Jews in the Middle: Who Are the Jewish Independent Voters?

By | Mar 08, 2021
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independant voters
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1. The Jewish vote is in. Again. 

So much has happened since Americans went to the polls four months ago, and quite frankly, no one misses the days leading up to the election.

But let’s try to take just one more look at the eternal question bewildering the Jewish world ever since: How did the Jews vote?

The issue was discussed, argued and debated back in November, with the same decades-old storyline. Yes, Jewish Americans once again voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats, but was there a shift in voting trends? Professional Jewish Democrats and Republicans will continue debating this question until the cows come home (or at least until their donors agree that results trend in a way that proves their success). 

But there’s another way of looking at the Jewish vote.

The American Jewish Population Project at Brandeis University compiled, at the request of the nonpartisan Jewish Electorate Institute, an analysis of the Jewish vote based on the broadest available database of voter information.

The report goes a little deeper than most post-election surveys and provides an insight into the voting pattern of Jews in eight key states, as well as a very interesting look into Jewish voters who define themselves as independents.

According to the report, 32 percent of Jewish American voters are independent, meaning they are not affiliated with either party. This makes independents the second largest political group among Jewish voters, after Democratic (50 percent) and way more than Republicans (16 percent).

2. Who are Jewish independents?

Being independent is not synonymous with being a swing voter.

Forty-five percent of Jewish independents lean toward the Democratic side, 39 percent lean Republican and only 16 percent say they have “no lean,” meaning they could go either Democratic or Republican.

Why would Jewish voters choose to be independent and not identify with the party they lean toward?

The most common way of interpreting political independence is seeing it as representing the gap between the belief in a certain ideology, and support for the party that advances this ideology. For example, one may like low taxes and small government economic policies, but not be a big fan of the GOP, which fights for these issues. This person will likely vote Republican, but would rather not carry the burden of the party’s entire set of beliefs.

For most members of the group, being independent provides space for deniability. It means they do not have to commit to supporting everything the party stands for, or every action it takes.

In the case of Jewish independents, deniability could be key in several major areas: support for Israel (as in, “yes, we vote for Biden but won’t affiliate ourselves with the Democratic Party because of Ilhan Omar’s views on Israel”); progressiveness (“as true Bernie liberals we cannot be part of a party led by Biden and Pelosi”); and Trump (“sure, we believe in the GOP’s fiscal policies, but not in the party that elected Trump as its nominee”).

For practical purposes, these independents are not all that different from any other voter who identifies as either Democratic or Republican. 

But the small subset of independents who are truly undecided could make a difference, and according to the data presented in the new report, Jewish independents may have played a key role in the past two election cycles.

Authors of the paper looked at the key battleground states.

In Michigan, there are roughly 37,000 Jewish voters who define themselves as independents. Of them, 15 percent, or 5,500 voters, are true “no lean” independents. Michigan went to Trump in 2016 by a margin of just over 10,000 votes. It’s easy to see how swinging Jewish voters could have helped make this happen.

Trump won Florida by 371,000 votes in November, but what if Biden would have been more successful with the roughly 46,000 Jewish independents who have no particular leaning?

Or, take a look at Wisconsin. There are 14,000 independent Jewish voters in the state, 18 percent of whom have no leaning. That means more than 2,500 Jewish votes up for grabs. Hillary Clinton lost the state by 22,000 votes in 2016 and Biden won it by 20,000. Think just how important these 2,500 Jews were in making the difference.

These numbers could make parties rethink their discourse with Jewish voters in swing states. Targeting Jewish voters as a whole as either Democrats (with ‘tikkun olam’ talk on social justice and immigration,) or die-hard Republicans (with endless Israel-related messaging,) likely misses those very few—but all so important—undecided independent Jewish voters, who could eventually swing the state.

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3. Young, Jewish and independent

Another noteworthy aspect of Jewish political independents is age.

The younger you are, the more likely you are not to be affiliated with either party. Forty-two percent of Jews between the ages of 18-24 are independents. The percentage declines consistently with older age groups. Among Jewish voters over 65, only 27 percent describe themselves as independent.

This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.

Younger people are less inclined to affiliate with any institution, let alone one of two establishment parties.

The Jewish community knows this all too well and has experienced the exact same phenomenon with young members. They tend to affiliate less with denominations, synagogues and organizations, making for the eventual decline of many legacy institutions. Political parties are just another victim of younger Jewish American’s disdain for old-time establishments.

4. Why Israel’s upcoming election may matter to American Jews

You think you’re tired of talking about American politics? How about having to, for the fourth time in two years, dig into the ins and outs of Israeli elections?

By now, everyone knows the drill: The elections are all about Netanyahu.

On the one side, there’s the Bibi camp, made up of his Likud Party, the right-wing settlers and the ultra-Orthodox. They all want everything to remain just as it’s been, and are touting Netanyahu’s role in securing millions of coronavirus vaccines—making Israel the world leader in vaccinations—as a reason to reelect him.

On the other side is the anti-Bibi camp, ranging from Arab parties, moderate leftists, the reinvented Labor, neo-liberals, centrist generals and newly found disillusioned Likudniks. They all share the belief that Netanyahu, facing a trial on three counts of corruption-related charges, can no longer lead the country. Apart from that, they agree on nothing.

There are many details, nuances and scenarios, but they all have little to do with the lives of Jewish Americans.

Except for one. Perhaps.

Last week, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of granting citizenship to non-Jewish residents who undergo Reform or Conservative conversion to Judaism.

It’s a tiny step in a years-long battle over the recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel. (Ben Sales, at JTA, has a great explainer on what the ruling means.)

This brings us back to the upcoming elections.

The fierce reaction from Israel’s Orthodox parties (including, comparing non-Orthodox Jews to dogs, courtesy of United Torah Judaism, a coalition partner of Netanyahu) and of Netanyahu himself, who called the ruling “very troubling” and of politicians from his party vowing to overturn the ruling, served as an important reminder that American Jews—who are largely Reform and Conservative—have skin in this game.

The March 23 elections will determine Israel’s path forward on many aspects, some of them pivotal to its security and democracy. But they will also signal the direction the nation chooses when it comes to its relationship with the Jewish diaspora, and that’s a good enough reason to keep a close watch.

5. What are Jared and Ivanka up to?

Kushner, according to reports, is taking a break and is no longer part of the inner circle advising his father-in-law, former president Donald Trump.

Ivanka Trump, has made clear she will not seek Marco Rubio’s Senate seat, but she may be aiming for higher places. According to another report, Donald Trump is considering his daughter Ivanka as a potential 2024 running mate.

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