Qualms About Bush’s Leadership

Support for President Bush and his handling of the Iraq war has dropped among American Jews during the past year, according to a new poll released by the American Jewish Committee.

American Jews stand well to the left of the overall American population on a broad range of domestic and foreign-policy issues, and are much more critical of the Bush administration, judging from a comparison of the AJCommittee poll and other recent surveys.

The AJCommittee poll, which has a 3% margin of error and was based on interviews with 1,000 American Jews conducted during the last two weeks of August, found that 24% of Jews would vote for Bush. An earlier survey, released by the organization in December 2003, tracked Bush’s support at 31%.

During the same period, according to the latest poll, Senator Kerry’s support jumped from 59% to 69%, with 2% of American Jews now backing independent candidate Ralph Nader and 5% still undecided.

Along with the decline in electoral support for Bush has come a jump in the proportion of American Jews who disapprove of the Iraq war — from 54% to 66%.

The results of the AJCommittee poll appear to undermine repeated Republican claims that Bush has made inroads with American Jews and stood to increase significantly the 19% of the Jewish vote that he captured in 2000. In addition, the poll flies in the face of the notion that American Jews supported the Iraq invasion because the war eliminated a major regional threat to Israel.

The latest AJCommittee findings also point to a gap between American Jews and Jewish organizations. Most major Jewish groups offered varying levels of support for the American military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein two years ago. In contrast to the growing number of American Jews who disapprove of Bush’s leadership on Iraq, many Jewish organizations continue to voice support for the president’s foreign policy, and none are believed to have withdrawn their endorsement of the war.

The AJCommittee’s executive director, David Harris, downplayed the apparent gap between Jews and Jewish organizations. “Jewish organizations are meant to represent their own constituencies” and do not “pretend to act in the name of American Jewry,” he said.

Overall, Harris said, the survey gives a “bird’s eye view of where American Jews are on the important issues of the day.” The poll, he added, paints a picture of a community that is “very supportive of Israel, very multilateralist, skeptical of the administration’s policy in Iraq, and domestically very liberal.”

In sharp contrast to the two-thirds of American Jews who now disapprove of Bush’s Iraq policy, a recent Gallup poll found that only 48% of Americans object to Bush’s handling of the issue.

Recent polls found a similar split between Jews and other Americans on the issue of combating terrorism. The latest AJCommittee poll found that 42% of American Jews support Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism and 52% disapprove. A recent Pew poll taken at about the same time, however, concluded that 58% of Americans approve of the president’s leadership on the issue. An earlier Gallup poll yielded similar results.

The AJCommittee’s findings on the presidential election appear to confirm the results of a survey commissioned in July by the National Jewish Democratic Coalition, which found that 22% of Jews planned to vote for Bush and 75% backed Kerry. Jewish Republican critics dismissed the NJDC as partisan.

Recent Bush campaign internal polls have shown Bush drawing about 28% of Jewish voters, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt, quoting Bush chief strategist Matthew Dowd.

The results of the AJCommitttee polls, said a Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz, indicate that Bush has little room to grow among Jews. “All the Jews in America already know George Bush,” Rabinowitz said. “He can get some of the undecided, but he can’t get any of the Kerry vote.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition, which hailed the December AJCommittee poll results as an encouraging “shift” toward the GOP, likewise portrayed the drop in Jewish support for Bush since the December poll as a gain.

“It’s an almost 30% increase in where he was in 2000,” said the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks. He noted that George Herbert Walker Bush got 11% of the Jewish vote when he ran for re-election in 1992, Senator Robert Dole got 16% in 1996 and George W. Bush won 19% in 2000.

Kerry’s number, Brooks said, “is the lowest level for a Democrat in the last 12 years.”

“I like that positive trend line,” Brooks said. “I consider that to be meaningful in a close election. That trend line would cause stock brokers to sell the Democrats short.”

The AJCommittee provided a denominational breakdown for the election-related question. Bush was favored by 60% of the Orthodox respondents but only 21% of the Conservative, 18% of the Reform and 23% of those who identified themselves as “just Jewish.” Kerry’s support was the mirror image, with 26% of the Orthodox, 70% of the Conservative, 77% of the Reform and 66% of the “just Jewish” registering support for him.

The Democratic stand-bearer did better among older age groups. Bush gained fully a third of the support of Jews under 40, while Kerry polled 59%; Jews ages 40 to 59 showed 25% support for Bush and 64% for Kerry; those 60 and older went 19% for Bush and 74% for Kerry. A separate poll of Russian Jews in New York showed majority support for Bush, Harris said.

The overall liberal profile of American Jews is evident on one of the most hotly debated domestic issues in America: the question of gay marriage. When asked if same-sex couples should be granted legal recognition and if so, what type, a vast majority of Jewish respondents — 85% — said yes, with 49% supporting full legal marriage status for gay couples. Civil unions were the option favored by 36% of Jews.

A Newsweek poll taken in May found that only 51% of Americans favored any recognition of gay unions. Just 28% voiced support for same-sex marriage.

In the general population, according to a Gallup poll taken in May, a 51% majority supports such a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The AJCommittee survey found that 74% of Jews opposed the measure.

Regarding Israel, the AJCommittee poll reflects a sense of pessimism regarding peace with the Arabs. Only 5% said they are more optimistic now than they were a year ago, compared with about a third that said they are less optimistic. Sixty-one percent said their feelings have not changed since last year.

A vast majority — 84% — agreed with the statement that “the real goal of the Arabs is not the return of the occupied territories but the destruction of Israel.”

Still, despite such feelings, 57% said they support the creation of a Palestinian state. Israel’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza was backed by 65%. Israel’s decision to build the West Bank security fence was supported by 69% of American Jews.

The poll found that only 6% of American Jews view “support for Israel” as the quality most important to their Jewish identity; 43% said “being part of the Jewish people” was most important.

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