Former Republican strategist and now writer and Republican apostate Kevin Phillips has made a career out of predicting election results in presidential elections. Phillips begins his analysis by breaking the electorate into micro-sectors based on religion and ethnicity and then looks at the historical voting patterns of these demographic groups. For instance, during the Second Party System of the antebellum (pre-Civil War) period, certain Protestant sects tended to vote for the Whigs and then for the Republicans while others supported the Democrats. One may look at the underlying values that caused these party loyalties and translate them into the values of today’s parties.
If one looks at the blue state-red state voting patterns east of the Mississippi River, one notices that the blue states roughly correspond to those states that voted Republican in 1856 and 1860 and the red states correspond to those that voted Democrat. The switch of the northeastern and north-central states from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party can be readily explained by the fact that the antebellum Republicans inherited the economic policy of the Whigs (being protectionist), as well as being concerned about racial justice. There was a heavy evangelical Protestant strain of those denominations that wanted to better society through social reforms.
Today these values are present in the Democratic Party. The antebellum Democrats were in favor of free trade, the military and an activist foreign policy. These are the values of today’s Republicans. Phillips was one of the strategists who pioneered Nixon’s “southern strategy” in the late 1960s.
By taking these larger demographic historic voting patterns and then making adjustments for income levels and religious attendance, political voting analysts can make fairly rough predictions about voting behavior and election outcomes. I believe that a similar analysis is possible for Israeli politics. But, of course, one would have to use different criteria and refer to different historic turning points.
Because the secular sector is so much larger among Israeli Jews than among Americans, and because Judaism lacks the large number of religious denominations that are present in Protestant America, one would have to rely more on ideological indicators such as youth group affiliation, membership on a kibbutz or moshav, etc. There are definitely ethnic voting patterns in Israel that are roughly similar to those in the United States. For instance, Mizrahi Jews tend to vote for certain parties such as the Likud and Shas, while sabra Ashkenazi Jews tend to vote for Labor and Meretz. Russians are beginning to establish a similar fixed pattern. With some careful examination one might be able to identify a group of “Netanyahu Laborites” who voted for Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996 similar to the Reagan Democrats of 1980.
Why is this important? When voting behavior is analyzed on a demographic basis, certain patterns emerged that can then be explained in terms of party ideology or image. Focus groups can explain why these groups tend to vote for a particular party. While a party probably does not want to change its core ideology that is crucial to its identity, it can target issues that are crucial to certain demographic groups that it wants to target and then adjust its positions and image accordingly. Labor desperately needs to undertake such an analysis in order to determine what groups it can attract on economic issues and how it needs to adjust its image. Such an analysis might allow Labor to win back certain groups of Mizrahi or Russian voters who have grown disillusioned with their treatment from the Likud.
Meretz would be advised to undertake a similar analysis. It might discover that it has a good chance of appealing to Muslim professionals working in Jewish cities who can be appealed to on the basis of Meretz’s peace and civil rights agenda. Attracting new voters goes much further than simply translating one’s election leaflets or broadcasts into Russian or Arabic or attracting a few faces from a particular community, important as those steps may be. It goes to the image of a particular party and how that coincides with the values of a particular ethno-religious community.
The political realist knows that one cannot implement policy if one loses the election. Although it may be harder to measure winners and losers under Israel’s proportional representation system than under America’s system, certain trends are unmistakable. Labor and Meretz have both lost more than half of their electoral strength since 1992 when Rabin was elected prime minister. A thorough analysis of historic demographic voting trends in Israel might be the place to begin to turn this around.
Thomas Mitchell, Ph.D., is a graduate of Hebrew University and the doctoral program in international relations at the University of Southern California. He specializes in research on deeply divided societies – particularly Arab-Palestine, Northern Ireland, and 19th century America.