In the three close New Jersey gubernatorial elections over the past three decades – 1981, 1993, and 1997, the Jewish vote has been a key factor. In the 2009 election, ironically due to the outcome of the Israeli election, the Jewish vote could be a decisive factor – in favor of Chris Christie, as far fetched as this may sound.
It appears likely that Likud leader Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu will serve as the next Prime Minister of Israel. A clash between him and President Obama over numerous issues, including Iran, Syria, borders, and the status of the Palestinians, is inevitable, regardless of recent protestations to the contrary on the part of key associates of both men. This would doubtless lead to a backlash against Obama in America's Orthodox Jewish community, ultimately negatively impacting Jon Corzine's vote totals from this segment of the Jewish electorate.
I emphasize the Orthodox Jews, because Israel is much more a factor in the voting decisions of Orthodox voters than among other elements of the Jewish community. This is not to disparage the strong support that Israel has among all sectors of American Jewry. By and large, however, studies have shown that the key determinants of the decisions of the non-Orthodox voters in all elections, federal and state, have been the various tenets of the liberal agenda, including social welfare spending, social justice for minorities, and, ironically enough, abortion – ironic, given the fact that Jewish law is far more pro-life than pro-choice : mandating abortion if necessary to save the life of the mother while viewing it as a serious breach of Jewish law in virtually every other case.
By contrast, one issue dominates the voting decisions of the Orthodox Jewish voter in federal elections: Israel. While John Kerry was carrying the Jewish vote, 74 percent to 24 in the 2004 Presidential race, President Bush was garnering 69 per cent of the Orthodox Jewish vote, due to his record of solid, unwavering support for Israel. In 1980, Ronald Reagan received the support of 38 per cent of the Jewish vote nationally, a record high for a Republican. The bedrock of Reagan's Jewish support, however, was the Orthodox Jewish community, which was outraged against Jimmy Carter for his various policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An example of such support was Boro Park in Brooklyn, the most populous Orthodox community in America, which gave Reagan 64% of its vote.
There is another major distinguishing factor between Orthodox Jewish voters and the rest of the Jewish community. On the issue of Israel, by and large the Orthodox Jewish voter is far more hawkish than other Jews. This is particularly true on the issue of settlements in the West Bank. Such settlements are mostly populated by Orthodox Jews, including a substantial number of Orthodox immigrants from the United States. The settlement movement is overwhelmingly popular in the American Orthodox Jewish community, while enjoying only lukewarm support among the rest.
Lest there be any doubt that the issue of Israel can be a voting issue in New Jersey gubernatorial elections, one can go back as far as 1981. No Gentile family in New Jersey, perhaps in America, had been more supportive of world Jewry on the issues of the Holocaust and Israel than the family of the Republican candidate and ultimate 1981 victor, Tom Kean. His father, former Congressman Robert Kean had spoken on the floor of the House of Representatives in the early 1940s about the horrors of the Holocaust and the urgency of opening America to the immigration of European Jewish refugees. After the war, Robert Kean was an outspoken advocate for the establishment of the State of Israel.
This record of family support of the Jewish community gave Tom Kean a strong Jewish base to start with in the 1981 campaign. He was leaving nothing to chance, however. During the campaign, Kean, as noted by Alvin Felzenberg in his definitive biography, Governor Tom Kean, emphasized his opposition to President Reagan's proposed sale of the Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft to Saudi Arabia. In the closest gubernatorial election in New Jersey history, Kean's retention of his Jewish support was essential to his victory.
The quintessential example of the impact of the Orthodox Jewish vote, however, was the 1997 reelection of Christie Whitman.
