How will Polish Americans vote in the 2012 Presidential Election and how influential might they be?

Don Pienkos
Professor Emeritus, Political Science
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

SUBJECT: How will Polish Americans vote in the 2012 Presidential Election and how influential might they be?

Polish Americans today number about 10 million – 3.3 percent of the U.S. population. 95 percent are U.S. born. This is a major development. Even into the 1960s, perhaps 20 percent of all Polish Americans were immigrants – 1 in 5. Today it’s 1 in 20.

Today 68 percent of all Polish Americans live in the twelve historically ‘most Polish states’ They are Wisconsin, whose population is nearly 9 percent by national origin and identification (the highest in the country), Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland. More recently, Florida has joined this group as the thirteenth state with a large Polish American population, mainly composed of retirees transplanted from other states. The thirteen “most Polish American states” today have over 7 million Polish Americans in all. Here we are talking about over four million likely voters. That’s a lot.

Why do many Polish Americans born in America continue to self identify as such? There are many and varied pulls here – family heritage, enjoyment of Polish traditions (like sharing the ‘Oplatek’ on Christmas Eve), being identified by others by one’s last name, belonging to a Polish organization, travel to Poland, and obviously knowledge of the Polish language, and something of Poland’s literature and history. Far more than 5 percent of Polish Americans know the Polish language which is also helpful to them in many ways.

By political party, Polish Americans still identify more as Democrats than Republicans – like 53-47. But this is a big change from the 1960s when about 75-80 percent still regularly voted for Democratic candidates. This change is mainly due to upward social and economic mobility. Today most Polish Americans are college educated, members of the middle class, and are employed in professions – teaching, law, business, medicine, government service.

Even many working class Polish Americans hold managerial or skilled “blue collar” jobs (in printing, designing, automotive repair, and as electricians, plumbers and masons, for example). Very few Polish Americans today would be classified as unskilled or semi-skilled “laborers” – as was the case even sixty years ago.

Middle class and well educated Polish Americans are solidly Republican. But even traditionally Democratic party-oriented working class and less highly educated Polish Americans’ liberalism is on the economic issues; most are more conservative on the social issues. Many if not most never “bought into” the left tilt in the party in the 1970s and are Democrats because of its identification with social security, medicare, and in many cases the organized union movement. In the 1980s many working class Polish Americans became what were called “Reagan Democrats” – folks who called themselves Democrats but voted for the “Gipper”.

Another reason for the conservative character of Polish American voting, even among many Democrats, is their strong identification with the Catholic church and its pro-life and pro- marriage positions. Polish Americans are 3.3 percent of the U.S. population but constitute perhaps 15 percent of church-going Catholics.


In past years, Poland was a significant issue in presidential elections.

-In 1944 Franklin D. Roosevelt worried so much about the Polish vote that he not only kept secret his World War II deals with Stalin over Poland at the Teheran summit in November 1943, he misrepresented his position to the leaders of the Polish American community during his presidential campaign against Gov. Thomas Dewey of New York. He got 90 percent of the Polish vote and won reelection to a fourth term, but by a surprisingly narrow margin. The Polish vote made the difference in a number of states FDR carried but by very small margins.

-In the run-up to what proved to be an extremely close 1960 election, both presidential candidates, Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy, went to the Polish American Congress to appeal for the Polish vote, as did President Dwight Eisenhower himself. (That November Polish Americans voted for Kennedy by a 78-22 margin, helping elect him by a tissue-thin popular majority and most likely insuring his victory in the electoral college Illinois.

-In 1976 President Gerald Ford probably lost the election to Jimmy Carter when he made his amazing gaffe, telling the voters that communist-controlled Poland was not under Soviet Russian domination. Ford’s misstatement, the worst in presidential debate history, put a temporary halt to the steady upward gains he’d been making in election surveys because it undermined his claim that he knew better about foreign policy than his opponent, former one-term Georgia governor and seeming national neophite, Jimmy Carter.


