Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis via Getty Images.
“F– – – the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway.”
The second part of this statement—uttered in 1992 by James Baker, then the Republican secretary of state—was as accurate as the first part was insulting. Jews are indeed overwhelmingly supportive of the Democratic party, and their record in this respect is unbroken all the way back to the early decades of the 20th century. To this day, and despite the party’s growing coldness toward the state of Israel—and the Republicans’ contrasting warmth—American Jews have barely budged from their Democratic allegiances, most recently giving fully 70 percent of their vote to Hillary Clinton in November’s presidential election, just about the same number they gave to Barack Obama in 2012 (though below the 78 percent they gave him in 2008).
How long can this continue? Much ink has been spilled over that question. Only lately, though, has the glimmer of an answer, however partial, begun to manifest itself. Especially in the aftermath of November’s presidential balloting, a number of observers pointed to the voting patterns of, specifically, Orthodox Jews—a group that, according to the Pew Report, identifies with Republicans over Democrats by a margin of two to one. It is true that Orthodox Jews constitute a mere 10 percent of the American Jewish population, but because of their significantly higher fertility, especially when contrasted with the below-replacement birthrates among other, larger sectors of the community, they are on pace to double their share every generation.
Could these Jews be the harbingers of a political realignment? Now that detailed results of last November’s balloting are available, it’s worth taking a closer look both at how the Orthodox voted in 2016 and at what a consistent trend that began early in this century might suggest for future elections, presidential and otherwise.
For a variety of religious and sociological reasons, Orthodox Jews tend to live in highly concentrated areas. Since local and state governments make voting data available for each and every precinct, we can assess actual voting patterns with a high degree of confidence. This approach proves far more reliable than exit polls. Indeed, what a careful examination reveals is that those polls were no more accurate about the Orthodox vote than about the national vote altogether.
For our purposes, I’ve divided predominantly Orthodox precincts into three categories: Modern Orthodox, ḥaredi, and an intermediate group whose members tend (like the Modern Orthodox) to work in professions but value secular education mainly for the sake of economic advancement and seek (like the Ḥaredim) to limit their contact with the surrounding culture.
To begin with the Modern Orthodox: communities of Modern Orthodox Jews in Boca Raton, FL, Teaneck and Englewood, NJ, Chicago, IL, and the “Five Towns” to the southeast of New York City have followed a closely related pattern. Between the 2000 and 2004 elections, all saw significant rightward shifts, a pattern that held steady or grew more pronounced through the 2012 contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The November 2016 race produced a falloff in the Republican vote in these precincts, but not enough of one to reverse the overall trend since 2004. The only exception among the communities I’ve surveyed is Beachwood, OH, which, consistent with its habit in previous elections, broke heavily in favor of the Democratic candidate: a discrepancy that might be traced to the fact that the Orthodox population in these suburban Cleveland precincts is less concentrated than elsewhere.
The strongest and most resilient shift to the Republican column is to be discerned not among the Modern Orthodox but in the ḥaredi neighborhoods of Brooklyn’s Borough Park, Flatbush, and Williamsburg sections, Monsey, NY, and Wickliffe, OH. In these communities’ most concentrated Orthodox precincts, Trump outpolled Clinton by, respectively, 89 to 7 percent, 87 to 10 percent, 68 to 28 percent, 94 to 4 percent, and 56 to 36 percent. Ocean County, NJ has not yet released its numbers by precinct, but we can extrapolate from the overall results in Lakewood Township, whose Orthodox Jews supported Trump by about a 9:1 ratio.
Then there are those areas—for example: Miami, FL, Baltimore, MD, and parts of Brooklyn other than Williamsburg—with mixed Modern Orthodox and ḥaredi populations, and still other areas (like Bergenfield, Deal, Passaic, and Edison, NJ) containing many in the intermediate group. In all of these, the results mainly resembled those in Modern Orthodox areas, but with notably smaller dropoff in Republican support.
To sum up thus far: actual voting results from heavily Orthodox precincts demonstrate that Orthodox Jews have established themselves as a consistently Republican demographic group. It is true, as we’ve seen, that Donald Trump’s controversial candidacy led to a falloff of support among, in particular, the Modern Orthodox, but he still benefited from the shift among them toward the GOP. As for ḥaredi Jews, they voted just as strongly for Trump in 2016 as they did for Romney in 2012.
