Moment Zoominar: Jewish Political Voices Project – Swing States and the Jewish Vote

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By Amy Nankin

Moment Institute virtually hosted “Swing States and the Jewish Vote” featuring four participants from the Jewish Political Voices Project (JPVP) joined by project founder Nadine Epstein, project director Suzanne Borden and Chicago Sun Times bureau chief Lynn Sweet on Tuesday, October 20. JPVP is a unique project that takes a deep dive into the political views of the Jewish community by following 30 Jewish voters in ten swing states throughout the 2020 election. Tuesday’s event featured Jewish voters from Nevada, Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin to discuss preliminary findings from the project. 

The goal of the JPVP is to provide readers with an alternative to polls, which have proven to have a margin of inaccuracy, by learning how a diverse group of voters are thinking and how their attitudes have changed over the course of the election year. The project aims to create a research dialogue with members participating in civil dialogue among those with differing opinions. 

“We have a really well accomplished, very impressive group of participants spanning the age range of 21 to 92; we have people involved in all levels of government. We also have a former diplomat, state representative and two local city council members. Participants include lawyers, business owners, nonprofit leaders, we also have three rabbis, one of which is a veteran and several people in the healthcare field,” Borden said. “While others are educators and two who were in college up until this past May. Three of our participants have immigrated to the United States at different stages in their lives and while not all of our voters are involved in the Jewish community, many of them have served in their synagogues, Jewish Federations and Jewish Community Relations Councils, so we really have a wide diverse group of people.” 

The project features 19 Democrats, 10 Republicans and one Independent to roughly reflect the political makeup of American Jewish voters country-wide. Tuesday’s event featured Democrat and former Congresswoman Shelley Berkley from Nevada, Democrat Rabbi Dan Levin from Florida, Republican Mark Goldhaber from North Carolina and Republican Ruth Kantrowitz from Wisconsin. 

To gather information, Borden routinely sent out surveys to participants. During the primaries, one of the questions was always, “who are you planning on voting for?” Overwhelmingly, Borden noted an internal struggle between nearly all of the participants about whether to vote with their head or their heart, something JPVP participant Svi Shapiro, a Democrat from North Carolina discussed in one of the surveys.

“Most people take elections pretty seriously but I think this year, in particular, people really felt the weight of their decisions and people really struggled with who they were going to vote for. Last year at this time when the field was so wide, many of our voters were undecided. When we asked them a month later, some had selected a candidate, but when asked the following month,  many were undecided again” she said. 

The most recent AJC Survey of American Jewish Opinion (October 2020) found that currently 75 percent of Jewish voters would vote for Biden and 22 percent of Jewish voters would vote for Trump. In 2016, 16 percent of Jewish voters voted for Trump, 62 percent voted for Hillary Clinton, 7 percent voted for another candidate and 14 percent didn’t vote. 

Many of the JPVP participants’ opinions about who they were planning on voting for changed throughout the course of the primary elections. Three participants said that if Bernie Sanders were the Democratic nominee, they would not have voted for him. Six of the Republican voters waivered with their support for President Donald Trump. Some were intrigued by Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bloomberg, but ultimately two decided to vote for Biden, two for Trump and two for someone else in the general election. Four of JPVP’s Republicans, including two who had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, were voting for Trump for a second time.

All of the participants emphasized the tumultuous political climate that this election has brought with it. Whether Biden or Trump win the election, restoring the political climate to a place where people with different views are able to have a civil debate is important to all of the JPVP participants. 

“On both sides of the aisle, all of our participants were really saddened, angered and frustrated by the inability to have a conversation with people who they disagreed with,” Borden said. 

Former Congresswoman Shelley Berkley was the first to speak at Tuesday’s event. She resides in Nevada with the Jewish population of 76,200 people, making up 2.5 percent of Nevada’s population, according to the Steinhardt Social Research Institute’s American Jewish Population Project at Brandeis University. Of that number, 44.2 percent are Democrats, 20 percent are Republicans, and 32.8 percent are independents.

Berkley was the only JPVP participant that was set on Biden from the very beginning. She was one of three participants that said she would not have voted for Bernie Sanders had he been the Democrat nominee, citing that he is “equally as divisive as Trump.” She was a Hillary Clinton supporter in 2016. Biden lost in the Nevada caucus, so Berkley was relieved when he gained steam after winning in South Carolina. 

