Israel and the Jewish vote

J Street poll finds US Jews agree a candidate's position on Israel played a big role.

obama aipac 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama aipac 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
In capturing the White House, President-elect Barack Obama won 78 percent of the two-party Jewish vote - a showing identical to that of John Kerry and stronger than those of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, not to mention George McGovern and Jimmy Carter. Indeed, only three demographic groups in the US gave Obama more than 70% of their votes - blacks, Jews and gays. Some suggest this extraordinary result reflects the diminished centrality of Israel to American Jews. Lamenting surveys that point to a declining attachment to Israel and other polls suggesting Israel is not an important voting issue, they worry that our community has lost its focus on Israel's security. IN FACT, Israel remains of critical importance to Jewish voters and no politician can expect to do well with Jewish voters if the community is not convinced of his or her bedrock support for Israel. Barack Obama only achieved such high levels of support because American Jews concluded he would continue to be a steadfast friend of Israel. To be sure there are surveys which purport to show that Israel is of relatively minimal import to Jewish voters. A poll of the community conducted for J Street concluded in part "when considered among the other issues facing the country, Israel is actually in the bottom tier of issues, and only 8 percent of Jews identify it as one of the top two most important issues in deciding their vote for President and Congress." However, the same survey found Jewish voters agreeing, by 58% to 34% that "a candidate's position on Israel plays a big role in determining how I will vote for Congress and the president." PERHAPS THE most telling evidence of the importance of Israel in voting behavior comes from an experiment we embedded in a survey for the National Jewish Democratic Council. Having divided our sample in half at random, we gave each group of respondents the identical description of a Republican candidate "Jones" who had a "strong pro-Israel record" and a variety of typical Republican positions on issues like Iraq, taxes and abortion. Half the sample got a description of his opponent, Democrat "Smith," who also had a strong pro-Israel record along with typical Democratic positions on the same issues. The other half of the sample was given the exact same portrait of Democrat "Smith" except that, for the second group, he did not have a strong pro-Israel record. By comparing how the two halves of the sample voted we can observe exactly how much difference support for Israel makes to Jewish voters - and it is substantial. The pro-Israel Democrat won by a 45 point margin, while a candidate who was identical except on Israel, eked out only a three point margin. Thus, support for Israel alone created a huge 42 point swing in the margin, clear evidence of the centrality of Israel to Jewish voters. THIS FACT played itself out in the real-life contest between Obama and John McCain. Republicans spent millions on everything from ads to e-mails questioning Obama's commitment to Israel. During the summer it looked like it was having an effect on some, as a series of polls then showed Obama garnering only about 60% of the Jewish vote. As American Jews got to know the Democratic nominee better, as they heard him unfiltered at the convention and in debates, as they heard him condemn anti-Semitism in the African American community, as they heard him state his unequivocal support for Israel's security, as they heard his unambiguous declaration that a nuclear Iran was unacceptable, American Jews became increasingly comfortable with him, comfortable enough to give him 78% of their votes. American Jewish support for Barack Obama is not a sign of creeping disengagement from Israel's interests; rather it is a signal that the community is increasingly united in recognizing that the president-elect will prove a stalwart ally of the Jewish state and of the Jewish people. Mark Mellman is the CEO and Michael Bloomfield executive vice president of The Mellman Group, a polling and consulting firm, whose clients include the majority leaders of the US House and Senate, as well as several American Jewish organizations.