Yeshiva University’s Political Transformation: Students’ Political Leanings From the ‘30s to the Present
Author’s Note: The methodologies used in the various polls mentioned in this article vary. The author considers them — while not necessarily a completely accurate reflection of student body sentiment — a relatively good indicator of trends through the decades. All polls taken prior to the 1960 election were of the Yeshiva College student body; Stern College for Women and the Sy Syms School of Business were established decades after Yeshiva College.
To say that the current student body of Yeshiva University leans in a conservative political direction would be an understatement. A poll conducted by The Commentator for the 2020 presidential election found that 60% of students would vote to re-elect Donald Trump compared to only 23% who indicated support for Joe Biden — compare this to the national numbers in which Biden received around 51% of the vote and Trump received 47%. The staunch support for the Republican Party shown by Yeshiva’s student body wasn’t always the case, though.
To my knowledge, the earliest records of student political affiliation at Yeshiva date to 1935, the year The Commentator was founded. The Commentator published the results of a questionnaire featuring the senior class. When asked what economic system they preferred, a third of seniors stated their approval for socialism and another third advocated for the implementation of a Communist society. (One might wonder whether the founders of the “Commie” were themselves “Commies.”) In the following year, all but five of the graduating class stated that they would vote to re-elect the Democratic nominee, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to the presidency in the 1936 election and indicated strong favorability for “government ownership of the means of production,” a textbook definition of socialism.
Following the 1936 election, The Commentator published an editorial hailing Roosevelt’s victory as “a vindication of progressive democracy in its hour of crisis” and released an obituary for the Republican Party “after a lingering illness” in the very same issue.
The enthusiasm for Roosevelt continued through his tenure. The student body repeatedly indicated nigh-unanimous support for progressive politicians and The Commentator continued its praise of Roosevelt. After Roosevelt’s death in the middle of his fourth term, Yeshiva held a memorial in Lamport Auditorium in his honor; Dr. Samuel Belkin, the second president of Yeshiva, called Roosevelt the “first citizen of the world, master of his own destiny and one who used his own physical misfortune for better and greater leadership.” The Commentator published an entire special issue in commemoration of Roosevelt’s passing, featuring an editorial and various reflections of faculty and administrators reflecting on Roosevelt’s life and times.
The predominantly liberal perspective of the student body continued after Roosevelt’s death. A student poll in 1948 found large support not for the Democratic Party, but rather for the Progressive Party and its eventual presidential nominee, Henry A. Wallace. While the editors supported Wallace’s policies, The Commentator editorial board eventually urged students to support the Democratic nominee, Harry Truman, as a “duty” to the spirit of liberalism. “Support of a Liberal splinter-party candidate serves only to advance the political fortunes of the more conservative of the leading contenders, a purpose to which we can hardly subscribe,” the editorial board wrote. Truman ended up defeating the Republican nominee, Thomas Dewey, in an upset win for the Democrats.
Political enthusiasm then centered around the personage of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee against Dwight D. Eisenhower in both the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections. Stevenson polled 92% of students in polls conducted for both elections. Additionally, 69.8% of students thought Stevenson would win in 1952 and 24% thought the same in 1956; he lost to Eisenhower by landslide margins in both elections. In 1953, Stevenson received an honorary degree from the university at a special convocation marking the 25th anniversary of Yeshiva College (YC). Student leaders were even granted the opportunity to pose for a photograph with the politician and shake his hand.
Stevenson’s popularity at YC continued in 1960 when he outpolled John F. Kennedy for YC students’ choice for the Democratic nomination by two votes; Kennedy went on to win the nomination and faced Richard Nixon in the presidential election. For every six YC students who supported Kennedy in the lead-up to the general election, one student supported Nixon — 86% of students supported Kennedy. Likewise, at Stern College for Women (SCW) 87% of students favored Kennedy, though the vast majority couldn’t vote (note that 1960 was the first election in which data is available regarding SCW voting trends). After his assassination, The Commentator described Kennedy as a “statesman who fought for peace, justice, and liberty.” The editorial continued, “Though death is mighty and dreadful it cannot kill an idea, it cannot kill a hope. A bullet can kill a man, it cannot kill a democracy. Nor can death triumph over the ideals that President Kennedy died for. These only we can kill.”