“I like Joe Biden a lot. I’ve known him personally and I don’t want to overstate that, but I worked with him when I was in congress. Prior to that, I was involved in a number of Jewish organizations, AIPAC, JACPAC [Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs] and a number of others, but those were the more politically minded and he was always very responsive to us. So I knew him long before I went to congress and thought that he was the person I could best support in the election.” 

Ruth Kantrowitz, the second participant, hails from the other end of the spectrum and calls herself a “very liberal conservative.” She is an Israeli immigrant, was a surrogate for a gay couple, is pro-choice and voted twice for Barack Obama, but has become a proud Trump supporter based on his no-nonsense attitude and policies. 

“I considered myself a lifelong Democrat. I voted Democrat my whole life until 2016. I was a champion for Obama and I was disappointed in him as a human being, this country, his administration,” Kantrowitz said. “So when 2016 rolled around, I was sick and tired of wearing the same shirt and turning it inside out.”

Wisconsin was a major swing state in the 2016 presidential election with 47 percent of votes going to Clinton and 48 percent of votes going to Trump. 

When asked how COVID-19 impacts this year’s election, Kantrowitz responded positively about the administration’s response and the effects of COVID itself. 

“I think COVID is what it is. I think COVID in many ways is a wonderful blessing to this world,” she said. “We all needed to slow down and refocus and COVID made us do it. Despite the deaths and despite the hardships, I think COVID has many positive aspects.”

Next to Zoom into the event was Rabbi Dan Levin, a congregational rabbi from Boca Raton, Florida. The Jewish vote in Florida has been watched and analyzed closely leading up to this year’s election. With results coming in at 48 percent for Clinton and 49 percent for Trump in 2016, Florida is historically an important state to watch. Levin, while ultimately deciding to vote for Biden, was not always a supporter. 

“I bounced around from a lot of different candidates and it took a while to settle on one. In some ways it was settled for me when Joe Biden emerged from South Carolina as the candidate. I was searching for a solid moderate, I was not enamored by the candidates that were on the far left of the spectrum and there were candidates in the middle that intrigued me like Amy Klobuchar, Steve Bullock, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, but ultimately now I’m supporting Joe Biden,” he said. 

North Carolina’s Mark Goldhaber, a former Reagan appointee to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and active member of AIPAC and the Jewish Federation, echoed the sentiment of the lack of civil discourse when he spoke at the event.

“Particularly many of my friends on the left, and there are more friends on the left than on the right, you can’t even have a discussion because they identify you as a conservative and so you should be largely cancelled. I look at my own synagogue and it’s moved so far to the left that it’s hard to feel comfortable.”

Goldhaber struggled a great deal with choosing who to vote for in the election. He noted that there were many good things that Trump has done in his presidency like the peace deal between Israel and the UAE and adopting the international standard against anti-Semitism. But, character and tone from the top are important and he couldn’t comfortably vote for Trump or for Biden so he voted third-party. 

Chicago Sun Times Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet joined the program after the four initial interviews concluded and discussed the impact of the Orthodox community and how the country will recover after the election, regardless of the outcome. 

“The ways Jews in America approach the next chapter, whether it’s with Biden or Trump, we know that it’s highly likely that most Jews will vote for Joe Biden, but when you go back to the states and back to these communities the thing to watch for especially in the COVID era when the Orthodox community specifically has taken some stands against crowd control is what do we do within our own Jewish community,” Sweet said. “How does the politics of COVID in the context of whether or not Biden is elected translate into what various Jewish communities do.”

Sweet also discussed the complexities of what defining one candidate or another as “pro-Israel” because being pro-Israel can mean a number of different things. 

The event closed with final thoughts from the participants who praised the project’s impact on their own political activism and shared hopes for a more civil America. 

“When my grandparents came to America, they didn’t come to be a Republican or a Democrat. They came here to be American and I can’t help but think that somehow we’ve lost sight of that and as a second generation American, I keep that paramount in my mind that this is a very special country and it is worth fighting for and voting for and that’s why it is so significant what you’re doing in encouraging people to exercise their right as an American citizen and vote,” Berkeley said.

Watch Swing States and the Jewish Vote and read more about Moment’s Jewish Political Voices Project.

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