Adapted from an article originally published in the Boston Globe with permission of the author.

The "Jewish vote" has become a coveted prize in the 2004 election. The Republican Party seeks to improve on the dismal 19 percent of the Jewish vote that George W. Bush won in the 2000 election and is targeting, in particular, Orthodox Jewish voters, young Jewish voters, and pro-Israel activists. At one point, Republicans even harbored hopes of equaling the 39 percent of the Jewish vote that Ronald Reagan garnered in 1980.
The Democratic Party, which has won at least a plurality of the Jewish vote in every presidential election since 1924, is likewise courting Jews. It argues that traditional Jewish interests -- the security of Israel, the wall of separation between church and state, and liberal social policies--should impel Jews to vote for the Democratic ticket again.

The bare-knuckled campaign for Jewish votes seems surprising. After all, Jews comprise less than 2 percent of the national population, and have for years defied the laws of political gravity by earning like the wealthiest of America's voters and voting like the most disadvantaged ones. Why then are both parties focused upon them?

First, Jews are known for participating actively in civic affairs. They vote with their pocketbooks before Election Day, contributing heavily to political campaigns, and they vote in reliable numbers on election day, with as many as 80 percent of eligible Jewish voters turning out at the polls. In a close election where both money and votes count heavily, a small number of Jews can make a very large difference.

Second, Jews are geographically concentrated. Some 85 percent of them live in just 20 metropolitan areas. Winning votes in those areas is critical to any presidential candidate's election prospects. In 2004, even a small shift of Jewish votes to the Republican Party in states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania could spell the difference between a clear Electoral College majority for Bush and another election cliffhanger.

Third, pundits believe that the Jewish vote is up for grabs. As the American Jewish community grows wealthier, more suburban, more deeply rooted in America, and more estranged from liberal critics of Israeli policy, Jewish voters -- so the argument goes -- are growing restless. They do not want either party to take their votes for granted. Already, conservative politicians have captured the majority of Jewish voters in England and Israel, as well as in some local races in the United States.

Knowing this, both parties have now redoubled their efforts to win Jewish votes in 2004. Republicans are counting on the president's strong stance on fighting terror and his unwavering support for Israel to win Jews over. They scored particularly well at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last May. There, Bush explicitly linked "the freedom and prosperity and security of Israel," to "serving the cause of America." Privately, Israel's representatives tell Jewish audiences that Bush has been the "best president ever" as far as Israel is concerned. They worry aloud that a US withdrawal from Iraq, under John Kerry, would embolden terrorists and pose a danger to Israel's very existence.

Democrats have not been shy to respond. They tout the senator's "perfect" 18-year voting record on Israel and mention his Jewish background (the family name was once Kohn). They lament that the president has done so little to advance the Middle East peace process and attack the Republicans for sowing fear that Kerry, despite his actual record, is some kind of closet enemy of the US-Israel friendship. In addition, they point to a whole range of issues from stem cell research to the Patriot Act that distance Jews from the Republicans. Based on recent polls that show Jewish voters supporting Kerry on election day by around a 3-1 margin, Democrats gloat that GOP attempts to woo the Jewish vote for Bush have failed.

A closer look reveals that three groups of Jewish voters are edging toward the Republican camp. How many additional votes they will provide to Bush remains unclear, but as the election nears these trends bear watching:

  • Orthodox Jewish voters are increasingly likely to vote Republican. A just-issued poll by the American Jewish Committee finds 60 percent of Orthodox voters supporting Bush. Four years ago, Orthodox Jews were also more positive toward Bush than their Reform or Conservative Jewish counterparts. A majority of them did in the end vote for the ticket that featured an Orthodox Jew, Joseph Lieberman, in its second spot, but by a much smaller margin than did the Jewish community as a whole. Only 10 percent of American Jews define themselves as Orthodox today, but that number is likely to grow since, according to demographers, the total Orthodox population is dramatically younger than the total Jewish population. As a group, Orthodox Jews tend to vote the way Protestant Evangelicals do, and for many of the same reasons.