Only In America: The 2008 Jewish Vote :by Steven F. Windmueller, Ph.D.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Harry Golden, the political satirist, would marvel in his 1950’s essays and books on the uniqueness of this nation. Noting that “only in America” could certain events unfold. The 2008 Presidential election may represent one of those special moments.

Surprising both political analysts and senior Jewish leaders, Barack Obama was embraced by Jewish voters on Tuesday. In early exit polling provided by CNN and other polling organizations, President-elect Obama received nearly 78% of the Jewish vote. Such numbers exceeded John Kerry’s 74% performance in 2004.

Some may question the findings as provided by news agencies, especially in light of the intense and highly contentious campaigns waged by Jewish activists on behalf of both candidates. There appeared to be a necessary period of engagement by Jews with the Obama candidacy, as voters moved from a level of skepticism to a heighten level of comfort with the Junior Senator from Illinois. Similar to dating, the Jewish community needed the element of time and exposure to learn to embrace Barack Obama.

Earlier polling noted a significant disconnect with the Obama nomination that was followed by polling data issued by Gallup in October suggesting a higher degree of support for the Obama candidacy. Why did this happen? In some measure Jewish voters returned to their ideological home, the Democratic Party. A number of factors may have moved Jewish voters to reconnect with their political roots, including a level of frustration with the tenor of the campaign rhetoric, negative reaction to Sarah Palin’s presence and message on the Republican ticket, and the impact of an economy in crisis.

Drawing on their ties and connections to the civil rights era, Jews may well have appreciated the historical significance of the Obama candidacy, using this opportunity to realign themselves with African-Americans and others in launching this new era in American political history.

These polling numbers would clearly suggest that Jewish voters across the nation joined with African-American and Latino voters in shaping a new Democratic Party coalition of minorities, rekindling memories of an earlier period in American politics, encompassing the Roosevelt and Kennedy eras, where coalitional politics created the opportunity for that party to win national elections. Of all religious constituencies, Jewish voters in strikingly greater percentages support the Democratic Party.

If the “religion of American Jewry is politics” then the 2008 elections would once again confirm this principle. Jews were seen in all phases of the process, advising candidates, funding political campaigns, generating volunteer support, and voting in significantly large numbers. In key “battleground” states where the election held sway, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, the significant presence of Jewish voters could again be seen as important to this outcome.

As in the past, Jewish candidates were successful in wining elections across the nation. When the 111th Congressional session convenes this January, more than 40 Jewish politicians will be sworn into office, including 13 members of the United States Senate and more than 30 House members, not to mention the hundreds of state, county, and city officials.

Much will be written about this election and the historic results that have emerged. Jews appear to once again have played a significant role in reshaping this nation’s political process, confirming that only in this society can such extraordinary moments occur, where minorities can help define America’s destiny.

Dr. Steven F. Windmueller is Dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.