Will US Jews vote for Barack Obama in 2012?
Israel has never been a partisan issue in American politics – until now.
Pro-Israel demonstrators Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
The candidates for the Republican nomination (except Ron Paul, who does not
stand a chance anyway) have been outdoing themselves in touting their pro-Israel
agenda, and in attempting to make it seem as if Barack Obama has “thrown Israel
under the bus.” The Republican candidates are appealing not just to the Jewish
vote, but to the base of the Republican Party, to a large extent comprised of
Christian fundamentalists and Evangelicals who are very supportive of
In the general election, both candidates will vie avidly for the
Jewish vote. In the 2008 election, Obama received 78 percent of the Jewish vote
(only blacks voted for Obama at a higher percentage) despite predictions that
Jews would be less likely to vote for him because of concern that he might not
be sufficiently pro- Israel.
Why should presidential candidates be
concerned about the Jewish vote? After all, Jews are but 2% of the population,
although they may be as much as 4% of the electorate (mostly because they
register to vote, and actually do vote, in much higher proportions than
The answer is in the geographic distribution of
the Jewish population. While American Jews are less geographically
clustered now than 40 years ago due to significant migration out of the
Northeast to the West and South, about 70% of Jews still live in only six states
(New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts). And
this is important because of the Electoral College. The American election is
actually 50 separate elections (48 of which are winner-take-all). The 10 states
with the highest Jewish population account for 244 electoral votes, with 270
needed for victory.
Take Florida, with its 29 electoral votes. While only
3.4% of Floridians are Jewish, Jews are probably 5%-8% voters. Most elections
are won by 2-8 percentage points. Thus, if the Republican Party can increase the
percentage of Jews who vote Republican in 2012, Florida (won by Obama in 2008)
could slip into the Republican column.
But can they do so? On the one
hand, the Jewish vote for the Republican candidate in presidential elections has
varied since 1916 from 10%-45%. As recently as 1980, 39% of the Jewish vote went
to Ronald Reagan. Thus, it would seem possible for Republicans to increase their
proportion of the Jewish vote.
But the US political landscape has
changed. Currently, of the 12 Jewish Senators and 24 Jewish Representatives in
the Congress, only one (Eric Cantor, the Speaker of the House) is a Republican.
Jews (about 60%) are twice as likely as all Americans to identify with the
Democratic Party and half as likely (about 14%) to identify as Republicans. The
core beliefs of the Democratic Party are simply much closer to the core beliefs
of the vast majority of American Jews on the social issues (abortion, gay
marriage), immigration, social programs (Medicare, Social Security),
government’s role in the economy, and the use of diplomacy in international
Of recent vintage, we find Republicans increasingly supporting
things like prayer in the public schools and one Republican candidate (Rick
Santorum) even speaking out against birth control. Also of concern to American
Jews is the apparent increasingly antiintellectual nature of Republican
discourse, including denials of climate change and evolution. Jews (85% of whom
go to college) were quite taken aback when Santorum called Obama a “snob” for
suggesting that all Americans should go to college (which Obama did not
SOME AMERICAN Jews do currently perceive Obama as less strong on
Israel than the likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. Some Jews wonder if
Obama, in a second term and unencumbered by the need to be reelected, might be
even less supportive of Israel. On the other hand, while Romney’s stated
positions on Israel are quite positive, one might wonder if someone who has
changed his position on such core beliefs as abortion and health care reform
might not also change his position on Israel.
But, and most important,
American Jews do not vote solely, or even mainly, on the issue of a candidate’s
stand on Israel. Before the 2008 election, in an American Jewish Committee
survey of 15 issues in the presidential election, Jews ranked Israel as the
eighth most important behind such issues as health care, gas prices, energy,
taxes and education. When asked to name their top three issues, only 15% (mostly
Orthodox Jews) chose Israel as one of the three.
This does not mean that
American Jews do not care about Israel or a candidate’s Israel policy. They do.
It simply means that they do not see enough difference between the candidates so
as to have the issue of Israel play a significant role in their
So my answer is a resounding “Yes.” American Jews will
once again vote in overwhelming numbers for Obama. If Santorum is the nominee, I
would not be surprised to see as much as 90% of the Jewish vote go to Obama. If
Gingrich, somewhat less. Romney, who despite his running a campaign for
the Republican nomination that is far to the Right, is actually more of a
moderate, and might even get 30% of the Jewish vote.
The website of the
Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) states that “the last decade has seen
tremendous growth in the number of Jews identifying with Republican ideas and
the GOP.” This statement seems to be based upon the fact that McCain in 2008
received 22% of the Jewish vote compared to the 11% for Bush in 1992. But Jewish
support for Republicans has been much stronger in the past. The RJC, of course,
has been making statements of this nature for a long time. Given the current
trajectory of the Republican Party, not only is this statement not true today,
it is not likely to become true in the near (or even far) future.
writer, a PhD, is the director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and
Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami
and a professor of geography and regional studies. He was a guest of Miami’s
UGalilee Program at ORT Braude College, Karmiel, this month.