Here is a truism we all already know: Jews are news. The fact is, no matter how tiny the American Jewish community might be — between 1.5 and 2 percent of the population — the battle for Jewish votes will be extensively reported and analyzed.
Over the last several decades, Democratic identification overall has fluctuated both up and down, from 36 percent at the high points, in 1988 and 2008 (according to Gallup poll tracking), to lows of 31 percent in 2010. Among many traditionally Democratic groups, such as white Southerners, Catholics and others, the trend has been fairly consistently downward, even as other groups, mainly Hispanics, became more reliable supporters of the party. However, while others were changing affiliations, Jews’ political leanings remained largely the same.
There are many explanations for the unique political behavior of the Jewish voter, most focusing on the relatively liberal views of Jews on almost all social issues, while others suggesting that the “rural, overwhelmingly Christian and Southern” nature of the GOP is a turn-off for Jewish voters. The Washington Post’s conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin framed it thus: “They don’t sound like us, they don’t talk like us, and they don’t understand us.”
Whatever the reason, in almost every election cycle of recent years, Republicans have attempted to make a new case for the “this time, it is really coming” argument — namely, that a new wave of Jewish Republican voters is about to appear. However, as I outlined in 2009 in a long piece in Commentary Magazine, “The story remained what it has been over the course of the past seven national elections, with Jews voting for Democratic candidates by colossal margins.”
Will 2012 prove any different? Last August, New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow made a case somewhat reminiscent of the Republican claims of 2004 and 2008: Relying on data from the Pew Research Center in 2010, Blow argued that “the number of Jews who identify as Republican or as independents who lean Republican has increased by more than half since the year [Barack Obama] was elected. At 33 percent, it now stands at the highest level since the data have been kept. In 2008, the ratio of Democratic Jews to Republican Jews was far more than three to one. Now it’s less than two to one.”
In response to criticism from some quarters, Blow nevertheless repeated his claim a few weeks later in another column, in which he argued that “Obama’s approval rating among Jews in 2010 averaged 58 percent. This percentage was the lowest of all those representing his enthusiastic supporter groups except one, the religious unaffiliated.” Blow’s claim that Obama’s loss of support among Jews should be attributed to the president’s positions on Israel was furiously debated (many of Blow’s critics were associated with the dovish J Street lobby, and relied on many polls in which Jews rank the topic of “Israel” as fairly low in their voting priorities). Nevertheless, the question remains: Do Jews — as one might conclude from the Pew numbers — now trend Republican more than they have in the past?
To help make all this a numbers-based type of discussion, we gathered data available from four sources: the American Jewish Committee (AJC) annual surveys of Jewish opinion, Gallup surveys, the study on Jewish Distinctiveness in America by Tom W. Smith (from 2005 — we needed those to get a glimpse of previous decades) and the Pew Research Center studies. The result was quite revealing: While Pew studies suggest that the GOP is gaining somewhat among Jewish voters (that’s the basis for the Blow post), the other data seem to suggest that Jews don’t really trend Republican, but rather independent — like the rest of the electorate. In other words, the Democratic Party is losing, while the Republican Party is not necessarily gaining.
Even if Jews aren’t yet moving in droves over to the GOP camp, the data might still be considered bad news for the Democratic Party. When a Republican candidate for the presidency is getting more votes from Jewish voters, it is not usually Jewish Republican voters. As one study showed, “The average non-Jewish Bush voter identifies as a weak Republican, while the mean Jewish Bush voter is an independent-leaning Republican.” Another study, this one of the 2008 election, found that “among Independents, we see even more of a pronounced split, with Obama garnering just over 36 percent, McCain close to 30 percent and undecided at 30 percent.” Clearly, the more independent the Jewish voter, the more likely he is to choose a Republican over a Democratic nominee.
To better understand this, one must consider a follow-up on the “leanings” of independent Jewish voters. Back in 2004, a study found that “after asking independents which party they ‘leaned’ toward, 64 percent of all Jewish voters identified as Democrats, 16 percent as Republicans and 20 percent as independents.” If that is still the case, then Democrats have less to worry about, as most “leaners” tend to behave in a way similar to that of party partisans. But Republicans can hope that the Pew 2010 study is a sign that Jewish independents now trend Republican.
This is exactly what the most recent AJC study also suggests. This survey posed two questions relevant to the question of Jewish party identification. The first question is the one the AJC people included in previous polls: “In politics TODAY, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent?” The second one is a new one for AJC polls: “[IF INDEPENDENT/OTHER] As of TODAY, do you think of yourself as closer to the Republican Party/Democratic Party?”
The second question is the one that’s making the difference. Of the 26 percent Independents responding to this poll, 15 percent, when pressured to “lean” toward one of the parties, chose to lean GOP. Taken together, GOP voters plus those leaning toward the GOP amount in this poll to 27 percent, not far from the 29 percent registered by Pew — and a reflection of a possible rightward trend.
