearly seen as “pro-Israel,” but we also know that many who supported the JCPOA (and support returning to it) do, in fact, see it as in Israel’s interests and consider themselves “pro-Israel” as well.
Complicating this are factors related to other aspects of the lives of Jewish Americans that understandably may take priority over Israel-related issues. Education, race relations and healthcare are among the types of issues that impact daily life in the United States and may lead to choices for Jewish Americans that would appear to compromise a “pro-Israel” stance (such as in supporting a candidate who is not sympathetic to Israel).
Clarifying the issue-centric approach may be the unifying factor in different studies on “pro-Israel” attitudes among Jewish Americans. The argument of whether and how much Jewish Americans are “pro-Israel” may be an exercise in semantic vagaries that now have little utilitarian value. The answer for a growing number of Jewish Americans would seem to be, “It depends.”
Rather than present a binary choice between “yes” and “no” on the question of being “pro-Israel,” we added a third choice that reflects the difficulty many Jewish Americans have with the term. We added, “The term is too vague for me to give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer,” and we found the result telling, as more than 37 percent of our sample chose that option (another 5 percent said they were definitely not pro-Israel).
Clearly, a majority had no problem saying “yes” (more than 57 percent), but the hesitation to definitively place oneself in the “pro-Israel” camp that we found may explain the difference between blind support and the desire to be more nuanced and specific in endorsing any specific Israeli policy or activity.
Since statistics can be molded according to a particular preference, it is thus understandable, but not entirely accurate, to claim, as some (like Bari Weiss) have argued, that “95 percent of Jews … support the Jewish state.”
As pointed out by Caroline Morganti in a recent piece in Jewish Currents, questions on Jewish support for Israel tend to be couched in “emotional” terms, with questions on “connectedness” or “attachment.” This type of focus presents an overlay that clouds meaningful understanding of what any “support” consists of or means.
It is this same coloring and interpretation of the term “pro-Israel” that allows J Street to also show the limits of the 95 percent “support” noted by Bari Weiss by finding that 92 percent of a sample they surveyed felt that “someone can be critical of Israeli government policies and still be ”pro-Israel.”
Surveys conducted by the Mellman Group perhaps best present the practical meaning of “pro-Israel” by using the term “generally” in gauging opinion on “pro-Israel” attitudes among Jewish-Americans. Saying “generally” allows for the emotional or identity support of Israel to be checked off, while also allowing for critical views on specific policies or issues.
In this election, however, we found fully half of our sample said that their Jewish identity did not figure at all into their choice for president. While the other half did say it had an impact, only 13 percent said it figured a “great deal,” and only 8 percent said it figured “a lot.”
Our finding on the conditional nature of “pro-Israel” sentiment can serve as the common denominator between the various conclusions of what Jewish Americans support, what they have issues with and how they can be described. What our data suggest is that “pro-Israel” may no longer be a functionally useful term in understanding the attitudes and behavior of Jewish Americans.
Israel-related issues did not appear to play a major role in how our sample of Jewish Americans voted. The importance of Israel, on a scale of 1 to 100, was a tepid 46. Of course, this does not mean that Israel-related issues are not important to Jewish Americans; it means that in this particular election, Israel took a back seat to something else.
Trump versus Biden voters
While the results reported above may hold true for our sample in general, we see strong differences between Trump and Biden voters, with our overall data being heavily influenced by the preponderance of the latter.
If we separate out the Trump voters (about 16 percent of our sample), we see that their unequivocal “support” for Israel is much more definitive. Among those who voted for Trump, close to 87 percent were able to endorse the “yes” option, while only 11.9 percent (versus 42.3 percent of Biden voters) chose the option: “The term is too vague for me to give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.”
On the question of the importance of Israel-related issues in their decision on how to vote, Biden voters rated a 42 (on a preference scale of 1-100), while Trump voters rated a 68. Also, while only 20 percent of our sample of Biden voters stated that their Jewish identity played a role to “a great deal” in their voting, 32 percent of the Trump sample felt that way. While we must caution that the sample size of Trump voters is relatively small, the trend is noticeable and warrants further study.
Looking again at this question from the perspective of Biden voters, the contrast is quite strong. In looking at Israel-related aspects of voting behavior, our data would suggest that the obvious difference we found between Biden voters and Trump voters regarding their attitude towards being “pro-Israel” may reflect a meaningful divergence among the Jewish-American community that is related to political orientation. Some, like writer Jonathan S. Tobin, have explained this as part of a cultural divide among Jewish Americans: “Two different tribes choose different candidates.”
The ‘younger’ voter (under 60)
As noted earlier, while our sample is underrepresented in terms of the under-60 age group, the general trend in the limited younger sample we surveyed does not appear to differ from the general overall picture. In the younger group, the split on the “pro-Israel” question was 51.32 percent “yes,” 9.21 percent “no,” and 39.47 percent “too vague to answer.”
Character and trust
We presented a list of 12 issues and asked which was the “most important” and which was the second “most important” in choosing whom to vote for president. Many of the issues were included in the J Street survey noted above, but unlike the J Street survey, we also added “character and trust” to the other more “standard” choices that included climate change, COVID-19, health care and the economy. We also had a choice of “concern over left-progressive extremism” that was not included in the J Street survey.
Our findings here are striking. By far and away, “character and trust” was the “most important” reason (more than 59 percent), with no other issue gaining more than about 6 percent. “Character and trust” also figured into the second “most important” reason for those who chose another issue, making it either the “most” or “second most” important factor in choosing whom to vote for president for close to 70 percent of our total sample.