Since 1989, when Poland became a free country and led the way to the end of the Cold War, Poland has not been an issue in presidential elections. Even in the 1992 and 1996 elections, when the new Polish democratic government and Polish Americans were working with others to win NATO membership for Poland, the issue of Poland did not surface in U.S. presidential elections. (The U.S. Senate, with the President’s strong support, approved a change in the NATO Treaty and the entry of the Polish, Czech and Hungarian republics into the Alliance in April 1989; all three democracies entered NATO in 1999).

Interestingly, U.S. presidents have continued to find ways to travel to Poland, either during, before or after they held in office. Believe it or not, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Ronald Reagan, Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have all made the trip. Even Mitt Romney went there this past August.


This year, Poland has again not been a salient issue in the campaign – although former Governor Romney made an oblique reference to Poland during the Monday October 22 foreign policy debate where he criticized President Obama about an embarrassing statement he had made in talking with the Russia’s president last year.+

Here’s my guess about Polish American voting in November and its possible significance in this election.

Let’s start with the likelihood that perhaps 5 plus million Polish Americans will vote this year. Of them perhaps 6-8 percent are highly sensitive to Polish issues – and not just the more general issues – like the economy or the debt. That’s at least 300,000 voters. Most of these voters are going to vote for Romney, but there are factors that might affect the choices of some others.

One was the mini-controversy over President Obama’s incredible poor choice of words when he mentioned “Polish death camps” this Spring at a ceremony honoring the late Jan Karski, a genuine War II hero, Polish patriot and humanitarian. These words are an extraordinary sore point – in Poland and among many Polish Americans, since it was Nazi Germany that was guilty of the Holocaust in World War II.

There is also chronic displeasure in Poland and among some attentive Polish Americans over Congress’ refusal to support Poland in its effort to gain visa waiver status for Poles wishing to visit this country. This is a complaint for which Obama has been blamed, though he has publicly supported this policy change. It is Congress that has failed to act. Neither of these issues has received much general public attention, however. The question is therefore whether they will affect the voting decision of more than a small handful of people this year.

More likely, it is the Catholic church hierarchy’s continued criticisms of several provisions of President Obama’s health care law that may resonate with many Polish Americans – as Catholics. This issue could have an impact on some who are both Democrats by party identify-cation and practicing Catholics.

And let’s remember: of the ten “toss-up” states in this election – with 131 electoral votes – five have large Polish American populations – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, and Wisconsin. Even a small turn to Romney among some Polish American voters in those states could actually decide the election – with their 70 electoral votes.#

Every vote counts as we like to say, especially in what appears at this date to be a very close presidential election!


*All are discussed in some detail in my book, For Your Freedom Through Ours: Polish Americans on Poland’s Behalf, 1863-1991 (Columbia U. Press, 1991).

+When President Obama came into office in 2009 he ordered a “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations and reversed George W. Bush’s policy of working to establish a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. There were various sensible reasons for his decision (involving concerns on whether the defense system could actually work, when it would be installed, and at what cost, plus worries about Russia’s volatile and hostile reaction to the Bush plan). Nevertheless, Obama’s decision generated concerns in Poland and the Czech Republic about the strength of America’s commitment to the security of its NATO allies in East Central Europe.

The mention of Poland most likely went ‘right over the heads’ of the vast majority of debate watchers. But it certainly was heard by attentive Polish Americans, many if not most of whom are already strong supporters of the challenger.

#The other toss-up states are Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Virginia, according to the latest Real Clear Politics survey.

Solid Obama states with large Polish populations are: Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, and Maryand. Likely to go for the President are New Jersey and Connecticut. Minnesota is in the leaning to Obama” category. Indiana is the only likely Romney state.

Sources: Richard Lukas, The Strange Allies: The United States and Poland during World War II (1978); Donald Pienkos, For Your Freedom Through Ours: Polish American Efforts on Poland’s Behalf, 1863-1991 (1991); The Piast Institute of Michigan: The Polish American Leadership Survey(2010).

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