On My Mind: Eyeing the Jewish vote

Losing the ninth district to a Republican certainly hurt President Obama, but the heavily Orthodox district is hardly a benchmark for the way American Jews vote.

Those looking for a possible shift in the Jewish vote in 2012 may find encouragement in a new finding that only 45 percent of Jews approve of President Obama’s handling of his job.
The survey, commissioned by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), came out, by coincidence, soon after last month’s special election to fill a New York congressional seat. Many observers surmised that the Republican victory indicated that the tide is beginning to turn and the GOP may have an opportunity to capitalize on a perceived shift in the Jewish electorate, a majority of which has traditionally gone Democrat in national elections.
While New York’s ninth district is hardly a barometer of the American Jewish community, the end to a 90-year Democratic hold on that seat spurred President Obama and several Republican contenders for the White House to step up outreach for Jewish support. That competition is likely to intensify as the Republican field continues to narrow.
Presently, President Obama still holds a majority of the Jewish vote against Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates. However, the AJC survey also found significant numbers who would not choose the incumbent or any of the contenders. That wiggle room may raise expectations in some quarters, though any giddiness is premature.
Flexibility is seen in a potential contest where Mitt Romney would get 32% and Obama would win 50% of the Jewish vote, but 16% said they would not vote for either candidate, and another 2% are undecided.
The number of those unready to decide between Obama and the Republican opponent was higher if the GOP candidate is Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann.
Perry would garner 25% of the vote against Obama’s 55%, with another 18% voting for neither, and 2% undecided.
Bachmann would receive 19% of the vote against Obama’s 59%, with 21% choosing neither, and 1% undecided.
Add to this mix of uncertainty the growing numbers who identify as Independents.
Four years ago AJC found that 15% of Jews said they are Republicans, 58% Democrats and 26% Independents. Today, Independents are 38%, while Democrats comprise 45%, and Republicans another 16% of Jewish voters.
One distinguishing segment is the Orthodox, who account for about 9% of the national Jewish population. While more Orthodox identify with the Republican Party than do Conservative or Reform Jews, 43% of Orthodox Jews say they are Independents.
STILL, ORTHODOX Jews do hold the most negative opinion, as a group, of the incumbent. While 72% of Orthodox Jews disapprove, and 18% approve, of President Obama’s handling of his job as president, the other two major denominations are more evenly split. Among Conservative Jews 46% approve and 48% disapprove.
For Reform Jews 48% approve and 44% disapprove.
It is among the Orthodox Jews, as a group, that one finds the strongest feelings regarding any president’s attitudes toward Israel. Among those surveyed, Orthodox Jews consistently emerge as having traveled to Israel more often and expressing a higher degree of closeness to Israel.
Yet, while most American Jews care about Israel and US-Israel relations, Jews, like other Americans, are first concerned about domestic issues. AJC’s 2010 survey, conducted before the congressional elections, found that the economy, unemployment and health care were the top issues, not Israel, for most Jewish voters when weighing which candidates to support.
In fact, the biggest disappointment for Jews that influences their view of President Obama’s performance is the state of the economy, with 37% approving and 60% disapproving. The overall 45% approval of Obama among Jews still is higher than the president’s rating in the general American population.
There are no ironclad assumptions about Jewish voting. What is clear is how risky it is to predict how American Jews might cast their votes next November.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.