The Republican Jewish Coalition released the exit polls they took yesterday and declared victory in the presidential contest. President Obama won re-election, but his share of the Jewish vote in the RJC poll was 68 percent–down from the 78 percent that he received in 2008. Mitt Romney received approximately 32 percent of Jewish ballots, a figure that is about 10 percent more than the paltry 22 percent won by John McCain. Democrats may dispute these figures, but they roughly conform to the results obtained in the national exit poll taken by CNN. Two questions arise out of a careful look at these numbers.
First, what was the primary cause of this rise in the GOP vote? Second, and perhaps even more important, is whether Republicans really ought to be celebrating this result as much as the RJC says they should. The obvious answer to the first question is President Obama’s fractious relationship with the state of Israel. The answer to the second is more complicated. Though Republicans are right to see these numbers as evidence of the incremental progress they’ve made since the party bottomed out among Jews in 1992, they should also be asking themselves if they will ever again have an opportunity to do as well as they did this year.
As for the cause of a nearly 20-percent swing in the Jewish vote since 2008, it is difficult to argue that Israel was not a key factor in explaining the change in the last four years. Though liberals will point out that President Obama lost ground with virtually all demographic groups except for African-Americans, Hispanics and young voters, the gap between the nearly 10 points he lost among Jews and what may turn out to be about a three-percent drop in his overall vote total in 2008 requires an explanation. Since it is highly unlikely that a generally liberal Jewish community was more perturbed by the economy, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that four years of battle between the president and the government of Israel took a toll on Obama’s share of the Jewish vote.
The five- to six-percentage point difference between his overall decline and the ground he lost among Jews is easily understood as the product of the fights Obama picked and the questions his conduct raised among pro-Israel voters about his trustworthiness. While a small percentage of the Jewish vote, it is still a sign that a significant number of Jewish Democrats cared deeply about the issue. Though few Jews consider Israel the No. 1 issue at stake yesterday, the RJC poll reported that 76.5 percent of the respondents consider Israel to be either “very important” (30.2 percent) or “fairly important” (46.3 percent). And that seemed to be reflected in the poll in which 22.8 percent said Obama was “pro-Palestinian” and 17.4 said he was just neutral.
By posting a 50-percent gain over what McCain received, the RJC can claim a moral victory of sorts. It can also credibly assert that with its ad campaigns aimed at Jewish voters, it is building its brand and increasing market share in the community. The 31-32 percent Romney got also marks the highest total for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988. That’s nothing to sneeze at and should, at least in theory, scare Democrats into thinking that they are on the wrong end of a trend that could ultimately start to make even more serious inroads into their longtime near-monopoly of the Jewish vote, especially when you consider that Republicans continue to do best among Orthodox Jews, the fastest growing sector of the community.
Those who will argue that the RJC didn’t get much in return for the prodigious effort they made with Jewish voters should take into consideration that the Democrats took this threat seriously. Not only did they campaign hard to defend Obama’s record on Israel in the last year, with extravagant and inaccurate praise of him as the Jewish state’s best friend to ever sit in the White House, the president noticeably adjusted his policies as part of an election-year Jewish charm offensive. Without it, it’s probably the case that Democratic losses would have been much greater.
But the GOP shouldn’t be celebrating too loudly.
The problem with looking at the 2012 results as part of an upward trend for Republicans is that this election was a unique opportunity to win Jewish votes that may not be replicated again for many years.
For more than thirty years, Jewish Republicans have looked to the 1980 election, in which Ronald Reagan set the modern record for the GOP share of the Jewish vote with 39 percent. In that period, they have searched for another Reagan who could do as well. They have found that even when their nominee was considered an even more ardent friend of Israel than the Gipper — as George W. Bush was when he ran for re-election in 2004 — they still fell far short of their goal.
Their problem was that they were looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Instead of another Reagan, what they needed was someone to play the role of Jimmy Carter, the president whose antagonism to Israel set in motion the 1980 exodus of Jewish voters to the GOP. That’s exactly what they got in Obama.
If, as RJC leaders Matt Brooks and Ari Fleischer insisted on a teleconference with the press about the poll today, it was unfair to expect a party to do better than the 10 percent gains they got yesterday, it must still be observed that they are highly unlikely to be presented with as inviting a target four years from now. Indeed, if a Republican couldn’t do better than 32 percent with Obama as an opponent, it’s likely they will lose ground rather than gain more if they are presented with a Democrat who is demonstrably more sympathetic to Israel than the president.
While the growth of the Orthodox community gives the RJC some hope, their encouraging 2012 results are really just more proof of their intractable problem: convincing an overwhelmingly liberal group to vote for Republicans.