2021 Prof. Pienkos lecture: Polish Vote in US Presidential Elections

Polish vote in US elections

Is There a ‘Polish Vote’
in U.S. Presidential Elections?

Lecture presented on October 20, 2021
by Dr Donald Pienkos
Professor Emeritus of Political Science
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

This is a question that should get a quick YES answer. But a far more interesting question is whether Polish American voters have played a significant role in affecting the outcome of U.S. presidential elections – the most important decision we make as citizens.

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We have plenty of information to back up the reality of Polish Americans as voters in presidential elections. For example, in Wikipedia, there is an entry that gives plenty of survey data on the Polish vote in U.S. presidential elections going back all the way to 1916 – over 100 years!

Of course the Polish vote has changed over time, due to the transformation of the Polish population in the United States from immigrant status to full integration into the American ‘melting pot’.

Back in 1916 there were about 4 million people of Polish origin in the U.S. – out of about 100 million in all – or 4 percent of the population. But a third of them were immigrants. Most of them were not yet citizens and could not vote. And many of their American born children were too young to vote. Thus, the “Polish vote” in 1916 was just a ‘tweence’ over 1 percent of the total vote for President that year. Not much.

But by 1940 – things had changed dramatically. By then nearly all of the immigrants had become citizens and they and so many of their American-born children and even some of their grandchildren had reached voting age. So by 1940, Polish Americans made up perhaps 5 or even 6 percent of the voting population. This was an enormous change – something politicians very well recognized!

Since then the Polish American population has continued to change.

Today only about 4 percent of all Polish Americans are foreign born. Few Polish Americans – whether they are the sons and daughters, grandchildren or descendants of immigrants – speak Polish fluently. Far fewer are in ethnic organizations of any kind whether we are talking about their belonging to ethnically based parishes or fraternals. Polish Americans are far more economically diverse too. And politically, Poles have gone from being 90 percent for the Democratic party in the 1930s and 1940s to identifying slightly more as Republicans than as Democrats – since the 1970s.

Today about 3 percent of all Americans continue to identify as Polish – about 9.5 million in all. This decline is due to changing birthrates, the entry of many new immigrations into the country and Polish Americans’ own full and successful integration into the mainstreams of American life.

Still, they have remained a factor in elections – including presidential elections – especially under two conditions – when the election is closely contested and when Poland is a salient issue.

The reality of a Polish vote is also due to another important fact – that most Polish Americans live in just 10 states of the United States – New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and in the east and Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin in the Midwest.

Back in 1940 about 7 out of every 8 Polish Americans lived in these ten states – 86 percent. In 1980, 77 percent lived in them. In 2018 61 percent were residing in those same ten states.

In 2020 Polish Americans made up 8.6 percent of Wisconsin’s population, 8.3 percent in Michigan, 7.3 percent in Connecticut, 6.8 percent in Illinois and Pennsylvania, 5.5 percent in New Jersey, 5.4 percent in New York, 4.5 percent in Massachusetts, 3.7 percent in Ohio and 3.1 percent in Maryland. In other words they could matter in our presidential elections when they are close.

Indeed, we have plenty of good information to conclude that in four closely fought presidential elections Poland was an issue of significance. And in them the Polish vote mattered a great deal.

Polish vote in US elections

On October 11, 1944: President Franklin D. Roosevelt meets in the Oval Office with Polish American Congress leaders to mark the annual Pulaski Day observance and just weeks before the November election. Behind the President is a map of pre 1939 Poland whose borders the President had privately ceded to Soviet Russia’s ruler Josef Stalin the year before.

These elections took place in 1944, 1948, 1960, and 1976. Here’ let’s look at each of them more closely.

In 1944 Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was revered by Polish Americans and most other Americans because of his inspired leadership during the Great Depression and in World War II, won an unprecedented fourth term in office – and with the support of 90 percent of Polish voters. He did this, however, helped by his success in concealing vital information from the public about the private agreement he had made with Soviet ruler Josef Stalin about postwar Poland the year before.

In the election Roosevelt won 8 of the 10 states with the largest numbers of Polish voters, several of them by very narrow margins, in winning the election. In all he got 177 electoral votes from these ten states out of the 266 he needed to win. He lost only the 37 electoral votes of Ohio and Wisconsin. Now what might have happened had the “political dynamite” about his truly damaging talk with Stalin exploded before the election?

In 1948, Harry Truman barely won the presidency despite his losing some Polish voter support due to their anger over Poland’ fate following the Yalta conference of February 1945.

At Yalta, Churchill had accepted Soviet control over postwar Poland and a massive change in its borders. Indeed, the Polish American Congress denounced their action from the start as a violation of the very reasons the two leaders had given for fighting against Hitler.

In the 1948 election Truman did win 80 percent of the Polish vote, 10 percent less than in 1944. Moreover, he won only 4 of the ten states with the largest number of Polish Americans. And in two of those – Ohio and Illinois – his margin of victory was very narrow. He just squeaked in – thanks to his furious ‘whistle stop’ campaign to mobilize Democratic party voters – who then outnumbered Republicans nearly 2-1.

In 1960 Senator John F. Kennedy, like his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, was a staunch supporter of a Poland free from Soviet domination. Both candidates made strenuous efforts to win the Polish vote too.

Kennedy based his campaign on rebuilding Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal’ Coalition in a time of economic recession in our country. He went on to win the election by the narrowest of margins, helped enormously by the votes from nearly 80 percent of Polish Americans – 8 of the ten “Polish” states went to him, two again by very narrow margins – Illinois by 8,000 votes out of 4.8 million and New Jersey – by 22,000 votes out of 2.8 million. Without them the election would have been decided in the House of Representatives.

In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford narrowly lost his bid for office against Jimmy Carter in an election in which he committed an egregious debate blunder declaring that communist-run Poland was not under Soviet domination. Polish Americans, after voting Republican in 1972, went to Carter by a 60-40 margin, and were a key factor in bringing about his defeat. Ford lost 6 of the 10 most heavily Polish states – all ten had gone to Nixon in his landslide win in 1972. Later Ford himself blamed his defeat on his debate error, something connected with the so-called “Sonnenfeldt doctrine” that had plagued him before the election.

In the 1990s, one issue that never arose involved the newly free and democratic Poland’s entry into the NATO alliance. When both Democrats and Republicans came out in support of NATO expansion this issue was literally “taken off the table.” Thus, it played no role in 2000, when George W. Bush won the presidency in an amazingly close and controversial election.

Does the Polish vote still matter today? Yes I would argue, but only when the fate of Poland is salient, when the candidates recognize this fact, and the election is close. Thus, while the votes in three states with large populations of Polish Americans u– Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin were crucial in Donald Trump’s narrow victory in 2016 and his defeat in 2020, in these elections Polish Americans like their fellow Americans were voting on the candidate and the issues, based on their own particular party orientations, views of the candidates, and their policy preferences.

As for the future, let’s just hope and pray that Poland’s fate is not in the balance in the years to come when it involves our presidential elections.


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