How Bernie Sanders’ Jewish Background Might Impact the Election February 20, 2016

How Bernie Sanders’ Jewish Background Might Impact the Election

Though it wasn’t the main narrative coming out of the New Hampshire primary, Bernie Sanders made history that night as the first American Jew to win a primary in a major party’s nominating contest. That this flew under the radar is not surprising. Sanders only really talks about his faith when asked. It’s never been a big focus for him. But as national polls put him neck and neck with Clinton and more people view him as a serious contender for the presidency, it’s fair to wonder what role his faith might play in the election.


Jewish voters have long been strongly situated in the Democrat’s camp. In presidential elections from 1916 to 2012, Democrats captured an average of 73% of the Jewish vote. Not since 1920, when Democrat James Cox split the Jewish vote with socialist Eugene Debs, has a Republican carried the majority of the Jewish vote. The closest any Republican candidate in modern American politics has gotten to the 1920 race was Ronald Reagan in 1980, when he got 39% of the Jewish vote relative to Jimmy Carter‘s 45%.

Why the skew? It depends on who you talk to, really. Some will argue that Judaism’s values align more closely with progressive values, or that the discrimination they’ve experienced over centuries has made them more socially conscientious about their vote. Others contend that it has to do with a strong desire to separate spiritual identity from participation in the state. Whatever the reason may be, the numbers don’t lie. The Jewish vote is pretty firmly in the Democratic column.

But to what extent do Democratic leanings in the Jewish community impact the election? Realistically, not much. At roughly 2% of the American population and about 4% of the total electorate, they’re not a major force. Their voter turnout is generally high, but even so, their numbers are too low to be a deciding factor in most cases. Even in states with heavy Jewish populations, the electorate is so deeply blue that the odds of them deciding the election, even if every single Jew in the state voted Republican, would be nonexistent. While one cannot say that the Jewish vote is negligible, it’s certainly not a game changer.

There are a few exceptions to the rule, of course. In swing states like Florida, where past contests have been decided by a very small number of votes, a population of 680,000 Jews can make a significant difference. It’s just rare that they alone would be the deciding factor, particularly in a general election. In Democratic primaries in Florida, though, Jews wield more influence, coming in at roughly 9% of the base.

But even if we put aside that the Jewish vote is not particularly statistically significant in most cases, it’s important to note that Jewish voters, unlike many Christian voters comprising the Religious Right, are far less likely to vote according to their faith. Contrary to the mainstream narrative that Jewish voters are most concerned about U.S.-Israeli relations, their demonstrated voting priorities more closely align with secular concerns than they do religious ones.

Consider 2012. The Republicans sought to undermine President Obama by attacking his positions on Israel. It didn’t matter — 68% of Florida’s Jewish voters cast their ballot for Obama. If anything, the attacks hurt the GOP; 27% of Jewish voters said the critical ads made them more likely to support the President. But really, it came down to the fact that Jewish voters were primarily concerned with other issues. 51% of Jewish voters ranked the economy as one of their top two issues in the race. Only 14% included Israeli relations in the top two. Moreover, 61% held a favorable opinion of Obama on Iranian relations, contradicting the assumption that American Jews were tremendously hawkish on the subject.

This is far from an anomaly. Frankly, Jewish voters care far more about domestic policy than they do international relations at this juncture. As Politico reports:

A 2012 Public Religion Research Institute survey asked registered Jewish voters which issue was most important to their vote in the upcoming Presidential election. Only 4 percent of them said it was Israel. Instead, the majority answered that the most important issues for them were issues of domestic concern — 51 percent said it was the economy, while another 15 percent specifically said it was “the growing gap between the rich and the poor.” The third-most important issue was health care, with 10 percent, adding up to a full 76 percent of the Jewish electorate driven by this classic set of domestic issues.

All of this is relevant when considering Sanders’ chances. His values are certainly progressive and his platform focused on domestic issues, but does his heritage give him an edge? In an era marked by a rise in identity politics as motivation for voter behavior, one might assume that his faith and the historical significance of his candidacy could bolster his odds. But as voter priorities suggest, this isn’t as big a factor in deciding their vote as you’d think. If anything, Jewish voters are more impressed with his faith being a non-factor than they are the idea of a Jewish president, which perhaps lends credence to the idea that Jewish voters value a separation of spiritual identity and state participation. As Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Rabbi Jonah Pesner put it:

It’s the most wonderful anti-climax in American Jewish history. You have a guy who is from New York with a Brooklyn accent named Bernie who is a viable presidential candidate and nobody is discussing it, which to me is just a remarkable statement of the success of the American Jewish community to be fully integrated and distinct at the same time.

The non-factor celebration is further reflected in current support levels for both Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Polling data on Jewish support for the Democratic candidates is scarce, so it’s hard to get a clear picture. The most recent poll of Jewish voters was conducted back in September by the American Jewish Committee, in which Clinton enjoyed support from 40% of those polled relative to Sanders’ 18%.

To be fair, one poll does not an election make, and this took place far before Iowa and New Hampshire shifted public perception of Sanders’ candidacy. Still, leaders within the Jewish community believe the sentiment persists. While identity politics may not be driving their vote, some argue that the reason it’s not is that Sanders is not campaigning as a Jewish candidate. Steve Rabinowitz, founder of DC communications firm Bluelight Strategies, put it this way:

God love him, but our community is not feeling the bern. He does not deny [his Judaism], he does not shrink from it, when asked about it he says the right thing — but we’d like it on his sleeve. We got it from [Lieberman]. Blacks got it from Obama. Hispanics would expect it. It’s not a litmus test, but we kind of want more from him.

