Understanding the Jewish vote requires appreciating at least four realities:
1. Impelled by our history and tradition, American Jews remain deeply devoted to the values of the Democratic Party and repelled by those of the Republicans. Like Democrats, Jews are committed to a pluralistic society that respects the rights of all; to creating opportunity while demanding responsibility; to separation of church and state; to quality education; to a woman’s right to choose, and to protecting the natural world God entrusted to us. That coincidence of commitments has made Jews one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies: In the past four presidential elections, more than three-quarters of Jewish voters cast ballots for the Democratic nominee. Indeed, in the several most recent l presidential elections, only three groups have given Democrats more than 70% of their votes — blacks, Jews, and gay men and lesbians.
SEE THE FORWARD’S ENTIRE PACKAGE ABOUT OBAMA’S POLL NUMBERS.
Amy Cohen and Anna Greenberg write that Obama’s effort to hold onto Jewish support is part of a larger task of keeping his coalition intact. Jim Gerstein writes that Obama’s only real problem with Jewish voters is that there aren’t more of them.
Helping cement Jews’ Democratic loyalty has been the Republicans’ hard-right shift. As anti-pluralist forces of the evangelical right captured the GOP, Jews embraced Democrats in even greater numbers. Prior to the religious right’s takeover of the Republican Party, about two-thirds of Jews were voting for Democratic presidential candidates, but that jumped to three-quarters when cultural divisions began playing a more prominent role in our politics. In fact, as conservatism became increasingly identified with these cultural issues, Jews fled the conservative label, as well. Through the late 1980s, Jews were about 20 points more liberal than they were conservative. In the past several cycles, that difference has risen to more than 30 points.
2. While Jews care deeply about these domestic issues, support for Israel also plays a critical role in the community’s voting behavior. No politician can expect to do well with Jewish voters if the community is not convinced of his or her bedrock support for Israel. Yes, a poll conducted for J Street concluded in part “… Israel is actually in the bottom tier of issues, and only 8% of Jews identify it as one of the top two most important issues in deciding their vote for president and congress.” The same survey, however, found Jewish voters agreeing, by 58% to 34%, that ”a candidate’s position on Israel plays a big role in determining how I will vote for Congress and the president.”
The most telling evidence of the importance of Israel in Jewish voting behavior comes from an experiment we embedded in a survey for the National Jewish Democratic Council, which found that a candidate’s support for Israel alone created a huge, 42-point swing in the vote margin.
3. Jews are people, too. We are affected by the same trends that move the rest of America. When the president’s approval rating falls 25 points in the country as a whole, as it has since his inauguration, it is going to fall among Jews, too, still leaving the community far more positive than the rest of the country about the president’s performance.
4. In an era of cultural politics, Orthodox Jews, like traditional devotees of most religions, are moving toward the GOP. While most every analysis of the “Orthodox vote” suffers from fundamental flaws, there is little doubt that this segment of the community has been less supportive of Democrats in recent years. Though many attribute this to increased tension over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this can’t be the whole story. How else can one account for the fact that white, churchgoing Christians were also part of this shift toward Republican candidates? As the axis of American politics shifted to culture from class, those with traditional cultural stances, including Orthodox Jews, have moved toward the right.
Given all this, it’s too early to know whether 2012 will see Obama replicating his prior level of support among Jewish voters, but it’s a safe bet that he will do a lot better with Jews than with the rest of the country.
Mark Mellman is President and Michael Bloomfield is Executive Vice-President of The Mellman Group, a polling and consulting firm whose clients include Democratic Governors as well as leaders in the Senate and House.