In recent years, Republicans have made inroads into the overwhelmingly Democratic constituency of American Jews. But this year, Republican Jews — or Jewish donors to the Republican party, at least — are abandoning their party’s nominee at a stunningly high rate.
In 2012, 71 percent of the $160 million that Jewish donors gave to the two major-party nominees went to President Obama’s re-election campaign; 29 percent went to Mitt Romney’s campaign, according to our analysis of campaign contributors, which used a predictive model to estimate which donors are Jewish based on their names and other characteristics. This ratio of support mirrors how Jewish voters cast their ballots in 2012.
So far in 2016, of all the money given to major-party candidates by donors who appear to be Jewish, 95 percent has gone to Hillary Clinton and just 5 percent has gone to Donald Trump.
To understand what’s going on here, some context is useful.
In 2008 and 2012, about 70 to 75 percent of voters identifying as Jewish supported President Obama. A recent poll of Jews suggests that 76 percent of those voting for a major-party candidate are leaning toward Clinton. These numbers make Jews one of the most pro-Democratic constituencies in American politics.
But there are also active constituencies of Republicans, including Orthodox Jews, the majority of whom favor Republicans, as well as Jews who are dissatisfied with Obama’s handling of Israel, though there is overlap between these groups. And as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moved to align himself with Republicans in the U.S., Jews who are supportive of Netanyahu’s policies in Israel may be following suit.
But for Republican Jews, Trump is a problematic figure. For starters, there is the issue of Trump’santi-Semitic followers, anti-Semitic (re)tweets and anti-Semitic-ish comments to Republican donors.
Then there are the issues of Trump’s racism, religious intolerance and opposition to refugees. For a religious minority like Jews, who have a recent history of persecution and forced displacement, these issues are often especially salient. (See also: Mormons).
For those Jews who are primarily interested in American foreign policy in the Middle East, Trump’s lack of engagement with foreign affairs and unprecedented lack of experience in government make him an unknown quantity on many public policies, including foreign policy toward Israel. His early statements on Israel also signaled possible deviation from the standard pro-Likud line.
And while some Republicans who otherwise dislike Trump might support him because he would nominate socially conservative Supreme Court justices, Republican Jews (with the exception of the Orthodox) are typically less focused than other Republicans on social issues like abortion and gay rights, so the Supreme Court justification doesn’t carry much weight for them.
For these reasons, one might expect some decay in support for the Republican nominee among American Jews. On the other hand, partisanship is a pretty strong force. Most Republicans are getting behind Trump, including the most high-profile Jewish Republican donor in the U.S., billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
To measure the relationship between Republicans and Jewish supporters, we gathered data on campaign contributors. We focused on this group for two reasons: First, Jews make up such a small percentage of the U.S. population (2 percent), that there is not much reliable data on their overall preferences (the AJC poll released last week claims to be the first poll of Jews this cycle). In a representative sample of 1,000 Americans — the typical size for a national poll — a pollster would only get about 20 people who identify as Jewish. Since researchers know less about the Jewish population than they do about larger demographic groups, even a larger survey of Jews could easily be thrown off by the sampling weights used by the pollster.
Studying political contributors may provide a useful signal regarding the overall preferences of the subgroup, but that’s not the only reason to look at them. Jews make up a much larger share of campaign contributors than of voters. A big swing in their donation behavior is probably more consequential than a big shift in their voting behavior.
So here’s what we did: We looked at every contribution of more than $200 that was made to a federal candidate, which is a matter of public record.1 We took the names and addresses of the donors and linked them to a micro-targeting profile produced by Catalist, a political data vendor.2 By combining public records about names and neighborhoods with polling data and its own proprietary records, Catalist estimates whether every voter in the U.S. is Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist or other. The model will do a better job predicting religious affiliations for groups like Jews that tend to have distinct names and often live in geographic clusters.3
A prediction of who is Jewish based on names and neighborhoods isn’t perfect. It’s a rough estimate. The model will probably count some people as Jewish who don’t identify that way, like former U.S. Sen. William Cohen of Maine. And it will likely count other people as not Jewish who do identify as Jewish, like journalist Matthew Yglesias. For example, if Jews with more secular names tend to be less religious, this model would probably fail to identify Democratic Jewish donors more often than Republican Jewish donors. That sort of bias would mean the true donation behaviors could be even more starkly divided than what we are showing here.
So what are we showing? Again, about 70 percent of both the money given and votes cast by Jews went to Obama in 2012.
But in 2016, of the $95 million given to presidential campaigns so far by Jewish donors, 84 percent went to Democrats and just 16 percent went to Republicans. This is particularly interesting, since this figure includes donations to all of Trump’s primary opponents. If we ignore the primary losers and just focus on the nominees, 95 percent of all contributions went to Clinton.
In raw dollars, Jewish donors have already given Clinton about two-thirds the amount they gave to Obama through the whole 2012 cycle. But donations to Trump amount to just 8 percent of what was given to Romney.
As a percentage of all contributors, Jews made up 18 percent of Obama’s donors and 7 percent of Romney’s donors in 2012. In 2016, 20 percent of Clinton’s donors appear to be Jewish, compared to 3 percent of Trump’s donors.
Jewish donors’ abandonment of the Republican nominee is dramatic. But what does it mean? For one thing, most Jewish donors are not like Sheldon Adelson. They are withholding support from a candidate they do not like, even if the candidate is affiliated with their favored party.4
It is possible that the abandonment is about policy — as discussed above, there are policy-oriented reasons why some Jews are not fond of Trump. But policy is not the only factor at work here. This is probably also about culture and social identification. If Jews perceive that the kinds of people who support Republicans are not like themselves, then they will update their identification with the party. To be willing to donate to and affiliate themselves with a party, a person needs to look at the other people supporting that party and think, “Those are my people.” For Jews, Trump-aligned Republicans appear to be very much not their people.
CORRECTION (Sept. 21, 9:51 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the total amount of money given by Jewish donors in 2012 and 2016, and the percentage given to each candidate, because it double-counted the amounts for donors who gave in multiple months. The total given was $160 million in 2012, not $240 million, and $95 million so far in 2016, not $372 million. In 2016, 84 percent has gone to Democrats, not 94 percent, and — excluding candidates besides the nominees — Clinton has received 95 percent, not 96 percent.
Eitan Hersh is an assistant professor of political science at Yale University. @eitanhersh