Washington Watch: Republicans have ‘a real Jewish problem’

The root of the problem: GOP strategists focus solely on the issue of Israel, which is not a top priority for most Jewish voters.

Republicans debate in Arizona 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Republicans debate in Arizona 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Republicans found some encouragement in the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) 2012 Jewish Values survey released last week and quickly declared it evidence that Barack Obama’s Jewish support is falling. It is not an entirely invalid conclusion since he got 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 and this survey shows 62% of Jewish voters say they would like to see him reelected and 30% prefer an unnamed Republican candidate.
But those politicos overlook the fact that those numbers are the same level of support Obama and GOP candidate John McCain had at this point in the election four years ago, and what came next propelled Obama’s Jewish backing to near-record levels. As they did in 2008, the Republican Jewish Coalition and other GOP activists have launched a multi-million-dollar campaign to make Israel a wedge issue by painting Obama as hostile to the Jewish state and its right-wing leadership. The fear-and-smear strategy four years ago backfired, even though they had a candidate –McCain – with solid pro-Israel bonafides, unlike this year’s presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney.
One Republican flack interpreted the PRRI figures as evidence that Obama “has a real Jewish problem” and that the GOP will “continue to make inroads in the Jewish community in the 2012 election,” but an examination of the numbers – and history – suggests it is the Republicans who have the problem.
The root of the problem: GOP strategists focus solely on the issue of Israel, which is not a top priority for most Jewish voters, as this and many other surveys have shown for many years. An overwhelming majority of Jewish voters surveyed by PRRI – 96% – say Israel is not a determinative issue for them. The biggest reason is they see both parties as equally supportive, but many also attributed that to what they perceive as changes in Israel.
American Jews expressed a high regard for Binyamin Netanyahu personally and many are troubled by the tensions between him and President Obama, but not as much as they are by other factors. More than half are disturbed by the power of the ultra-Orthodox, who have great influence in the Netanyahu government. Unlike much of the ruling coalition, American Jews support establishment of a Palestinian state and say the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is of greater concern than Iran.
Jewish Democrats are more inclined to support Palestinian statehood than their Republican brethren (60%-23%).
The high points of Jewish voting for a Republican presidential candidate in recent years were 39% for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 35% for his successor, George H. W. Bush, in 1988. Four years later, having incurred the wrath of Israel’s friends in both parties, Bush plunged to 11%. There has been a slow climb back, with some recent slippage, but the party is still well below the 1988 level. Not even the younger Bush, with his more Israelfriendly record, was able to do better than 24% in 2004.
Republicans have fared similarly in Congressional elections, getting only 19% Jewish support in 2010 despite having an otherwise generally very strong showing. That 2010 outcome, driven in no small part by the Tea Party movement, helps illustrate the GOP’s weakness among Jewish voters.
The PRRI poll shows 73% of Jewish voters feel our “economic system unfairly favors the wealthy” and 81% want to see the rich pay higher taxes.
That spells trouble for Romney, who paid about 14% in federal income taxes last year, a fraction of the rate paid by most middle income families, and he has endorsed the Ryan budget plan calling for more tax cuts for the wealthy, including himself.
Romney’s increasingly tight embrace of the social conservative agenda in his effort to shed the label of Massachusetts moderate further complicates his appeal for Jewish voters.
Jews strongly support abortion rights (93%), same-sex marriage (81%), tougher environmental protection measures (69%) and by a 3:2 margin they want the Supreme Court to uphold Obama’s health care legislation that Romney has vowed to repeal, the survey showed.
Daniel Cox, PRRI research director, dismisses speculation about a Jewish migration to the GOP in 2012.
“[T]his year’s Jewish vote will resemble past elections,” he said. “The likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, is unpopular among most Jewish voters, and the GOP’s signature campaign proposal – repealing the recent health care law – is opposed by nearly six-in-ten American Jews.”
Prof. Kenneth Wald of the University of Florida, who studies Jewish voting patterns, also sees no evidence of a Jewish shift to the GOP.
“About three out of four American Jews voted Democratic in 2008,” he told Religious News Service. “Something relatively similar is likely to occur in 2012.”
For decades Republican operatives have been predicting a “sea change” as Jews make an exodus from the Democratic Party. There’s no evidence it is going to happen this year, either. So why do they keep trying? Republicans feel compelled to tighten their embrace of Israel because they have so few other issues on which to appeal to Jewish voters. Perhaps their real objective isn’t Jewish voters but single-issue, pro-Israel givers with deep pockets, like the Sheldon Adelsons. They’ve historically been far more successful at raising Jewish money than Jewish votes, and that is the real name of the game.