Last Tuesday, Republican Bob Turner’s upset victory over his Democratic opponent David Weprin set the media aflutter over the possibility that Jewish voters, disgruntled with the Democrats’ position on Israel, might be abandoning their traditionally stalwart support of Democratic candidates. Our verdict: unlikely.
Over the past few months, campaign rhetoric positioned the standoff as a referendum on Obama’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps more importantly, at least according to Nancy Scola of the Atlantic, Turner was able to “bundle concerns over Obama’s handling of economic issues and worries over his Israeli policy into one big general sense of dis-ease about the American president, and thus Weprin.” It didn’t help that Weprin failed to run a strong campaign. He was certainly damned with faint praise: according to Queens Republican Party executive chair Vince Tabone, Weprin was a “mensch…just really lackluster.”
So how does the defeat of a “lackluster mensch” in a heavily Jewish district bloom into an ominous threat to the Democrats’ traditional broad support among Jewish voters? Turner himself claimed to be a harbinger of larger things to come in his acceptance speech on Tuesday night, declaring, “This message will resound for a full year. It will resound into 2012.” In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Dan Senor claims that the results are “a preview of what President Obama might face in his re-election campaign with a demographic group that voted overwhelmingly for him in 2008.”
But these sweeping conclusions largely ignore critical facts on the ground, both about the peculiarity of NY-09 and about the profile of the larger Jewish community. According to internal polling conducted by the Weprin campaign, one-third of NY-09 voters identify as Jewish, and one-third of those Jews are Orthodox. Since Jews represent less than 10% of the New York population, this means that NY-09 has an unusually concentrated – and extraordinarily politically conservative – Jewish community, which is perhaps the first reason that this district should not be used as a bellwether for American Jews as a whole. While the district has been in Democratic hands since 1922, it is considerably more conservative than surrounding districts, a fact which Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, who once represented NY-09 as a House member, was quick to highlight.
Second, it’s important to remember the broader national context. According to the national exit polls in 2008, 78% of Jews voted for President Obama, in 2004, 74% of Jews voted for John Kerry, and in 2000, 79% of Jews voted for Al Gore. According to a Gallup poll released earlier this summer, Jewish support for Obama has remained steady since he took office in 2009.* And recent numbers from Public Religion Research Institute indicate that Jewish Americans as a whole are more optimistic about the economy and the state of the country than the general public.
The upset in NY-09 is, in this context, perhaps less dire for Democrats nationally among this small but politically potent constituency than Senor would have us believe. Weprin’s defeat is perhaps best thought of as a demonstration of a political perfect storm: a mediocre candidate, sluggish economy, conservative district, and relatively unpopular incumbent party. Over at Politico, Ben Smith’s simple conclusion has it mostly right: “Many of those Orthodox Jewish voters are, simply, Republicans who typically support Republican candidates.”
Then again, at least according to Sheepshead Bay Democratic District Leader Michael Gellar, voters may simply have disliked Weprin’s mustache. No data on that.
*More recent data from Gallup shows that while Jewish support for Obama has declined since the beginning of the summer, the drop in support mirrors the general public. Gallup sums it up: “All in all, Obama continues to do better among Jews than among all Americans, and there has been little change in that pattern so far throughout the first 2 ½ years of his administration.”