Having said that, not one serious pollster or political operative expects the Jewish vote to be divided in favor of the 2012 Republican candidate or to be equally distributed. The question is not about who will be winning the Jewish vote, but rather, whether the GOP can outperform its past performances with Jewish voters. Pollster Jim Gerstein answered this question last November by saying the following: “Our latest poll of American Jews simulated an election between Obama and Romney, and perhaps presents the clearest picture of where the Jewish vote may be headed. The initial vote shows Obama leading 63 to 24 [percent]. When we allocated the undecided voters by party identification — a common practice among political pollsters when trying to map out the outcome of a race — the vote was 70 to 27 [percent].”
So what does this mean for presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney?
It is important to note at this point that in reality, for Jewish votes to be of any significance come Election Day, the margin between candidates has to be very small — very, very small — and in very specific areas.
Take Ohio. Jews in this state comprise 3 percent of the vote; in 2004 George W. Bush took the election by 2.1 percent of the entire Ohio electorate. This means that even in the closest of elections, you need every single Jew to vote as one bloc to make a difference. That is never going to happen, as even the most optimistic (among Republican operatives) and the most pessimistic (among Democratic operatives) put the percentage of Jewish voters in play no higher than 15 to 18 percent, which could potentially be added to the 22 to 26 percent who voted for John McCain in 2008.
In February 2012, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life published a new analysis of party identification by religion. The bottom line, as far as Jewish voters go, was pretty clear: “Even Jewish voters, who have traditionally been and remain one of the strongest Democratic constituencies, have moved noticeably in the Republican direction; Jewish voters favored the Democrats by a 52-point margin in 2008 but now prefer the Democratic Party by a significantly smaller 36-point margin.”
Yet a May 2012 AJC survey of American Jewish opinion (which actually contained nothing Earth-shattering) found support for Obama among American Jews to be slightly higher than it had been half a year earlier, but still not very high. As Ron Kampeas of the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) reported at the time: “The AJC’s new findings are similar to those of the Public Religion Research Institute in March. That poll showed Obama scoring 62 percent of the Jewish vote, as opposed to 30 percent for a GOP candidate.”
Romney, according to the AJC survey, could get as much as 33 percent of the Jewish vote. That’s nice compared to Republican performances in previous election cycles, but not the meltdown of Jewish support for Obama that some Republican operatives predicted about a year ago. Forty percent of Jewish Americans do not approve of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations. But this is a significant improvement compared to the September 2011 survey in which 53 percent registered in the “disapprove” column.
A June 2012 Gallup poll on the current tendencies of Jewish voters (and accompanying analysis by Jeffrey Jones) makes clear that “Obama remains the favorite of Jewish voters but appears to be running a bit weaker among them than he did in 2008, given the 10-point drop in Jewish support for him compared with a five-point drop among all voters. Nonetheless, for those who have a short memory, maybe it is worth pointing out that 10 months ago, Gallup was saying the exact opposite — that Obama’s numbers are down among Jews proportionally to the president’s decline among other groups:
“There is little sign that President Obama is suffering disproportionately in support among Jews; 54 percent approved of his job performance from Aug. 1-Sept. 15, 13 percentage points higher than his overall 41 percent approval rating during that time, and similar to the average 14-point gap seen throughout Obama’s term.”
True, comparisons can be tricky. A year ago, the question was about presidential approval, and this time it is about voting preference. Even trickier is that Gallup compares Obama of June 2012 to Obama of October 2008. What happens if one compares June 2012 to June 2008? Suddenly, Obama doesn’t look like a loser: Back in 2008, Jewish voters hesitated during the summer, and it was only in the fall that they made up their minds to support Obama in far greater numbers than previously registered. This might — or might not — happen again this coming November. Time will tell.
Assuming that around 75 percent of American Jews voted for Obama in 2008 (very few knowledgeable observers still believe the 78 percent exit poll number of 2008), how high can Romney climb? If the Jewish swing votes in play are no more than 18 percent — the most ambitious estimate I’ve heard from American sources in the know — Romney’s ceiling is 43 percent. But for him to get to that number, one needs to give him the votes of every single undecided Jewish voter. Realistic? Not quite.
If Romney gets half the votes of undecided Jews, he’ll be at 34 percent. That is, if you agree with the estimated 25 percent Jewish Republican voters, and the estimated 18 percent of Jewish votes in play. If you go by the exit poll (22 percent of Jews voted McCain in 2008) and add to it the lowest estimate of votes in play (I heard 12 percent), the Romney ceiling is a much lower 34 percent, and the likely Romney achievement (if he gets half of the Jewish votes in play) will be at around 28 percent of the Jewish vote. When was the last time that any Republican nominee got 30 percent or more of the Jewish vote? Reagan in 1984. It would be no mean feat if Romney were able to get more votes than McCain, George W. Bush (twice), Dole, George H. W. Bush and repeat the 1984 Reagan vote.
Writer Sara Miller contributed to this report.