The political statistician Nate Silver has argued persuasively that education, not income, was by far the best indicator of how a person voted in 2016 compared with 2012. College graduates were much less likely to vote for Trump than they did for Romney, while those without college degrees were much more likely to vote for Trump than they did for Romney. It should therefore not be surprising that Ḥaredim, most of whom do not attend college, maintained their level of support for Republicans in 2016, or that Modern Orthodox Jews, whose devotion to higher education is legendary, registered a dropoff. What is highly anomalous, however, is that the latter, too, still leaned strongly and in at least one case decisively Republican, confirming the strength of the shift toward the GOP.
All this being the case, we can now say that, in terms of voting patterns, there are two distinct Jewish political groups in the U.S.: non-Orthodox Jews, who continue overwhelmingly to vote Democratic, and the Orthodox, who tend to vote solidly Republican.
In explaining ḥaredi voting patterns, observers have frequently pointed to the phenomenon of “bloc voting,” according to which all or mostly all members of a tight-knit community vote identically, usually at the behest of their leaders. Some might attribute to this phenomenon the overwhelming Trump majorities in the ḥasidic precincts of Borough Park, Crown Heights, and Monsey. And yet, while bloc voting has been common among Ḥaredim in the past, it seems no longer to be the norm. True, the Skverer Ḥasidim, for instance, maintained their bloc support for the Democrats and voted overwhelmingly in favor of Hillary Clinton; but they were the exception.
Far more telling is what happened in the much larger Satmar ḥasidic communities in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and in the isolated village of Kiryas Joel, NY. Their rebbes formally endorsed Clinton, and some Satmars did vote for her. But in the privacy of the voting booth, most bucked religious authority and chose Trump. Although the pro-Trump percentage in Kiryas Joel and in all of Williamsburg’s ḥasidic precincts was below that of some other enclaves, it was more than high enough to give him the nod.
As it happens, the Satmar pattern follows a pre-existing trend among Ḥaredim of the non-ḥasidic or “yeshivish” variety. Thus, during the 2009 gubernatorial election in New Jersey, the religious leadership in Lakewood, home of the largest yeshiva in the country, endorsed the Democrat Jon Corzine over the Republican Chris Christie. Much to the surprise of observers, Lakewood’s ḥaredi residents ignored their rabbis and voted for Christie instead.
In a certain sense, what we’re seeing here is an acculturation to American voting habits in general. While still clearly constituting a distinct demographic, Ḥaredim, like other Americans, are confidently making their own electoral decisions, and their votes are influenced as much by individual perceptions of communal interests and concerns as by the preferences of community leaders. At least in the past four presidential elections, most Ḥaredim have felt that their interests are better served by Republican candidates.
The story with the Modern Orthodox is not quite so clear. Having much greater contact with mainstream American society, they are correspondingly likelier to be influenced by the political attitudes of their non-Orthodox neighbors, colleagues, and friends. What is clear, however, is that their voting patterns remain quite different not only from non-Orthodox Jews but also from non-Jewish Americans with a similar social, economic, and geographic profile. Trump may have received fewer Modern Orthodox votes than did the three Republican presidential candidates from 2004 to 2012, but neither did this community revert to its earlier levels of majority support for Democrats.
To delve further into the precise reasons why Orthodox Jews have come to prefer Republican presidential candidates—and to explain the “shock” of exit polls that indicated otherwise—would require better and more specialized surveys that ask detailed questions of Jews leaving the voting booth. Such surveys could further enhance their accuracy by employing pollsters who come from the communities being surveyed and who, especially when Ḥaredim are being interviewed, observe communal mores regarding sex segregation. The results would likely be quite edifying.
If current political and demographic trends continue, the Jewish vote will become less strongly Democratic in the years to come. Which is not to say that, like other groups that have shifted their political allegiances, American Jews as a whole will become an influential swing-vote in the usual sense. Rather, non-Orthodox Jews will most likely remain in the Democratic column, while the Orthodox, who still make up a small proportion of the larger American Jewish community, will become more solidly Republican.
Nevertheless, where those Orthodox Jewish voters are concerned, we are indeed witnessing the growth of a new and cohesive group. What’s more, although the process might take a generation or two, it is easy to imagine Orthodox Jews becoming a significantly more influential political force than they are now.
