Commentary Magazine


The Jewish Vote (Again)

Before the 1972 Presidential election, the thesis became popular that Jews were at long last about to vote according to their economic interests. Although American Jews had come economically to resemble the Episcopalians, the most prosperous of all white groups, their voting behavior continued to be most like the voting behavior of one of the least prosperous of all groups, the Puerto Ricans. Now, it was said, Jews, for reasons of economic self-interest, would vote in substantial numbers for Nixon while hypocritically covering this move to the Right with talk of Israel and the quota issue.

This thesis, however plausible it may have seemed, was not borne out by the results of the election. According to a study of the Jewish vote by the American Jewish Committee,1 in 1972, as in 1968 and earlier, Jews voted more for the Democrat and less for the Republican than any other body of white voters—Protestants, Catholics, businessman, farmers, workers; even professors; even students. Moreover, McGovern did better with the more prosperous Jews than with the less.

East and West, North and South, the McGovern share of the Jewish votes cast was between 60 and 70 per cent, and the Nixon share between 30 and 40 per cent. Speculating in these pages (September 1972) on the likely Jewish vote for Nixon, I said that “the forecasts of people whose judgment I respect are between 25 and 35 per cent. My guess is 25 per cent.” My guess was wrong—but not altogether wrong.

Between 1968 and 1972 there was a sharp drop in the proportion of eligible voters who actually voted. In 1972, for the country as a whole, that proportion was only about 55 per cent. The good-government forces (the cynics' “goo-goos”) were predictably indignant about apathy, but the non-voters were not apathetic. They too were voting, in their fashion. As Lenin said about the peasants who deserted the Czar's army, they were voting with their feet.

As a group, American Jews are not apathetic voters. On the contrary. In 1968 the relatively few non-voting Jews affected hardly at all the distribution of Jewish votes between the two major candidates. In 1972 the many non-voting Jews cast a significant vote for the third candidate, Neither—neither McGovern nor Nixon. Of all registered Jewish voters, about 25 per cent voted for Nixon.

A parenthesis must be opened here. Nonvoting, or abstention, can express itself in one of two ways. The first is simple: a registered voter does not go to the polls on election day. The second way is more concealed and more relative: a registered voter votes, but not for President. Normally a good many more votes are cast for President than for other offices. If the difference between the two shrinks, that can be because fewer people are abstaining from voting for a Congressman. In 1972 the difference shrank because a significant number of people who voted did not vote for President. In our study, where the Democratic congressional candidate was a shoo-in most Jewish abstainers apparently stayed home. In districts where there was a contest, a good many Presidential abstainers apparently went to the polls to vote for Congressman.

The United States Census reports many things—income, education, toilet facilities—but not religion. How do we know that a certain district is predominantly Jewish?

We are not completely dependent on the census. If we do not already know, informed local people will advise us to look for a concentration of Jews in Westport rather than Darien, in Bensonhurst rather than Greenpoint, in Skokie rather than Cicero. And the census is not altogether without its clues. Where it reports the major countries-of-origin of immigrants and their children as Italy, Ireland, and Sweden, do not expect to find masses of Jews. Where the major countries-of-origin are Russia (USSR), Poland, and Austria, and where you also have other indications—such as synagogues and local advice—it is not unreasonable to infer a substantial Jewish population.

_____________

Two contiguous election districts in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn (the 35th and 37th, of the 46th Assembly District) are indisputably Jewish. In 1968 they had a total of 2,142 registered voters, and in 1972 a total of 2,166. According to the 1970 census, the inhabitants were 51 per cent foreign-born, with a median age of 65, a median family income of $6,700, and a median education of 8.9 years. Here is how they voted:

Actual Voters (Per Cent)2
Democratic Republican
1968 89 11
1972 71 29

But see the difference with three candidates rather than two. Note especially the rise in the Neither vote—that is, in abstention:

Registered Voters (Per Cent)
Dem. Rep. Neither
1968 82 10 8
1972 56 21 23

The Jewish districts most unlike those in Brighton Beach are in Great Neck Estates (15th and 16th election districts of the 16th Assembly District), just beyond the New York City line:

Foreign-born Median age Median income Median education (years)
Great Neck Estates 11% 49 $36,000 15.4
Brighton Beach 51% 65 $6,700 8.9

The political contrast is far less sharp than the social and economic:

Actual Voters (Per Cent)
1968 1972
Dem. Rep. Dem. Rep.
Great Neck Estates 79 21 68 32
Brighton Beach 89 11 71 29

Which only proves—as if it needed proof—that Jews tend to vote Democratic, but unprosperous Jews tend to vote Democratic more than prosperous Jews (though in 1972 the Democratic difference between the unprosperous and prosperous shrank dramatically).

