The Jewish vote, once pivotal in American politics, is still important, though not as much as it was seven decades ago. Back in the 1940s, Jews cast four percent of the votes in America, twice the percentage they do today. And they cast a much larger share in the state of New York, which in the politics of the first half of the 20th century was a closely fought state in any close presidential election. New York was then also the country’s largest state by far, with 47 electoral votes, and cast 13 percent of the nation’s popular votes (in the 1944 election a full seven percent of the popular votes, one out of every 14, were cast in the five boroughs of New York City).
Jewish voters in New York had little affection for the state’s Republican Party, predominantly upstate-based and Protestant, or for the heavily Catholic machine Democrats of New York City; and Jews stood to the left of both parties on economic and cultural issues. One of their favorite politicians was Fiorello LaGuardia, Jewish on his mother’s side, who was elected to Congress from East Harlem in the 1920s as the nominee of the Republican and Socialist parties and elected mayor in 1933, 1937, and 1941 over the opposition of the machine-run Democratic party, the first time as the Republican Party candidate and the last two times on the leftish American Labor Party tickets as well.
Thus, the politics of Jewish voters in New York, and to a lesser extent in some of the other large states, provided an incentive for both parties to nominate liberal candidates—often one from New York—and advocate liberal policies. In every presidential election from 1924 to 1952 (when Dwight Eisenhower ran from his perch as president of Columbia University), at least one major party had a New Yorker at the head of its ticket. In 1940 and 1944, both did. Franklin Roosevelt, who ran both times, owned a townhouse on East 65th Street. Wendell Willkie, the Republicans’ candidate in 1940, had an apartment on the museum block of Fifth Avenue; Thomas E. Dewey, their candidate in 1944, lived on East 71st Street.
In 1948 Dewey, Harry Truman, and third-party candidate Henry Wallace all stressed their support of civil rights. The target of these appeals was not so much black voters—there weren’t many black voters in those days—as it was the Jewish vote. Dewey carried New York’s 47 electoral votes 46 to 45 percent, with eight percent for Wallace, who won nearly half his votes nationally from New York State.
Things have changed. Jewish voters became solidly Democratic after the 1960 election, New York became solidly Democratic as well, and after 1963 New York was no longer the most populous state: it is now about to be passed by Florida, to become number four in population. Jews now constitute two percent of the national electorate, not four percent as in the 1940s. One reason is their low birth rates; another is the enfranchisement in the 1960s of Southern black voters and—because of the abolition of poll taxes—many Southern white voters.