But here again, this trend was not present when isolating out the Trump voters, who saw “concern over left-progressive extremism” as their most important issue by almost 37 percent. Another 23 percent saw it as the second “most important” issue, making it either the “most” or the “second most” important factor in choosing for whom to vote for president (a total of 60 percent of the Trump voter sample).
“Character and trust” was the “most important” or second “most important” factor for less than 18 percent of Trump voters. For Biden voters, “character and trust” was the “most” or “second most” important factor in choosing whom to vote for president for more than 80 percent in our sample.
Showing the same trends, younger Jewish voters choose “character and trust” far more than other issues as their “most important” or “second most important” issue, with 57.9 percent selecting that option. Other issues ranked far behind, as in the general sample.
Other findings of note
We asked about Jewish voters’ choices in 2016 and found no difference in the sample as far as their party choice for president was concerned. While there was a slight increase in Democrat votes (owing to more votes for Biden than for a third-party candidate in 2016), voters for Trump remained steady (16.9 percent in 2016 versus 16.4 percent in 2020).
Jewish Biden voters do have some concerns about the future direction of their political party as far as Israel-related issues or anti-Semitism are concerned, but seem to be fairly confident about the policy regarding Iran. On Israel, 44.23 percent have no concern at all, while 55.7 percent have varying degrees of concern. Less than 14 percent, however, have “a great deal” or “a lot” of concern.
Compare this with Jewish Trump voters, who, perhaps surprisingly to some, showed a greater concern for future Republican direction on Israel, with two-thirds expressing some degree of concern, and more than 32 percent expressing “a great deal” or “a lot” of concern.
Regarding anti-Semitism, Biden voters show a similar pattern as with concern over Israel-related issues, with more than 45 percent not concerned at all, 11.5 percent concerned “a great deal” and only 9.8 percent concerned “a lot.”
Trump voters again show concern similar to their concern over Israeli-related issues and again, to a greater degree, about future Republican direction on anti-Semitism than Democrats. Here, while 41 percent are not concerned at all, more than 58 percent are concerned to some degree, with more than 15 percent concerned “a great deal” and more than 19 percent concerned “a lot.”
Regarding Iran, we see a somewhat more confident Jewish Republican voter, but not by much. While almost 95 percent of our sample of Biden voters express confidence on dealing with Iran, only 30 percent have “a great deal” of confidence versus our Trump-voter sample, 42 percent of whom expressed “a great deal” of confidence. However, lower degrees of confidence favor the Biden voters, with only 5.7 percent having “no confidence at all” versus 15.4 percent of Trump voters who expressed “no confidence at all.”
Our study, the latest in a series of inquiries into the political attitudes and behavior towards Israel by the Jewish-American community, showed that the concept of “pro-Israel” may not be as relevant as in the past. Despite some limitations in our survey sample, we see that many in the Jewish-American community do not see Israel as a clear “black and white” issue, and do not feel comfortable describing themselves as “definitively pro-Israel.”
This finding, however, seems to be much more relevant to the Biden voters than the Trump voters, the latter considering themselves traditional “definitive” pro-Israel Jewish Americans. While Jewish identity and Israel-related issues rank higher on relevance for our Trump-voter sample, they did not appear to show more confidence in the direction of their party on issues related to Israel, anti-Semitism or Iran than did the Biden voter, in itself a finding of interest.
The clear breakaway issue for Biden voters in this election was “character and trust,” while “concern for left-progressive extremism” was the major concern for the Trump sample. For Biden voters, this may indicate that while concerns on Israel, anti-Semitism and Iran were present, they were eclipsed by the lack of confidence and (based on our previous studies) the base antipathy felt towards President Trump. No logic, convincing, advocacy or persuasion seemed to make any significant impact on the vast majority of these voters.
What does all this mean for Israel and the Jewish-American community?
Our data raises the question of policy versus personality and emotion versus ideology.
While policy matters are certainly of concern to any concerned voter, we see here that when personality issues of any leader (including Israeli leaders) come into play, they clearly can override any logic applied to understanding any particular issue. This was seen with President Trump, who despite some unprecedented “pro-Israel” actions, was disliked by many Jewish Americans. It also was seen with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for whom his decision to speak to Congress and break from the much-admired former President Barack Obama has not been forgotten or forgiven.
Additionally, and perhaps related to the above finding, it also appears that many (perhaps a growing number of) Jewish Americans are increasingly more concerned about the principle and substance of certain issues as related to their personal ideology and party affiliation, and are less inclined to apply identity-based labels such as “pro-Israel” to describe themselves or define their behavior.
The issue of personality should not be lost on policymakers. As noted by Lenny Ben-David (a former Israeli diplomat to the United States), “Foreign policy is not made by ‘Washington’ or the ‘White House.’ It is made by individuals, some of whom have biases against Israel, or in the case of Obama and his staff, deep dislike for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Those biases must be explored when appointments and hires are made by the next administration.”
The biases that individuals possess extend beyond diplomats and officials and apply to “ordinary” citizens, including the average Jewish American. The traditional ways of diplomacy that relied on a consistent “pro-Israel” Jewish-American community, as well as an assumption of a sympathetic administration, needs to consider how things may no longer be as they once were. Behavior, appearance and ideology—all always important—may have all now demonstrably moved to center stage.
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs specializing in political psychology.
The article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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