In anticipation of the 1964 election, around 90% of YC students — around the same percentage that supported previous Democratic candidates — indicated support for Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, when he ran against Barry Goldwater, a descendent of Polish Jews. One author of a letter to The Commentator was “appalled” by the uniformity of opinion demonstrated by the poll. “I suspect that in Yeshiva’s intellectual atmosphere many students are being led, like donkeys, by their noses. Conformity seems to have become the vogue,” the writer expressed. For supporters of both candidates, foreign policy was stated as a major policy issue of importance; the poll was taken in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and when the Cold War seemed close to getting hot. The Commentator editorial board called Johnson “an efficient and productive leader,” extolling his assumption of the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination, while characterizing Goldwater “a man surrounded by an air of doubt and confusion” representing “a far-right philosophy foreign to American tradition.”
Support for Johnson was affected by his Vietnam War policies. At first, the Vietnam War received broad approval from the Yeshiva student body. In 1966, a delegation led by the student council president to the White House presented a petition “in support of the policy of the President of the US regarding the war in Vietnam.” “It is essential that the President be backed by national unity so that all aggressors or would-be aggressors, be they the Communist North Vietnamese, the Red Chinese, or the Nasserites of Egypt will be duly warned that the US can make their ‘wars of liberation’ extremely unprofitable,” the petition read.
However, just two years later, Johnson’s execution of the war was not looked fondly upon by students. As the Commentator editorial board noted after Johnson announced his intent to not pursue re-election, “Lyndon Baines Johnson is generally found to be a poor President … most students object to his foreign policy … Some students felt their expectations were not fulfilled in this country and that they would gain by leaving the U.S…. We can only note with pleasure the graceful exit of Mr. Johnson from the department of the presidency and wish him well in all future endeavors.”
In the lead-up to the nominations of the 1968 election, YC students who were polled preferred Eugene McCarthy — an anti-war Democrat — to Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president and the eventual nominee. Notably, in the same poll, Nelson Rockefeller — a Republican — received over 100 votes from students, perhaps indicating the beginnings of a shift in student political support to the Republican Party. The Commentator eventually endorsed Humphrey over Nixon, primarily due to Humphrey’s displays of “friendship for Israel,” with reservations over his position vis-à-vis the Vietnam War.
The 1972 election saw the first wave of support of YC and SCW students for the Republican Party. While 87.8% of YC students polled in 1972 stated that they supported the Democratic candidate in 1968, 50.8% of respondents indicated support for Nixon in 1972; his Democratic opponent, George McGovern, only received 22.2% of student support. Additionally, 47.1% of SCW students supported Nixon versus 24.1% for McGovern. A decisive factor in the 1972 elections was most probably the perception of the candidates’ respective views on Israel. 81% of YC students stated that they agreed more with Nixon’s views on Israel than those of McGovern. As one writer put it, “Of course, President Nixon is not a saint. Yet, despite his minimal support from Jewish citizens in the 1968 election, he has given Israel more military and economic aid than all the previous administrations combined.” Nixon ended up winning the election with 60.7% of the vote and 49 states. Neither The Commentator nor the Observer endorsed a presidential candidate in 1972, a break with precedent; to my knowledge, neither editorial board has endorsed a presidential candidate since 1968.
There is much less data available for the 1976 election as there is unfortunately a large gap in Commentator archival material during that time period. Observer archives show, however, that 51% of SCW students supported Jimmy Carter and only 12% supported Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor after his resignation. Thus, there seems to have been a temporary shift in support back to the Democratic Party, while not as lopsided as Democratic support in elections of the ‘30s through the ‘60s.
