Will the Jewish vote, normally overwhelmingly Democratic, be up for grabs in 2012? That question became a subject of intense debate when a Republican was elected recently to the House of Representatives from New York’s 9th Congressional District for the first time in 90 years.
The district, which encompasses parts of Brooklyn and Queens and is about one-third Jewish, had been predictably Democratic and liberal. But in the blink of an eye it gave the non-Jewish Republican candidate an 8-point victory over the Democrat, an Orthodox Jew.
Public rabbinical endorsements in the district and extensive reportage in local Jewish papers indicated substantial Jewish defections from the Democrats, particularly among Orthodox Jews, estimated to make up about a third of the Jewish electorate there. Since the election, Republican presidential candidates have been ramping up their pro-Israel rhetoric on the assumption that Jews are disappointed with the administration’s Middle East policy, while Democrats are organizing special outreach initiatives in the hope of holding on to their Jewish support.
The just-released AJC Survey of American Jewish Opinion indicates a definite falloff of Jewish support for Obama, although it is not clear that the Republican candidate for president next year can count on a significant shift in the Jewish vote.
Jewish support for Obama began at a far higher threshold than in the electorate at large: In 2008 he received an estimated 78 percent of the Jewish vote while polling 53 percent nationally. Three years later his national approval rating stands at 39 percent, a 14-point drop, while his approval rating among Jews—according to the AJC survey—is 45 percent, a decline of 23 percent but still 6 points higher than among Americans as a whole. Among Orthodox Jews, who made up 9 percent of the sample, disapproval is much higher, 72 percent.
The AJC poll indicates that the president has retained the support of American Jews on certain issues. A solid 68 percent approve of the way he has handled national security, for example. Yet there has been a striking reversal in Jewish attitudes toward the president’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations. In the fall of 2009, toward the end of the administration’s first year, the AJC survey showed Jewish approval outstripping disapproval by 54 to 32 percent. Now, two years later, disapprovers outnumber approvers by 53 to 40 percent. Among the Orthodox Jews, 81 percent disapprove.
But Jewish disaffection from the president is not confined to Israel policy; Jews share the broader American unhappiness with recent economic trends. In March 2010, an AJC survey had Jewish approval of the president’s economic policies at 55 percent as compared to 45 percent in the general population. Today the Jewish approval rating on the economy is down to 37 percent, about the same as among Americans as a whole.
The latest AJC survey indicates some falloff in Jewish identification with the Democratic Party, which stood at 53 percent in 2009 and is now at 45 percent. However, this has not translated into gains for the Republicans, which stands steady at 16 percent. Rather, the number of Jewish political independents rose in that time period from 30 percent to 38 percent. In the Orthodox sample, Republicans now outnumber Democrats by 35 to 21 percent, with 41 percent identifying as independents.
Looking forward to the 2012 election, the AJC survey matched up Obama with a number of potential Republican candidates and asked respondents to indicate for whom they would vote. Mitt Romney did best in the hypothetical contest, garnering 32 percent to Obama’s 51; Rick Perry garnered 26 percent to Obama’s 54; and Michele Bachmann received 21 percent against 59 percent for Obama.
Since 1928, Democratic candidates for president almost always have received at least 60 percent of the Jewish vote, with many doing far better. Only Jimmy Carter in his 1980 re-election bid did worse, winning a plurality of 45 percent in a three-candidate race.
Do Obama’s numbers in the AJC matchups, all in the 51-59 percent range, portend trouble for him? Not necessarily. Approximately 20 percent of the respondents said they were undecided or unsure about whether to vote for Obama or for any of the named Republicans. To be sure, there is still a year to go before the next presidential election. Much could happen to change the electoral calculus both in the Jewish community and outside it, whether on the domestic economic front, in the Middle East or elsewhere. Also, other candidates could conceivably enter the race.
Clearly the president faces challenges in attracting Jewish voters, especially the Orthodox. Some are identical to those confronting him with regard to all voters, others specific to the Jewish community.
It is far too early to tell if 2012 will be the year that Republicans finally fulfill their long-held aspiration to draw a large chunk of the Jewish vote or if, despite serious misgivings, the tradition of overwhelming Jewish allegiance to the Democrats continues.
Lawrence Grossman is the American Jewish Committee’s director of publications and former editor of the American Jewish Year Book.