Of all the groups that make up the traditional Democratic coalition, none is so skeptical of President Carter today as America's Jewish voters. Their distaste for Carter was easy to find in New York this week.
Jews are one of the smallest groups in the old coalition -- they number only 5.7 million nationwide. But because of the concentration of Jewish voters in a few crucial states (including New York, California, Florida, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) and their high turnout at the polls, Jews can carry an electoral weight that is far greater than their numbers suggest.
For example, it is difficult to find a Democratic politician who believes that Carter can be reelected president without carrying New York state. But Jews in New York usually represent a quarter of the Democratic turnout, and if they do not vote for Carter in large numbers, victory here will probably be impossible.
At the moment, New York state's Jews appear disenchanted with the Democratic nominee. According to a recent statewide survey conducted by a respected polling organization, the preferred candidate of New York Jews today is independent John B. Anderson, favored by 53 percent in the poll. Carter got 25 percent; Ronald Reagan 17.
"I have no doubt that there is extremely strong disaffection from Carter" among Jews, Eugene Gold said in an interview here. Gold, the Brooklyn district attorney and a longtime activist in the Democratic Party and many Jewish organizations, added: "I think the bulk of that disenchantment will hold "through Election Day.
Conversations with numerous Democratic and Jewish politicians in New York revealed that most of them share Gold's pessimistic view of Carter's prospects. Most hedged their analyses by noting that Election Day is still far off, and that much can change before Nov. 4. But many of those questioned also said the Jewish animosity toward Carter is so strong that it is hard to see how it can be reversed.
"The support just isn't there now," said Ellen Chesler, chief political aide to Carol Bellamy, the president of the New York City Council. Chesler said her bellwether for New York's middle class Jewish community is her mother: "My mother is rabidly anti-Carter . . . she'll vote for Reagan."
Carter's prominent supporters in New York are virtually all professional politicians who "always stick with the top of the ticket," Chesler said. "The support is really very thin," she added.
Politicians here refer often to the results of last April's Democratic primary when Jews voted about 4 to 1 for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy over the president. The ratio was the same among affluent and traditionally liberal suburbanites and more conservative, lower middle class urban dwellers.
In 1976 the Carter-Mondale ticket carried New York by about 270,000 votes, a 4 percent margin of victory. If even a fraction of the Jewish Democrats who refused to vote for Carter in the April primary refuse to back him again in November, a margin of that size would evaporate.
And an ideal vehicle for attracting Jewish defection from Carter may be offered by New York's Liberal Party. The Liberals have their own line on the New York ballot, and they may well endorse Anderson.
The Liberals' choice in the Senate race this year is Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.), who is also a favorite among Jewish voters in the state. An Anderson-Javits line on the ballot in November could draw off enough Jewish votes to throw the state to Ronald Reagan, several politicians here speculated.
Gov. Hugh Carey will have substantial influence over the Liberal Party's endorsement, according to knowledgeable sources here, but Carey's relations with President Carter are poor. Javits is reliably said to be eager for an Anderson-Javits ballot line on the theory that it will help him win.
Even if the Anderson candidacy collapses, some of the Democrats interviewed this week predicted Reagan will take a lot of Jewish votes from Carter in November.
"Jews are closer to Reagan on foreign policy," Gold said. Several others predicted that wealthier Jews would find Reagan's economic and foreign policy positions sympathetic. (Many of the Democratic politicians asked that their gloomy predictions not be attributed to them by name).
On the other hand, several Democrats here said it was too early to allocate the Jewish vote, 80 to 90 percent of which traditionally goes to the Democrats. Justin Feldman, a prominent Democratic attorney, recalled that in 1948 "Jews all said they were going to vote for Henry Wallace until they walked into the booth."
But Carter's problems with the Jewish community today seem more numerous and deeper than any faced by other Democratic candidates for president in recent times.
Last spring's flip-flop on the U.N. vote on Israeli occupation of Arab lands left deep scars in the Jewish community, intensifying doubts about Carter's true intentions for Israel. The Andrew Young affair was another source of ill-will that many Jews interpret as an attempt by Carter "to do everything he could to break the historic alliance between Jews and black," as one prominent Jewish politician put it. The recent revelation that Billy Carter accepted $220,000 from Libya, Israel's most rabid enemy, was "icing on the cake," as another Jewish politician put it.
One prominent Jewish, Democratic officeholder asked if he could say something "off the record." Assured that he could, he dropped his voice and said: "You know what -- even I am going to vote for Reagan."
Abraham Weinstock is a New York taxi driver who came to this country from Poland 19 years ago. "I been here 19 years, I never vote for a Republican," Weinstock said in his cab today. "You know, this year I think I vote for the Republican."