The 1980 presidential election, which pitted Ronald Reagan against the incumbent Jimmy Carter, further demonstrated the shifting political opinions of the student body. In the run-up to the election, around 100 Yeshiva students participated in a demonstration against Carter at a speech of his in Queens, particularly displaying dissatisfaction with his support for an undivided Jerusalem. One heckler shouted, “Jerusalem is Jewish … Why do you lie to us?” The Commentator reported at the time that “Mr. Carter, his face turning red and his smile tightening, commented that, although even a minority has a right to speak up, it should listen to what he had to say.” One student writer, perhaps reflecting a larger sentiment, said that Jews “must immediately cease their sheepish following of their Democratic shepherds, for as in 1940, when Jews worshipped Roosevelt, he turned out to be a silent partner to Hitler's final solution of deceit, deception, and despair … The horrible prospect of Carter's re-election would greatly endanger our vital interests as Jews and as Americans.”
A dormitory resident described the pre-election fervor at YC: “Signs posting slogans in support of Reagan and in denunciation of President Carter abound everywhere in the dorm. Many Yeshiva students have undertaken to campaign strenuously for the G.O.P. ticket, while many others have attended demonstrations heckling Carter.” While there is no concrete data for YC, a poll of SCW students found overwhelming support for Reagan when compared with Carter; in fact, more students indicated support for the Independent candidate, John Anderson, than Carter.
Broad support for Reagan at Yeshiva continued throughout his presidency. Julius Berman — a current Yeshiva trustee and uncle of President Ari Berman — stated that “President Reagan is the ‘strongest’ friend that Israel has in Washington.” The Commentator praised the Reagan administration for strengthening strategic cooperation with Israel. Clearly, Reagan’s Middle East policies were a major factor in the newfound student support for the Republican Party. In 1984, Reagan received the support of 64% of YC students; he ended up winning 525 electoral votes and 58.8% of the popular vote in the general election.
Both Reagan and his vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush, received honorary degrees from Yeshiva in 1986 in honor of the university’s centennial. Bush garnered 70% of YC and 53.2% of SCW student support in 1988. However, four years later, Bush only received 3% of SCW student support; his 1992 opponent, Bill Clinton, on the other hand, received 78% of support from SCW students. Israel was cited as a major factor in the choice of SCW students.
To my knowledge, from 1992-2004, there is no polling data available regarding the voting preferences of male students. Similarly, I was unable to find polling data for SCW students in the 2000 and 2004 elections. Clinton remained popular with SCW students through his tenure, receiving 82% of student support in the 1996 elections.
Bob Dole, Clinton’s 1996 opponent, who received a scant 16% support from SCW students, spoke at Yeshiva’s 1994 Chanukah Dinner; The Commentator editorial board criticized the university for inviting Dole, citing what they perceived as his efforts to “thwart the pro-Israel agenda.” The board wrote that “YU honors should be reserved for those who have distinguished themselves as friends of our community—not those who have repeatedly taken aim at our causes.” At the dinner, Dole unequivocally said, “Simply put, we have no closer ally than Israel … And there can be no doubt US assistance to Israel has advanced our shared interests and values in a region unfortunately not noted for freedom and democracy.” In balancing out the political scales, Yeshiva invited then-Vice President Al Gore, who eventually became the Democratic nominee in 2000, to the 1995 Chanukah Dinner during which he, in a white-knitted kippah, called for an increase of American troops in Eastern Europe. Gore’s invitation received little, if any, blowback from the student body when compared to Dole.
There is little data on the 2000 election, but the fact that Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, was an Orthodox Jew seems to have received attention from the Yeshiva student body at the time. Some writers stated that Lieberman did not accurately represent Orthodox Judaism, a common claim being that Lieberman publicly said that “Judaism has no ban on intermarriage.” Others defended Lieberman and expressed that voting for a ticket should not be based on such a factor. Then-Yeshiva President Norman Lamm weighed in on the issue in a Dorm Talk: He stated that Lieberman was not “running for religious office, though during the relatively short campaign Lieberman “already had more of an effect [on American Jewry] than two generations of rabbis.”
The 2004 election was filled with much political action and fervor among students. Members of the Israel club attended the Republican National Convention; Commentator editors at the convention got the chance to interview personalities such as Dennis Prager and Al Franken. The 2004 election also featured the first Morg Lounge election watch party, a continuing Yeshiva tradition. One attendee described the event: “Early on, chants of ‘Bush! Bush! Bush!’ amplified as the incumbent’s electoral votes mounted steadily. A triumphant aura slowly permeated the lounge.” Bush went on to win re-election by a slim majority.
