I often see a statistic cited that only two percent of the American population is Jewish, and it kind of startles me every time I encounter it because I’ve spent most of my life living in New Jersey (6.1 percent), Los Angeles (4.6 percent) and the Philadelphia area (4.8 percent) where the Jewish population makes up a far higher percentage. When I was going to college in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I got to experience the part of America where Jews are virtually absent, and I saw how that lack of direct contact changed people’s attitudes. I met people in Kalamazoo who watched Seinfeld religiously and still somehow thought all Jews were Hasidic in appearance. The students I interacted with didn’t so much have negative views towards Jews as gigantic misperceptions about them. If I traveled to the eastern part of the state around Detroit, these misperceptions were less common.
In fact, if you live in or around Detroit (1.7 percent), you might think that Michigan is one of a small handful of states where the Jewish population is large enough to have a significant impact on the presidential election. But keep in mind that the Jewish Virtual Library says that Jews constitute only 0.9 percent of Michigan’s population.
Of course, every vote counts equally, so if the Republicans make inroads with the Jewish portion of the electorate, it would be beneficial and potentially decisive in any contested state.
“The Jewish vote will remain and largely loyal Democratic vote because of domestic issues largely, but if there was ever a cycle where Republicans could make inroads it is this cycle,” said Ari Fleischer, a former George W. Bush White House press secretary who now serves as an RJC board member. “If you accept that there are sizeable Jewish populations in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, [and] Michigan, the Jewish vote – if we can make additional inroads – can be very helpful in putting you over the top. The White House knows that.”
As I noted, Michigan’s Jewish population is actually below the national average of two percent. Ohio is well-below the average at 1.3 percent, placing it behind Arizona (1.5 percent). Pennsylvania (2.3 percent) is a better target. Even Florida, despite its reputation as a haven for Jewish retirees, is only at three percent.
It’s hard to move an appreciable number of votes by tinkering with your performance with such a small group of people. The Republicans have been getting between 19 percent (in 2000) and 30 percent of the Jewish vote (in 2012) in recent elections. In 2016, Trump is reported to have carried 24 percent. In Florida, where there are about 630,000 Jewish citizens, many of whom are two young to vote or unregistered, you might be able to net a good catch of votes by moving the needle ten or fifteen percent in your favor. This is less true in other states.
If all 200,000 Pennsylvanian Jews cast a vote and they went for the Democrat 70-30, the Democrat would net 80,000 votes. If the GOP could bring that margin down to 60-40, it would be worth 40,000 votes for the Republicans. In reality, though, the Jewish vote in Pennsylvania will not come close to 200,000 voters, and so the net gain would be substantially less. Given that Donald Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes, he can use any advantage he can get, and that’s why we’re seeing this:
Republicans are planning a multimillion-dollar offensive aimed at fracturing the Democratic Party’s decades-long stranglehold on the Jewish vote.
Spearheading the push is the Republican Jewish Coalition, which receives substantial funding from casino mogul and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. On Friday morning, the group’s board members — many of them prominent Republican Party donors — gathered in a conference room at Adelson’s Venetian resort, where they were briefed on plans for a $10 million-plus blitz geared toward attracting Jewish support for President Donald Trump. The investment, people familiar with the early discussions say, will far surpass what the group has spent in past presidential elections.
Realistically, there is not a whole lot of potential in this project in terms of total votes, but it makes sense to make the effort anyway. I don’t have a good sense of how Trump is doing with Jewish voters right now. He’s certainly alienated a lot of American Jews on social policy, civil rights, and his attitude toward ethnic and religious minorities. He’s also won the support of some Jews who cheer his generally pro-Israel stances. It’s hard to say how Trump’s gains and losses will shake out, although one problem he has is that there is a growing split between American and Israeli Jews over how the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is perceived. Complicating the picture, divisions among Democrats about how to treat Israel’s government have become more visible this year, which could cause some rightward drift in the Jewish electorate.
One thing to remember is that Romney won 30 percent of the Jewish vote and lost the election badly while Trump won less than one in four Jewish votes and squeaked out an Electoral College win. Trump must improve his performance to even reach Romney’s level. Another obstacle for Trump is that the most conservative Jewish population is concentrated in New York and New Jersey, two states that are almost definitely out of his reach, so he could improve his overall performance with Jews and still do worse with them in the states he’s targeting.
That’s actually what I see as the most likely result of this effort. Trump might get a lot more votes out of Brooklyn and a lot fewer in the Detroit and Philadelphia metro areas, making the whole enterprise self-defeating from a Electoral College point of view.