Bubbe, Call Your Grandkid for Obama

Gershom Gorenberg

The premise of the Great Schlep was that young Jews of Obama should visit their grandparents in Florida to make sure they vote in a manner befitting members of the tribe. Behind that premise were several more suppositions: that Florida is in play, that rightwing hatemail labeling Obama as a Muslim and anti-Israel might finally bring Jews to shift rightward, and that older Jewish voters were more likely than younger ones to fall for the rumors and vote for the old white-haired dude.

According to the latest polling, only one of those suppositions is true: Florida is in play, so how your bubbe votes in Delray Beach could determine the future of Planet Earth. (Imagine that in 2000, 528 more Democrats had been schlepped to their polling places by loving grandchildren. No Iraq War. Global warming under control. Rich folks paying taxes.)

On the other hand, the Jewish shift to the Republicans – heralded every four years – isn’t happening. The tribe still votes left, thank God.

In September, pollster Steven Cohen at NYU polled nearly 1600 Jews – a hefty sample. With undecided voters eliminated, he found:

Jews split 67-33 in favor of Obama, producing a gap of 17 percentage points with the nation. Second, and even more telling, is the contrast with non-Jewish whites. While only 37% of white respondents declared a preference for Obama, 67% of Jews did so – a gap of 30 percentage points.

Actually, if McCain really got 33 percent of the Jewish vote, he’d be doing unusually well. But remember that the NYU survey was done in September, though it was only published a couple of days ago. In the meantime, the entire electoral balance has shifted. As Ha’aretz noted,

Given the recent numbers favoring Obama, the survey’s authors project that the ratio of Jewish voters backing the Illinois Democrat would swell from 2-to-1 to 3-to-1.

Cohen and colleagues have good intuition. Yesterday, Gallup published its figures. In October, Jews favored Obama over McCain 74-22 percent. That’s up from 61-34 in July.

Qualifications: these figures are based on Jews interviewed for Gallup’s daily tracking poll. The total monthly sample is only about 500, and they weren’t all interviewed on the same day, or even in the same week. So the ups and downs have been ironed out. By now, the Jewish return to the Democratic ticket could be even more pronounced. But if this were the final figure, Obama would be doing as well among Jews as Kerry, nearly as well as Gore.

Why the return home? Perhaps the debates showed enough Jews the real Obama that the emails from crazy Uncle Harry stopped working. Perhaps it’s the Palin factor, as in Leon Wieseltier’s belated, conflicted conversion. The man usually so plagued with multisyllables found that one four-letter, Anglo-Saxon word was necessary:

McCain feels with his heart, but he thinks with his base. And when he picked Sarah Palin, he told the United States of America to go fuck itself.

(SoJo, a polite blog, usually eschews such language. But sometimes accurate reporting requires quoting them.)

Cohen’s analysis suggests that most Jews consider voting Democratic basic to their political identity. It’s who they are. It’s where they go home. When all they knew about Obama was those emails, they wavered. With more information, they’ve returned to their natural position.

The one exception in Cohen’s data is that Orthodox Jews vote heavily Republican. This, too, is an old tradition. His statistics indicate that the more an Orthodox Jew is integrated into general society, the more likely he or she is to vote Democratic. The self-segregating Orthodox are more conservative politically, as they are sociologically.

But I still hold out hope that the McCain-Moosehunter ticket will persuade Orthodox voters to shift allegiance. I suggest, for instance, that they look at the Republican platform on abortion. The Republicans assert that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.” The implication is that from conception, abortion should be banned, regardless of the reason for it. The position is fundamentally out of sync with the traditional Jewish view, in which life does not begin at conception and in which abortion is required under some circumstances. If the Republicans were to succeed, judicially and legislatively, in turning their position into law, it would be a fundamental violation of religious freedom. An Orthodox doctor fulfilling her obligation to abort a foetus that threatens the mother’s life would be committing a crime.