The 2008 election was probably the first that most current Yeshiva students remember, pitting Barack Obama against John McCain. Yeshiva hosted a Rock the Vote Concert and Café Night with “refreshments and tables full of election paraphernalia” in order to encourage students to vote. In addition, a debate was held between Democratic and Republican representatives in anticipation of the election; the cheering section for the Republicans was larger than that of the Democrats. 2008 also featured the first Commentator student poll with responses from students of both genders. 68.7% of students polled indicated support for McCain, while only 16.3% supported Obama.
Interestingly, when broken down by gender, there was a higher percentage of women who supported McCain — 74.5% — than men — 65.3%. Further, while showing strong support for the Republican candidate, 57% of students indicated disapproval of the performance of the Bush administration; it must be emphasized that the poll was conducted at the beginning of the Great Recession.
Fast-forward to 2016. There was no shortage of Commentator articles about the election, ranging from evaluations of Trump’s lack of tact and decency to the scandals that surrounded Hillary Clinton through the election. A Commentator poll — which I consider to be methodologically flawed for reasons outlined by another writer — found that 37% of students supported Trump while 27% supported Clinton.
Current Yeshiva students may be familiar with the controversy surrounding the 2016 election party in the Morg Lounge. Amidst the chants of “Lock Her Up,” one Stern student reported that she was confronted with jokes about sexual assault. One student from the South was prominently wearing a Confederate flag at the event. Rabbi Kenneth Brander, then-vice president of Yeshiva, stated that “that the Confederate flag and the reprehensible immoral ideas it often symbolizes are entirely incongruous with our foundational Jewish values.” The student said he saw the Confederate flag as a symbol of his community, the South, and not as a symbol of racism. “I know that there is not a single racist bone in my body,” the student said. The display of the flag prompted much debate and discussion on campus.
Since the 2016 election, there were two polls taken of the Yeshiva student body, one of the 2018 midterm elections and one regarding the 2020 presidential election. Both polls found that students in the Sy Syms School of Business were more conservative than YC and SCW students. Prior to the midterm elections, Trump’s approval rating among students was at 48%; that figure rose to 54% before the 2020 election. 60% of students polled in 2020 indicated that they would vote for Trump versus only 23% for Joe Biden. Most students also indicated disapproval of court-packing, abolishing the Electoral College and the Black Lives Matter movement. Only 33% of students approved of Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic; meanwhile, 68% of respondents approved of Trump’s economic policies and 70% approved of his foreign policies. The percentage of students who think the country is heading on the wrong track dramatically rose from 2018 when it was sitting at 40% to 63% in the 2020 poll.
A common trend across the various polls taken at Yeshiva is that a candidate’s perceived policies towards Israel correlate with their support from the student body. In 1996, for example, even after Yeshiva students’ support shifted to the Republican Party in the ‘80s, student support for Dole faltered after he was perceived as being an anti-Israel candidate. Other examples of a candidate’s policies regarding Israel affecting their student support include Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan throughout his presidency. Most recently in 2020, the importance of Israel in politics has not changed; 92% of students stated that Israel was an important factor for their choice in who to vote for.
The political leanings of the Yeshiva student body has shifted dramatically since the ‘30s. While, decades ago, Communists had a large presence at Yeshiva, the YU College Republicans, at present, is one of the largest clubs on campus; if one were to use the WhatsApp groups of the College Democrats and Republicans as an indicator of popularity, the College Republicans have around twice the amount of participants as the College Democrats (161 versus 81). Indeed, Yeshiva is an anomaly; the vast majority of college students in the country generally vote for the Democratic Party. While it may be difficult to conclusively explain the difference in voting patterns, I think a study of the perceptions of each party’s policies towards Israel can offer some explanation. It remains to be seen how the political leanings of the student body will further develop and shift. For now, the student vote is entrenched in the Republican camp.
Photo Caption: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, two politicians supported by a majority of Yeshiva students, who represented differing ideologies.
Photo Cred: Wikimedia Commons