President Obama enjoys the support of three-fifths of American Jews, according to the latest American Jewish Committee survey, a significant improvement over where he stood half a year ago in the organization’s polling.
The poll, released Monday, shows Obama with 61 percent of the Jewish vote, as opposed to 28 percent for Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is the likely Republican nominee.
That’s an improvement for the president over a previous AJC survey in September, when Obama scored 50 percent and Romney 32 percent.
But it’s still substantially lower than the 78 percent Obama scored among Jews in exit polls in 2008 and an improvement for Romney over the 22 percent garnered by the previous GOP nominee, John McCain.
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.
In the AJC poll, respondents identified the economy and health care as by far the two most important election issues. Among respondents who attend synagogue at least once a week, only 52 percent said they would vote for Obama, likely reflective of the more conservative leanings of Orthodox voters.
The 11 percent of respondents who were undecided in the AJC poll said they leaned toward Romney and Obama in roughly equal numbers.
Romney, for his part, struggles with high negative ratings from Jews, with 57 percent saying they have an unfavorable view of him. He is, however, far more popular with Jews than his previous top two GOP primary opponents; Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are each viewed unfavorably by around three-quarters of Jews.
The AJC’s executive director, David Harris, said the results showed both Obama and Romney had their work cut out for them with Jewish voters.
For Obama, he said, “the concerning news is that you dropped about 17 points from where you were in 2008 and if its going top be a close election, especially in key swing states.”
“You’re going to have to do more to recoup,” Harris said. “You will have to spend more time emphasizing the national security, pro-Israel aspects of your record.”
It’s a lesson the Obama campaign seems already to have taken to heart. Obama has spoken three times in the last six months to Jewish audiences and has always emphasized Israel’s security, whatever the forum – whether it was Union for Reform Judaism in December, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March or U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in April.
He has also made his national security record a robust element of his campaign. Last week his campaign released a web ad featuring the still popular President Bill Clinton dramatically narrating the account of Obama’s decision to kill Osama bin Laden.
The approach appears to be paying off among Jewish voters. The AJC poll showed Obama scored 58 percent approval in how he managed the U.S.-Israel relationship and 69 percent in how he handled national security. Last September just 40 percent of respondents to an AJC poll approved of his handling of the relationship with Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also saw a spike in approval for his handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship, from 54 percent in September to 70 percent in the latest survey.
Then and now, the economy seems to be the most important factor influencing voters. Just 37 percent of Jewish respondents approved of Obama’s handling of the economy in September. That climbed 20 points to 57 percent in this poll.
Harris said that Romney needed to understand Jewish voters’ focus on the economy in making his case to the community.
“If you are Gov. Romney and you are making the economy the centerpiece of your campaign, understand that Jews care about the economy as much as others do,” he said, noting that much of the GOP pitch to Jews so far was focused on Israel and national security.
Asked about the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, 89 percent of respondents said they were concerned, with 64 percent supporting a U.S. strike should diplomacy and sanctions fail.
Majorities of respondents said they preferred Democrats over Republicans on every single issue on which they were queried. Democrats beat Republicans most decisively on social issues: 81 percent preferred how Democrats handled abortion, and 74 percent preferred how the party handled church-state issues.
Republicans had the highest marks on U.S.-Israel relations, where they were favored by 40 percent as opposed to 57 percent support for Democrats, and the Iranian nuclear issue, where they were preferred by 37 percent as opposed to 60 percent for Democrats.
The gender gap in the general electorate is reflected among Jews: Obama had the support of 67 percent of Jewish women as opposed to 55 percent of Jewish men; Romney had the support of 34 percent of Jewish men and 22 percent of women.
The poll, administered by Knowledge Networks, surveyed by web 1,074 respondents who had previously identified themselves as Jewish, and had a margin of error of 4.8 percentage points. Polling took place between March 14 and 27.