Over the last several decades, Democratic identification has declined among many traditionally Democratic groups (white Southerners, Catholics and others), but for Jews it has remained fairly steady. There are many explanations for this unique political behavior of the Jewish voter, most of them focusing on the relatively liberal views of Jews on almost all social issues, while others suggesting the “rural, overwhelmingly Christian and Southern” nature of the GOP is a turn-off for Jewish voters. As the Washington Post’s conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin framed it, “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, to convince the public that a new wave of Jewish Republican voters is about to appear. However, as I wrote in 2009 in Commentary, “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 be any different? Last August, The New York Times op-ed page columnist Charles Blow made a case that was somewhat reminiscent of the 2004 and 2008 Republican claims: Relying on data from the Pew Research Center, 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 [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.”
Following criticism from some quarters, Blow 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 criticized (many of the critics were associated with J Street). Nevertheless, the question remains: Do Jews — as one might conclude from the Pew numbers — now trend Republican more than they have in the past? (The other interesting question — whether changes in Jewish attitudes can be linked to Obama’s policies on Israel — is not addressed here.)
To help make all this a numbers-based type of discussion, we gathered data available from four sources on the Web: 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 studies. The studies and the numbers were then put together in two tables (we separated the data into two sets following the advice of Tel Aviv University professor Camil Fuchs, Rosner’s Domain magician-in-chief. The two sets of data can’t mix, because Pew had voters divided into leaning Republican and leaning Democratic, and the other surveys include “Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Not Sures.”
The result — as seen in the accompanying graphs (both tables are shown in full) — is quite revealing: While the Pew graph might suggest that the GOP is gaining somewhat among Jewish voters (that’s the basis for the Blow post), the second graph seems to suggest that Jews don’t really trend Republican, but rather trend independent — like the rest of the electorate. In other words: The Democratic Party is losing while the Republican Party is not necessarily gaining.
Here you can see the PEW numbers: