Whoever said religion and ethnicity don’t matter?

August 17, 2012

Most people will tell you that religion and ethnicity should not figure into making political choices. They often cite the Constitution’s First Amendment which seemingly guarantees freedom of religion and separates “church and state.” They will tell you that your heritage should not be a determining factor in how you vote. They will tell you that such voting behavior is “un-American.” Yet we continue to hear that politicians running for office seek out specific religious groups and religious leaders who, they seem to think, hold vast sway over their minions. Many people running political campaigns will set up “desks” catering to major religious groups. They will often worry about what will happen if, for example, they take the “wrong” position on hot button issues like reproductive rights. They figure, often correctly, that if they alienate even a small group, those votes might spell the difference between winning and losing. When John F. Kennedy ran for the nation’s top office, it symbolized a sort of coming out party for American Catholics who, often because of irrational prejudice, had been blocked from sending one of their own to the White House. A top Republican official once told one of my classes that political races were “…all about religion and ethnic politics.”

People know that this very sensitive subject is a no-no in polite discussion. For the most part, they won’t share their true feelings on the subject with close family members (much less with pollsters) but when they go into the voting booth, they often vote in a predictive fashion. For years, Jewish voters in New York were big fans of Senator Alfonse D’Amato who went out of his way to court them and their leadership. It worked. It wasn’t until he was opposed by a Jewish candidate, Chuck Schumer, that he was defeated.

There are other sub-groups. In the Washington Heights area of Manhattan, Hispanic voters are divided based on their country of origin. Dominicans practice politics with a vengeance. It’s a national sport. Puerto Ricans may not always be on the same page. In a recent primary battle pitting State Senator Adriano Espaillat against the aging African American champion Charles Rangel, both groups worked assiduously to bring out their own people. Hispanics are the fastest growing minority group in the city and they are now dominant. They almost succeeded but fell just a little short.

Political scientists and those in the business of politics know as absolute fact that religion and ethnicity are two of the greatest keys to winning or losing elections. When Mario Cuomo ran for governor, many traditionally Italian American voters crossed party lines to vote for him.

But now things are getting complicated. Increasingly, intermarriage between religious and ethnic groups is becoming a lot more commonplace. With that growing phenomenon comes a less group oriented predictor of voting behavior. I suspect that as this trend continues, we will see fewer people voting exclusively based on religious affiliation or nationality. Nevertheless, it is naïve to think that such voting behavior is not going to be important in future elections. During the recent every-ten-years gerrymander of the state’s Congressional districts there was a concerted effort to create a new Hispanic district that crossed at least a few rivers to make it a reality.

The next time someone tells you that religion and ethnic identity don’t matter, you might want to raise an eyebrow.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 8/20/12

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One Comment on “Whoever said religion and ethnicity don’t matter?”


  1. You will note my letter to the Columbia Paper rebutting your assertions about the role of religion in politics.

    You said, Senator Alfonse D’Amato had been successful in courting Jewish voters for years. “It was’t until he was opposed by a Jewish candidate, Chuck Schumer that he was defeated.”

    By now you should know, D’Amato beat Jacob Javits (Jewish) in the 1980 Republican primary; Elizabeth Holtzman (Jewish) in the 1980 general election; Mark Green (Jewish) in 1986; and Robert Abrams (Jewish) in 1992.

    You may not have to apologize to readers for this gaffe, but you should issue a correction so they are not mislead. And then you have to look anew at your central argument.

    Which is that religion plays a role in winning an election. I am thinking hard to come up with a contemporary example. I don’t think you can find much support for your position in New York City or New York State elections.

    Do you really think Pat Moynihan could have been defeated by a Republican, principally because the Republican was Jewish?

    In districts where one sect or another dominates, it is likely they will elect one of their own. But that is a very different situation from broad-based elections.

    I am interested in your thoughts.

    Arthur Schiff


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