Will US Jews vote for Barack Obama in 2012?

Israel has never been a partisan issue in American politics – until now.

Pro-Israel demonstrators 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Pro-Israel demonstrators 370
(photo credit: 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 Israel.
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 non-Jewish Americans).
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 relations.
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 do).
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 choice.
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.
The 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.