The polls: religion and the 2000 presidential election: public attitudes toward Joseph Lieberman.

Author:Cohen, Jeffrey E.
 
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By almost any standard, the 2000 presidential election was momentous. The Florida vote recount and the Supreme Court decision on the recount fueled controversy, increased polarization between the parties, added to public disenchantment with politicians, and undermined George W. Bush's accession to office. But the 2000 election saw for the first time in history the naming of a Jew, Senator Joseph Lieberman, to a national ticket. Not since the 1960 election had the religion of a candidate for national office been a major issue in the campaign, and not since 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman on a national ticket, had a nontraditional politician been placed on a national ticket. While the Florida recount controversy negatively affected the legitimacy of the electoral system in the eyes of many, Joseph Lieberman's vice presidential candidacy was looked upon more favorably.

Many commentators, and many Jews, initially thought that Lieberman's candidacy would harm the Democratic ticket because of overt or hidden (latent) anti-Semitism that they felt existed in the American body politic. Much to their surprise, the announcement of Lieberman's candidacy at the Democratic convention preceded a boost in voter support for Gore. Some attributed this boost to Lieberman's candidacy and to the courage that Al Gore demonstrated in naming the senator as his running mate (Shribman 2002).

But other research shows that conventions almost inevitably lead to boosts in support for a party's ticket (Campbell, Cherry, and Wink 1992). The Lieberman candidacy may have had little to do with the boost in support for the Democratic ticket. Moreover, that boost was short-lived, as the convention boost theory predicts. In short order, George W. Bush pulled ahead of Gore, which may have been due to the surfacing of latent anti-Semitism, as some predicted. Still others comment on the positive reception that Lieberman received around the nation, even in regions and among constituencies normally cool or at least less hospitable toward Jews and Jewish politicians. (1)

The 2000 presidential election contest allows us to test some of these notions. Although surveys indicate a massive lessening of anti-Semitic attitudes over the past half-century, support for a Jew on a national ticket has been a hypothetical exercise in surveys. Did the Lieberman candidacy activate latent anti-Semitism into national politics? Who supported Lieberman? Did his religion, and his religiosity, attract the support of some Americans, while repelling others? What do the patterns of support for Lieberman say about prejudice and bias in twenty-first century America?

Trends in Attitudes Toward Jews and Other Social Groups

The opinion climate in 2000 was not overtly anti-Semitic or hostile to Jews. Table 1 presents feeling thermometer ratings of Jews and other religious and social groups that the American National Election Studies (ANES) have asked of Americans since the mid-1960s. The thermometer ratings ask people to assign a temperature score, ranging from 0 (the coldest) to 100 (the warmest), with 50 as the midpoint, neither warm nor cool. For each rating of Jews from 1964 to 2000, Americans lean in a warm direction, on average rating Jews in the mid-60s. Only in 1976 do we see a dip in warmth toward Jews, with a 57 rating that year.

In comparison, the ratings of Jews are very close to those of Catholics, Blacks, and Hispanics, all of whom receive ratings in the 60s for most years. The same can be said of Protestants in 1976 and 2000, although Protestants receive higher ratings, in the 70s in the 1960s and early 1970s. Furthermore, Jews are rated more highly than gays, illegal aliens, and Christian fundamentalists, the first two receiving decidedly cool scores from Americans, while Americans do not appear to be either warm or cool toward fundamentalists. Yet, Americans are warmer to Whites than to Jews (or the other religious and social groups), who tend to receive average ratings in the 70s.

Thus, from 1964 through 2000, there does not appear to be any appreciable trend in the thermometer ratings toward Jews. Stability, not increasing warmth or coolness, characterizes attitudes across this thirty- to forty-year time span. The bottom two rows of Table 1 report the results of regressing the feeling thermometer ratings at the individual level on year. Such an analysis allows us to describe time trends in the data, although the very large n's will produce statistically significant results that are not of much substantive merit. For example, the Jewish results suggest a slight up-tick over time in warmth. The size of coefficient (.05) indicates that from 1964 to 2000, aggregate warmth increased perhaps 1.8 degrees, an increase that may not be substantively meaningful. The same can be said for feelings toward Blacks. The analysis also suggests no trend in thermometer ratings toward Catholics or Christian fundamentalists.

However, in the cases of Protestants and Whites, we see an erosion of warmth. The regression analysis estimates a loss of 13 and 11 degrees of warmth for Protestants and Whites, respectively. In contrast, Americans became noticeably warmer to Hispanics and gays, the latter by a massive amount.

From these data, one cannot conclude that Lieberman's candidacy or the Democratic ticket was harmed merely because Lieberman was Jewish. Americans tend to feel more warmly than coolly toward Jews, and such attitudes appear quite stable in the aggregate, at least for the last third of the twentieth century. But it is one thing to harbor warm attitudes to a group. It is quite another thing to be willing to vote for a member of that group, especially on a national political ticket. In the next section we turn to such data.

Trends in Support for Nontraditional Candidates on National Tickets

By the late 1990s, nearly all Americans agreed that they would vote for a Jew for president (see Table 2). This represents a long-term change in attitudes toward having Jews in public office. In the earliest questions that I can locate, about one half of those polled (47 percent) in a Gallup Poll from 1937 said that they would not vote for a well-qualified Jew for president, but a similar amount (46 percent) said that they were willing to cast such a vote (Gallup Poll, February 10-15, 1937). During the height of the Second World War, one third thought that President Roosevelt had appointed too many Jews to jobs in Washington, compared to one fifth who thought that the number was about right and only 2 percent who thought that Roosevelt had appointed too few Jews. Almost one half had no opinion on the question (Gallup Poll, December 17-22, 1943).

While it is hard from these questions to tell whether Americans embraced strongly anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic sentiments in the 1930s and 1940s, attitudes had changed remarkably by the end of the century. By the late 1950s, nearly two thirds said that they were willing to vote for a Jew for president; by the mid-1960s the figure had reached 80 percent, and it increased incrementally, topping 90 percent by the late 1990s.

Some of the increase in support for a Jewish president likely comes from the horror of the Holocaust, which shocked people worldwide (Fredrickson 2002). Notably, however, in the late 1950s, about one third of voters were still unwilling to vote for a Jew for president. The presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and the civil rights movement of the 1960s also seemed to have liberalized attitudes about who would be acceptable as president.

For instance, in Table 2, we see a 10 percentage point increase in those who would vote for a Catholic, from 70 percent to about 80 percent, in the short period from 1960 to 1965. Between those years, the percentage who said that they were willing to vote for a Black...

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