Rabinowitz isn’t exactly unbiased, having founded the fundraising group Jewish Americans Ready for Hillary, but he does create a good segue, because, if anything, it’s Jewish donors that impact election outcomes. In 2012, one third of the 50 biggest mega-donors were Jewish. Though the Jewish vote may be considered strongly Democratic, there’s more of an even split on donations. Sheldon Adelson, for instance, is tremendously conservative. On the Democratic side of things, though, Clinton has an edge.

Wealthy Jewish Democrats like David Geffen, Fred Eychanar, and Haim Sabar are all firmly in Madam Secretary’s camp. And eager to expand this network of influence, the Clinton campaign recently hired veteran Jewish organizer Sarah Bard to head up their Jewish outreach.

That said, Sanders’ lack of big ticket donors is framed as a positive by his campaign. Over and over and over again, you’ll hear him talk about the average donation to his campaign being less than $30 while proudly boasting that his campaign doesn’t have a Super PAC. Getting support from wealthy Jewish politicos was never part of the plan.

In other words, Sanders’ faith is not, on face, gaining him any substantial support from Jewish voters, which probably won’t impact his chances in the end. It’s certainly not enough to gain him support from wealthy Jewish Democrats, but he doesn’t care a lot about that. Sanders’ faith has not and probably will not play a substantial role in gaining support for his candidacy.

It might, unfortunately, push it away.

Though it’s not a subject you’ll hear frequently discussed in political circles or mainstream media, anti-semitism is still a problem in the U.S. and it might be increasing. As Salon reported back in September:

As of last year nearly 60 percent of religious-based crimes in the United States were committed against Jews, with one study describing that it has become “fashionable” in many circles. Another report discovered that 54 percent of college students experienced anti-Semitism in the first six months of their academic year during the 2013-2014 school period. All of this can be tied to broader studies which suggest that anti-Semitic attitudes are increasing throughout the Western world, particularly when tied to old-fashioned religious bigotry or relatively newer attempts to use legitimate criticism of Israel as a means of promoting deeper anti-Semitic beliefs.

If you think the GOP won’t leverage this to their advantage, you must not be paying attention. There is no reason they won’t, given that they don’t count on the Jewish vote anyway and have shown themselves to be all too willing to cater to bigots time and time again. For all their bluster about “Judeo-Christian values,” don’t for one second think they won’t eschew the “Judeo” part of that equation when push comes to shove.

So far, we’ve only seen a sprinkling of such tactics out of Republicans, which makes sense when you consider that Sanders has only recently gotten to a point where people see him as a legitimate candidate. Even so, there’s plenty of reason for concern. As Haaretz reported:

Even before Sanders emerges as a viable contender, there have been several awkward “Jewish moments” in the campaign. Sanders, you remember, was asked on NPR last July whether he wasn’t an Israeli citizen. Ted Cruz’s claim that Donald Trump represented “New York values” was viewed by many as code for Jewish values but there is no denying that the uber-liberal, hyper-secular, Brooklyn-born Sanders is more “New York values” than Trump could ever be.

Then there were Trump’s own discomfiting remarks before the Republican Jewish Coalition, about deal-making Jews who wouldn’t support Trump because he can’t be bought with money. This, after one of Trump’s more vocal supporters, Ann Coulter, was embroiled in controversy after she responded to a Republican debate segment on Israel by asking “How many f—ing Jews do these people think there are in the United States?”

And in an incident curiously ignored by most Jewish observers, Trump was flat-out endorsed by Pat Buchanan, one of the few Republicans to be formally labeled by the Anti-Defamation League as an “unrepentant bigot” and anti-Semite.

That these examples are not issues cutting against Republicans is telling. But it’s not just Republicans to worry about here. The Clinton campaign has already shown itself to be willing and able to target the subject. Following Sanders’ historic win in New Hampshire, Clinton surrogate and former congressman Paul Hodes downplayed its significance. Again, with Haaretz reporting:

For the Clinton campaign it was a night that made clear that it is time to increase pressure on the Vermont socialist — including a harsher message to Jewish American voters.

“Hillary Clinton has been a very strong friend of Israel and that is something that should not be lost on the American Jewish community,” said Paul Hodes, a former New Hampshire congressman who came to rally for Clinton at her post-primary event. Hodes, who is Jewish and from New Hampshire, told the Forward: “Senator Sanders hasn’t showed himself to be the kind of friend of Israel that Secretary Clinton is.”

It was a strategically stupid move given the actual influence of the Jewish vote and the surge in progressive voters this election season, and the campaign faced swift backlash. It didn’t take long before they started backpedaling aggressively, with Clinton foreign policy adviser Laura Rosenberger saying, “We have no idea what this report is referring to. The notion that we’re planning to start attacking Sanders’ record on Israel is simply false.”

Whether the Clinton camp learned their lesson remains to be seen, and ultimately, the role of Sanders’ faith in this race will only truly be understood when the election is over. Yes, it’s unlikely to earn him any points and may work against him in disconcerting ways. Troubling though that may be, there is at least one bright spot in all of this for atheists watching the campaign: no matter what God he prays to, Sanders believes firmly in the separation of church and state and has a track record to back it up.

(Image via Crush Rush /

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