Those were the figures for actual voters. For registered voters the figures are more remarkable still:

Registered Voters (Per Cent)
1968
Dem. Rep. Neither
Great Neck Estates 66 18 17
Brighton Beach 82 10 8
1972
Great Neck Estates 57 27 17
Brighton Beach 56 21 23

In the three-way 1972 contest, $36,000 Great Neck Estates voted for McGovern more than $6,700 Brighton Beach!

_____________

Maybe it would be imprudent to make too much of those Brighton Beach voters. They are so untypical—so foreign-born, so elderly, so unrich, so uncollege. Even for Jews, they were untypically low in 1968 voting abstention. When we consider their age, that abstention rate of 8 per cent is extraordinary: most boards of education would be glad to settle for an absence rate of 8 per cent in their high schools. Let us therefore put aside Brighton Beach and substitute nearby Sheepshead Bay (60th and 62nd election districts of the 42nd Assembly District; 1968 total registered 1,488; 1972 total 2,213):

Foreign-born Median age Median income Median education (years)
Sheepshead Bay 16% 43 $12,600 12.2

That is less untypical.

Actual Voters (Per Cent)
1968 1972
Dem. Rep. Dem. Rep.
Great Neck Estates 79 21 68 32
Sheepshead Bay 89 11 62 38

As ever, three-column tables are still more revealing:

Registered Voters (Per Cent)
1968
Dem. Rep. Neither
Great Neck Estates 66 18 17
Sheepshead Bay 80 10 11
1972
Great Neck Estates 57 27 17
Sheepshead Bay 48 31 21

In 1968, that is, $12,600 Sheepshead Bay voted for Humphrey more than $36,000 Great Neck Estates; in 1972, Great Neck Estates voted for McGovern more than Sheepshead Bay.

In Philadelphia, for technical reasons, 1968 voting data and precise median incomes cannot be provided for two predominantly Jewish areas whose 1972 voting data are available, but what is left is nevertheless instructive:

Democratic Percentages, Philadelphia, 1972 (Actual Voters)
Center (8th Ward, registration 1,933; upper middle) 65
Northeast (54th Ward, registration 7,086; lower middle) 61

In Philadelphia, too, upper-middle-class Jews voted more than lower-middle-class ones for McGovern. No one doubts that in 1968 the Jewish lower-middle class had voted more than the upper-middle class for Humphrey.

In Florida it proved impossible to compare prosperous and unprosperous Jewish districts. The only predominantly Jewish area is South Beach, in Miami Beach. South Beach is like Brighton Beach, only more so—more immigrant (80 per cent), older (65+), poorer ($6,000). It is also much like Brighton Beach in its politics:

South Beach (Precincts 110, 112-115, 265, 289-291)3
Actual Voters (Per Cent)
1968 1972
Dem. Rep. Hem. Rep.
90 10 69 31
Registered Voters (Per Cent)
1968 1972
Dem. Rep. Neither Dem. Rep. Neither
69 7 24 50 22 28

South Beach liked Humphrey in the 1972 primary. Unlike Florida in general and the elderly of Florida in particular, elderly South Beach had no use for Wallace.

Because South Beach is a place to which Jewish pensioners retire, the rather high abstention figure for 1968 may have been due as much to medical and technical reasons—e.g., not having lived there long enough—as to political ones.

Now to two predominantly Jewish areas in Los Angeles:

Foreign-born Median age Median income Median education (years)
South Beverlywood (precincts 2285 & 2288) 11% 40 $22,000 13.2
Fairfax (precincts 1432 & 1433) 32% 57 $9,300 12.4

(In 1968 the South Beverlywood registration was 882; in 1972, 771. In 1968 the Fairfax registration was 1,019; in 1972, 902.)

Actual Voters (Per Cent)
1968 1972
Dem. Rep. Dem. Rep.
South Beverlywood 68 32 65 35
Fairfax 82 18 65 35

Of actual voters, therefore, $22,000 South Beverlywood gave McGovern the same 65 per cent as $9,300 Fairfax, although four years earlier South Beverlywood had given Humphrey 14 per cent less than Fairfax.