In her first statewide election against Bill Bradley for U.S. Senate in 1990,Christie Whitman only obtained eight percent of the Jewish vote. This poor performance may well have cost her the election in this surprisingly close race. Her low percentage was largely due to a statement she made in one of the debates in which she supported the U.S. vote in the United Nations General Assembly condemning Israel for her forceful response to the 1990 Arab riot on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Whitman learned her lesson well, and in the years 1991 and 1992, she significantly boosted her stature in the New Jersey Jewish community. She and her husband, John formed friendships with key players in the Metro-West Jewish Federation, consisting of the Jewish communities of Essex, Morris, and Sussex Counties. In her 1992 trip to Israel, she forged strong relationships with leading Israeli political figures, including the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Whitman has always been a very good quick study, and she acquired a comprehensive understanding of the foreign and domestic issues facing the State of Israel. All this manifested itself in her winning 32% of the Jewish vote in 1993 in her gubernatorial contest against Jim Florio, a healthy figure for a New Jersey Republican statewide candidate.
During her first term, Whitman was a national leader among governors in terms of support for Jewish causes. She championed and signed the Holocaust Education Act and led the largest trade mission to Israel ever sponsored by any state government. This record was well publicized in both the Jewish and general New Jersey media; however, its deepest impact was made in the Orthodox Jewish community, and its electoral significance would prove critical to her.
In 1997, in her race against Jim McGreevey, Whitman's reelection was jeopardized by a substantial drop in her support in the African-American community. She had received 25 % of the African-American statewide vote in 1993, largely due to the fact that the then Newark Mayor Sharpe James, motivated by antipathy towards Jim Florio primarily over the Newark school takeover issue, did next to nothing to turn out the Democrat African-American vote in his city.
In 1997, however, James was solidly in support of Jim McGreevey. He successfully placed his resources solidly behind get-out-the-vote efforts in Newark, and Whitman's share of the African-American vote fell to 18 %. She would have to make up for this loss somewhere, and her main offseting gain was in the Jewish vote, which increased from her 1993 32% total to a most remarkable 41% in 1997 according to a Zogby exit poll of the Jewish community commissioned by David Twersky, the then editor of the New Jersey Jewish News and a highly respected psephologist in his own right.
These Zogby results provide a unique insight into how the Orthodox Jewish vote can help a Republican offset higher totals that a Democrat may garner in the other segments of the Jewish electorate. Against McGreevey, Whitman received less then 30 per cent of the votes cast by Reform and Conservative Jewish voters. Her share of the Orthodox vote, however was an astonishing 77 %.
All this is prologue to this year's Corzine-Christie contest. In this case, the significance of the Orthodox vote is heightened by the location of large Orthodox communities in Bergen County. Christie must carry this erstwhile Republican county by at least 30,000 in order to prevail statewide agaist Corzine. There are three major Orthodox Jewish communities in Bergen County that Christie could target: Teaneck, Englewood, and Fair Lawn. Alone, the Orthodox Jewish vote in Bergen can't carry the county for him, but it certainly can be a significant component of his Bergen strategy to attract votes in traditional Democrat areas.
In campaigning for the Orthodox vote, Corzine has one past negative association and Christie has a positive one. Corzine has in past years made substantial contributions to the Israel Policy Forum, a dovish think tank that is not well regarded among Orthodox voters. Christie's positive past association is with none other than former President George W. Bush. This is an association that his campaign seems to be avoiding everywhere else, but among Orthodox Jews, as is the case among Israelis, religious or secular, George W.Bush is a most revered figure for his solid unwavering support for the Jewish State. I have continuously stated that President Bush will be much better treated by future historians than by his contemporaries. Among American Orthodox Jews, he remains an individual of respect and admiration.
I am not an insider of the Christie campaign, and I have no idea as to how his strategists will regard this article. It is not written as campaign advocacy but as a campaign analysis. I must note that I am more a Zionist than a Republican, and I would actually hope that Netanyahu and Obama could forge a strong partnership and strengthen the American-Israel Alliance. Given the striking difference in their world views, however, I see no way that they will not come into serious conflict.
In the words of the late famed Chicago columnist Mike Royko, I may be wrong, but I doubt it.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.