How so? First of all, as much as politicians need and court swing votes, they instinctively play most heavily to their base. At least some Democrats appear to have learned that they can no longer take it for granted that Jews are part of that base, or will vote Democratic no matter what. Recent reaffirmations by Democrats of a commitment to Israel, however pro-forma they may sound in light of the well-attested falloff in Democratic support for the Jewish state, suggest a renewed sensitivity to this issue. (Tellingly, most Democratic members of Congress who in 2016 were up for reelection in districts with substantial Orthodox populations voted against the Iran deal.) A visible and influential Jewish presence in both political parties would be a healthy thing in and of itself—and a sign of the impact of the Orthodox on the parties’ consciousness.
Second, within the GOP itself, there are specific grounds for thinking that a Jewish presence can make a difference. Much of the Republican base, especially evangelical Christians, has been profoundly dedicated to the wellbeing of Israel. In response, only Orthodox Jews have thus far shown signs of shifting toward the GOP; but at least since 2004, the party has also attempted to reach out for support not only to them but also to the larger Jewish community. Increased levels of such support could conceivably mean a great deal for the furtherance of Jewish interests and values in domestic areas as well as in policy toward Israel—key though that is.
Third, although Orthodox Jews have shifted decisively to the GOP when it comes to presidential races—probably out of concern for Israel—that is not the case in other races at other levels. Here they have an advantage: they, too, cannot be taken for granted; their votes remain up for grabs. One is reminded in this connection of the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s, many of whom voted for Ronald Reagan while continuing to support Democrats in down-ballot races but then, eventually, came to vote Republican across the board.
That Orthodox Jews could have a greater impact in down-ballot elections is demonstrated by two recent cases. One was the 2011 race in Queens for the congressional seat formerly held by the disgraced Anthony Weiner. In that campaign, Bob Turner, a Republican, pulled off an upset victory over Dave Weprin, a Democrat. Weprin is an Orthodox Jew, but his associations with the Obama administration and support for gay marriage induced the district’s significant Orthodox population to support Turner, a Catholic and an outspoken opponent of White House policy toward Israel.
No less telling was the Orthodox vote in Brooklyn in 2012. There Simcha Felder, a Democrat representing largely Orthodox Jewish areas, switched party caucuses in an effort to prevent the Democrats from securing the New York State Senate. With the help of his Orthodox constituents, who had been supporting Republicans in presidential contests, Felder succeeded in depriving his former party of total control of New York State’s government.
Another opportunity may soon arise in New York’s 17th congressional district in Rockland County. With the seventy-nine-year-old Nita Lowey expected to retire in the not-too-distant future, a rapidly growing Orthodox Jewish population may be able to help win this district—where Democrats now enjoy a 5-point advantage—for the Republicans.
A cynic might dismiss the prospect of Orthodox political influence by pointing to the community’s small numbers and high concentration in relatively uncompetitive “blue states” like New York and New Jersey. But consider: there are approximately 2,000,000 Cuban-Americans in the United States, 60 percent of whom are concentrated in Florida where they make up 6.5 percent of the population. Currently, Orthodox Jews make up between 2.5 and 3 percent of the total population of New York State, but at the rate at which they are growing, in a state with near-flat population growth, another generation might yield an Orthodox community as influential in New York as Cubans have been in Florida.
To be sure, New York, unlike Florida, is not a competitive state in presidential elections. But strong battles are likely to be waged for New York congressional seats at both the state and federal level, as well as for other state positions. In addition, we can expect to see growing numbers of Orthodox Jews in swing states—including Florida itself as well as Pennsylvania and Ohio.
And influence, as we’ve seen, extends beyond sheer numbers. Cuban-American influence is not simply a matter of controlling one or two congressional districts and a portion of the presidential vote in Florida. Cuban-Americans have become an important component in the political alliance on which the GOP rests—a generally loyal component, yet one willing to leave if ignored. As a result, a national party values them as partners and attends to both their values and their interests, both of which have become incorporated into its broader political culture.
Orthodox Jews would be wise to consider how they might behave politically should they grow into a similar position, and others would be wise to consider the lessons for a community whose blind devotion to a single party has entailed costs too long ignored, or denied.