And again, we learn most when we look at all registered voters:

Registered Voters (Per Cent)
1968
Dem. Rep. Neither
South Beverlywood 58 27 15
Fairfax 67 17 16
1972
Dem. Rep. Neither
South Beverlywood 51 28 21
Fairfax 46 25 29

West and East, in sum, the richer voted less than the poorer for the Democrat in 1968, but voted more for him in 1972.

It is especially instructive to compare richer and poorer for increases in Republican and Neither voting. Such a comparison reveals something of a Presidential Republican rise; but even more it reveals a Presidential Democratic decline combined with a Neither rise, especially among the less prosperous. Here are our five neighborhoods—three in or near New York, two in Los Angeles—by order of income:

Changes in Democratic, Republican, and Neither
Percentages (1972 Minus 1968)
Dem. Rep. Neither
Great Neck Estates -11 +11
South Beverlywood -  7 +  1 +  6
Sheepshead Bay -32 +22 +10
Fairfax -20 +8 +10
Brighton Beach -26 +11 +15

The Presidential Democrats sustained distinctively great losses among Jews in modest circumstances.

_____________

An illuminating comparison remains to be made of two predominantly Jewish neighborhoods closely similar in nativity, age, income, and education—Great Neck (10th, 12th, and 14th election districts of the 16th Assembly District; registrations 2,222 and 2,584) and Manhattan Beach (79th and 80th election districts of the 45th Assembly District; registrations 1,252 and 1,525). Great Neck is near Great Neck Estates, Manhattan Beach near Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach:

Foreign-born Median age Median income Median education (years)
Great Neck 14% 39 $20,000 12.9
Manhattan Beach 17% 45 $19,000 12.7

In 1968 they resembled each other in their voting as much as in their social characteristics—with Great Neck, naturally, a bit less Democratic:

1968
Actual Voters (Per Cent) Registered Voters (Per Cent)
Dem. Rep. Dem. Rep. Neither
Great Neck 80 20 69 17 13
Manhattan Beach 84 16 74 13 12

In 1972, however, the resemblances were between $20,000 Great Neck and $36,000 Great Neck Estates, on the one hand, and $19,000 Manhattan Beach and $ 12,600 Sheepshead Bay, on the other:

1972
Actual Voters (Per Cent) Registered Voters (Per Cent)
Dem. Rep. Dem. Rep. Neither
G. N. Estates 68 32 57 27 17
Great Neck 69 31 54 22 24
Manhattan Beach 61 39 47 31 22
Sheepshead Bay 62 38 48 31 21

What happened? Why in 1972 this difference between Jews politically so similar in 1968; and so similar, too, in social and economic characteristics? Manhattan Beach is in New York City, Great Neck is not. If Jews in the suburbs are more fortunate—less worried—than Jews in the city, then in 1972 Great Neck may be regarded as having been to that extent “richer” than Manhattan Beach, and the regularity is undisturbed. Poorer Jews felt less able than richer ones to afford a vote for McGovern.

Of all our districts, Great Neck Estates alone shows no rise in abstention:

Abstention (Per Cent of Registered Voters)
1968 1972 Rise
Great Neck Estates 17 17 0
South Beverlywood 15 21 6
Manhattan Beach 12 22 10
Sheepshead Bay 11 21 10
Great Neck 13 24 11
Fairfax 16 29 13
Brighton Beach 8 23 15

The higher the income, the less the rise in abstention:

Rank by Income Rank by Rise in Abstention
Great Neck Estates 1 7
South Beverlywood 2 6
Great Neck 3 5
Manhattan Beach 4 3
Sheepshead Bay 5 4
Fairfax 6 2
Brighton Beach 7 1

One reason for Great Neck Estates not showing a rise in abstention in 1972 may be that it had already experienced its rise, by anticipation, in 1968. In 1972 there were normal Democrats who could not vote for Nixon and would not vote for McGovern. In 1968 there had been proto-McGovernites—McCarthyites, etc.—who could not vote for Nixon and would not vote for Humphrey. (Actually, though perhaps not in Great Neck Estates, some of those people are known to have voted for Nixon in 1968. Their purpose was to weaken the grip of Humphrey and his friends on the Democratic party. Humphrey came close to winning in 1968. If he had won, McGovern could not have been nominated in 1972.)

