As Florida voters went to the polls on Tuesday, those journalists trolling for evidence of a shift in the Jewish vote seized on a slight decline in Jewish turnout in the Republican primary as proof the GOP hadn’t made much progress. Those who did so were mistaken, because the sample size was so small and the willingness of Jews to change registration to vote in a primary isn’t indicative of how they’ll actually vote in November. But a new Pew Research Poll released this afternoon about party affiliation provides clear proof that a long-awaited shift among Jews away from the Democrats may have begun.
Republicans have gained nine percentage points in the last three years among Jewish voters polled about whether they identify with or lean toward either party. In 2008, Democrats led among Jews by a hefty 72 to 20 percent. In 2011, the margin was 65 to 29 percent. While that still gives the Democrats a commanding lead among Jews, the gain for the GOP could be enough to significantly affect a few states where the voting may be close this fall. Just as importantly, while some of this could be attributed to general dissatisfaction with the administration’s record on the economy, it will be difficult for Democrats to argue it is not also at least partly the fault of President Obama’s quarrels with Israel during the last three years.
Because Republicans have gained only four points nationwide, it isn’t possible to argue the Democratic loss among the Jews is nothing special. Israel is the likely reason for the Democrats’ Jewish problem, because the GOP gain among Jews is higher than among any other religious group except for Mormons. The Mormon figures are certainly due to anticipation that Mitt Romney might become the first Latter-day Saint to ascend to the White House. But there is no reason to think Jews are unhappier than Catholics, Protestants, atheists or agnostics about the economy. The friction between Obama and Israel about the status of Jerusalem, the 1967 boundaries and settlements is the only possible explanation for Jews to be more disillusioned with the Democrats than other voters.
Many Democrats have spent the last two years publicly denying Obama would suffer politically for his slights of Israel and its leaders, but the White House’s Jewish charm offensive in the last several months belied this optimism. Obama’s exaggerated claim he has done more to enhance Israel’s security than any president in history is aimed at persuading Jews to forget his administration came into office bragging about how distancing itself from Israel was a change from George W. Bush’s policies. The nasty spats with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that followed have clearly taken their toll on his party’s ability to count on the loyalty of many Jews.
While this shift toward the GOP is significant, it is not a harbinger of a full realignment of Jewish voters. Most Jews are ideologically liberal and partisan Democrats and unlikely to vote Republican under almost any circumstance. Liberal Jews remain far more afraid of conservative Christians than Hamas terrorists and will always judge any Democratic candidate, even one like Obama who has demonstrated little real affinity for Israel, on a curve.
But that doesn’t mean Jewish swing voters don’t exist. It may not be realistic for Republicans to expect they will match Ronald Reagan’s record 39 percent of the vote in 1980 this year. But in Barack Obama they have a Democratic opponent who, like Jimmy Carter 32 years ago, is distinctly vulnerable on the issue of Israel. Were a Republican candidate able to gain the same nine points over the 22 percent share of the Jewish vote John McCain got in 2008 that could be enough to make the difference in a few crucial battleground states. If the two parties are closely matched in Pennsylvania and New Jersey but especially in Florida, a large Jewish turnout for the GOP could sink the president’s hopes for re-election.
Though Democrats already knew they were in trouble in the Jewish community, this poll will undoubtedly lead them to redouble their efforts this year to spin Obama’s record on Israel and to do everything they can to scare Jews away from the GOP. It will also give Republicans good reason to fight harder for the votes of a group that remains, after African-Americans, the second most Democratic sector of the electorate.