For decades some Republicans have been predicting that the Democrats’ stranglehold on the Jewish vote was coming to an end. So it’s understandable if the Gallup poll released on Tuesday showing a shift in the number of Jews identifying as Democrats or Republicans will encourage the GOP continue its efforts to build support in that community. Nevertheless, more objective observers will be forgiven for being less enthusiastic. The results showed that at the end of 2014, 61 percent of Jews are Democrats and 29 percent Republicans. That’s a shift from only seven years ago when the figures showed the margin to be 71 to 22 percent in favor of the Democrats. But that still gives the Democrats a huge edge among Jews. Assuming that these trends hold steady, it would mean that Republicans could expect to have bare a majority of the Jewish vote in another 21 years. That won’t help their 2016 candidates much, but the question about whether they can really hope to keep gaining ground among Jews depends on which is the more decisive factor in determining Jewish political affiliation: demographic trends leading to a more Orthodox population or Barack Obama.
The breakdown of the Gallup poll seems to be very much in line with the results of the Pew Survey on Jewish Americans released in October 2013 that told the story of a community that was rapidly disintegrating due to assimilation and intermarriage. While support for and interest in Israel—a key advantage for Republicans in recent years—seemed to be down among most Jews, it was greater among those who were more religious. The Gallup numbers similarly showed that the more religious a Jew was, the more likely he or she is to identify as a Republican. If those demographic trends hold and more liberal Jews drift away from Judaism as a religion or support for the concept of Jewish peoplehood, that may leave a growing Orthodox community in position to eventually claim a much larger percentage, if not a majority, of the Jewish vote.
But if that is where the Jewish vote is heading, it must be understood that such a triumph, if triumph it is, will be in the context of a rapidly shrinking demographic group. When you consider that Jews are less than two percent of the population (though they vote in much greater numbers than most other groups), a larger share of such a tiny community is not likely to be decisive even if they are concentrated in large states with a lot of electoral votes.
But we’re a long way from even that not altogether likely scenario. For now, Jews remain overwhelming liberal (as COMMENTARY’s Norman Podhoretz explained in his seminal book on the subject) and very much in the pocket of the Democrats under all but the most exceptional of circumstances.
Nevertheless, though we may deprecate the small advantage that will accrue to either party in the event of any change in the Jewish vote, the rather significant shift in the last seven years can’t be ignored. Nor is it possible to avoid the conclusion to be drawn from the fact that this period coincides with the presidency of Barack Obama. Though a large majority of Jews voted first to elect and then (albeit by a smaller margin) to reelect Obama, the corresponding increase in Jews who call themselves Republicans and decrease in Democrats cannot be understood outside of the context of the president’s near constant combat with the government of Israel during his time in office. Except for a 2012 election-year pause for a Jewish charm offensive, the hostility between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has matched the low points of the U.S.-Israel relationship during the administration of the first President George Bush. The attacks on Israel by the president and his foreign-policy team have led to a number of pointless spats. Though the president has not abandoned the alliance altogether (as evidence by the U.S. vote against a Palestinian attempt to get the United Nations Security Council to recognize their independence) the chill in relations is not a secret. That it has taken a toll on Jewish support for his party is obvious.
This is a reminder that even the Republicans’ high point in modern presidential politics among Jews is something of a mirage. In 1980, Ronald Reagan got nearly 40 percent of the Jewish vote against Jimmy Carter, setting up the first great of GOP optimism about the Jewish vote. But Reagan’s success was not duplicated in 1984 when he won an even bigger landslide than his first race. In 1992, the first George Bush helped the GOP hit bottom among Jewish voters with his antagonistic relationship with Israel.
In other words, the size of the Jewish vote for Republicans was more a function of the unacceptability of the Democratic alternative than any great affection for the Gipper. Absent a Democrat that pro-Israel Jews don’t trust, surges in the Jewish vote for Republicans don’t happen.
But as much as anger about Obama’s attitude helped Republicans, heading into the 2016 election cycle they shouldn’t count on this continuing. The likely Democratic standard bearer next year is Hillary Clinton. Though her record on Israel is actually spotty—the GOP will never let her live down her embrace of Suha Arafat and she must bear some of the responsibility for the damage to the alliance during Obama’s first term—Jewish voters are likely to trust her more than they did Obama.
On the other side of the aisle, though Jeb Bush and most of the other potential Republican candidates are friends of Israel, the rising influence of Rand Paul bodes ill for Jewish Republicans. Though he claims to be for Israel too, his neo-isolationist approach to foreign policy is rightly derided as harmful the interests of the Jewish state. Should Paul become more influential in the party in the coming years, Republicans can forget about making gains in the Jewish vote.
Thus, while demography may be helping to tilt the meter incrementally in their favor, Republicans should be more concerned with nominating a candidate that can be relied on to support Israel. Even more to the point, they have to hope the Democrats nominate another would-be president that Jews fear or dislike. Failing that, no one should expect pro-GOP trends to be decisive.