Though Great Neck Estates is quite comfortable indeed, thank you, it is not what a purist would call rich. Really rich people are those with an income of $100,000, say, and especially with the capital that may be expected to go with such an income. What does our study reveal about the really rich? Nothing. Voting-district returns are too coarse for sifting millionaires.

A final point about the study: How were all those voting districts chosen? In each city the local researchers chose their districts independently, well before election day. Their principles of choice were that the districts had to be predominantly Jewish, and to differ among themselves in income, education, etc. By election day the 1970 census and 1968 voting figures had been penciled in, and it remained only to wait for the 1972 figures. In short, districts were not chosen so as to support a thesis. Yet the data cohere. They show us the American Jews we recognize, as they have been and as they are.

_____________

Before the election I wrote:

It has been said that American Jews are deserting the Democratic candidate because of economic conservatism—that is, because so many of us are rich, and McGovern has a soak-the-rich tax program. Whether so many of us are rich is questionable . . . but certainly, on average, the Jews of Scarsdale are richer than the Jews of [former] Congressman Celler's district in Brooklyn. I will bet that the Jews of Scarsdale go for McGovern more than the Jews of Celler's congressional district—an odd sort of economic conservatism.

Scarsdale, Great Neck Estates, what's the difference?

What did our moralists do? They scolded us more or less privately, and denounced us very publicly, for selfishness and hypocrisy. “Israel,” they proclaimed, was only our code word for dollars: with our mouths we said we were for Nixon because he was better for Israel, but in our hearts we were against McGovern because we thought him worse for our moneybags. “We,” who were rich, were going to break with a great tradition. We were going to become contemptibly normal. No longer would we be voting to the left of our bank accounts.

Conspicuous among the moralists were a few Reform rabbis. Heine said, “God will forgive me, c'est son métier.” These rabbis engage in moralistic preaching, that is their métier.

By the nature of Jewish denominationalism in the United States, it is easy for Reform rabbis not to know Jews who are less than prosperous. It was therefore easy to misjudge the moderate drop in the Democratic voting of the prosperous—for the significant thing is not that there was a drop, but that it was so moderate. On the face of it, the rabbis in question knew little about Sheepshead Bay, or Brighton Beach, or Fairfax, or even Manhattan Beach.

For my part, the mistake I made was to advance “Jewish” explanations for the changes that were taking place. Such explanations were unnecessary. Is Manhattan Beach so much more concerned than Great Neck for Israel? Is South Beverlywood so much less worried than Fairfax about quotas? Apparently, Jews did not need Jewish-label arguments for their voting. The only effect of a Jewish-label argument seems to have been negative, or rather neutralizing. Essentially, Israel was neutralized as a reason for preferring McGovern to Nixon. Some Jews allowed themselves to vote for Nixon, and others to abstain from voting Presidentially, who would have felt obligated to vote for McGovern if they had thought him better than Nixon for Israel.

Moral problems are not easy, and for moralists they should be even less easy than for the rest of us. When moralists identify our moral problems for us and exhort us about them, but act as if they believe that they have solved their own problems without difficulty, they are less than fully persuasive. When moralizing rabbis preach to Jews on the Jewish vote, should they fail to entertain the possibility that their notion of political morality may look to others like a cultural preference, affordable, of the advanced Jewish upper-middle class? Should they take so lightly their moral duty to know what they are talking about? By their very title, rabbis are presumed to be authorities on Jewish matters. Is it moral for rabbis, and above all for the moralists among them, to miseducate Jews about the Jews? Is it moral for them, and not least when addressing Gentiles, to slander the Jews?

In sports, virtue—competence, knowledge—is rewarded, on the whole, and vice—incompetence, ignorance—is punished. A player or coach or manager cannot with impunity show he does not know his business. That may not be much of a morality, but it is a beginning. One could wish to see it extended into more exalted spheres than sport.


Footnotes

1 The study was carried out—in New York (and near it), Philadelphia, Miami Beach, and Los Angeles—by Howard Yagerman of the Committee's research staff, together with Professor Daniel J. Elazar and Miss Bernadette Stevens of Temple University, Professors Aaron Lipman and Harold Strauss of the University of Miami, and Richard MacNaughton, then in the Committee's Los Angeles office.

2 All figures throughout are rounded to the nearest percentage point.

3 Registration: 1968, 15,467; 1972, 18,962.

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