Back to the Gallup poll: One surprise finding is that younger Jewish voters are slightly less likely to vote Obama: 67% percent of the 18-34 Jewish set plans to vote for the Democrat, compared to 74% of the over-55 set. I remain a bit agnostic about these findings – a difference of 7 percent doesn’t mean a lot when the subsamples are so small. But if Gallup is right, it’s just one more sign of creeping assimilation: Voting Democratic is part of Jewish identity, but the younger generation isn’t as identified.

So perhaps those grandmothers from Florida need to vote early, then fly north to talk some sense into their progeny. They should remind them that we were slaves in Egypt. If the flight is too much of a schlep, they should at least email this story (thanks to Ben Smith), and tell them that if Mike can do the right thing, so can they:

Upon arriving at the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati to vote early today I happened upon some friends of my mother’s – three small, elderly Jewish women. They were quite upset as they were being refused admitance to the polling location due to their Obama T-Shirts, hats and buttons. Apparently you cannot wear Obama/McCain gear into polling locations here in Ohio…. They were practically on the verge of tears.

After a minute or two of this a huge man (6’5″, 300 lbs easy) wearing a Dale Earnhardt jacket and Bengal’s baseball cap left the voting line, came up to us and introduced himself as Mike. He told us he had overheard our conversation and asked if the ladies would like to borrow his jacket to put over their t-shirts so they could go in and vote. The ladies quickly agreed. As long as I live I will never forget the image of these 80-plus-year-old Jewish ladies walking into the polling location wearing a huge Dale Earnhardt racing jacket that came over their hands and down to their knees!

Mike patiently waited for each woman to cast their vote, accepted their many thanks and then got back in line (I saved him a place while he was helping out the ladies). When Mike got back in line I asked him if he was an Obama supporter. He said that he was not, but that he couldn’t stand to see those ladies so upset. I thanked him for being a gentleman in a time of bitter partisanship and wished him well.

After I voted I walked out to the street to find my mother’s friends surrouding our new friend Mike – they were laughing and having a great time. I joined them and soon learned that Mike had changed his mind in the polling booth and ended up voting for Obama. When I asked him why he changed his mind at the last minute, he explained that while he was waiting for his jacket he got into a conversation with one of the ladies who had explained how the Jewish community, and she, had worked side by side with the black community during the civil rights movements of the ’60s, and that this vote was the culmination of those personal and community efforts so many years ago. That this election for her was more than just a vote … but a chance at history.

Mike looked at me and said, “Obama’s going to win, and I didn’t want to tell my grandchildren some day that I had an opportunity to vote for the first black president, but I missed my chance at history and voted for the other guy.”

4 thoughts on “Bubbe, Call Your Grandkid for Obama”

  1. Well, I’m the target of the Great Schlep – liberal youngin’, conservative Bubbe and Zayde, and I have to say I find the whole thing to be a little bit ridiculous.

    Like any self-respecting Jewish grandparent would let them be talked into any vote by their grandkids! I’d have an easier time parting the Red Sea than convincing them to vote for Obama! Jews are an opinionated bunch, and things like “being opinionated” don’t exactly fade with age.

  2. Gershom, I’m really disappointing in you for arguing that religious Jews ought to consider how the Republican platform on abortion is out of sync with Orthodox theology. I agree with most of what you write, but this really peculiar for you.

    Jews have every reason in the world not to vote for McCain. However, nobody should be voting based on how well policy positions comport with religious dogma, especially on a question as arcane and abstract as when a human body comes to posses a “soul”, whatever that is. Isn’t the usual name for this “identity politics”? What’s next? Asking for McCain’s stance of transubstantiation? Who cares?

    Maybe you could clarify whether you actually think religious Jewish voters should align their votes based on theological compatibility, or whether you were just making suggestions from a purely tactical perspective.

  3. Joe, perhaps in my rush to write this post before Shabbat I wasn’t sufficiently clear.
    My point is that the Republican position of banning abortion is intrinsically a violation of freedom of religion – precisely because religions disagree on when human life begins. The Republicans’ readiness to use the power of the state to impose their religious views should be just as worrisome to Orthodox Jews as it is to other Jews.

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