At the recent General Assembly of Jewish Federations that convened in Washington D.C., the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks, boldly predicted that the GOP would pick up more Jewish votes in 2016 than it has in previous elections. Widespread dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s nuclear arms deal with Iran, as well as the growing alienation between Israel and the Democratic Party, would push Jewish voters into Republican arms as never before, Brooks said.
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Hope springs eternal, of course, but nonetheless, Brooks’ projections are highly unlikely to materialize. Barring any more Paris-style outbreaks of international or domestic terror that could move both Jews and non-Jews to the right, the GOP will be hard-pressed to pick up more Jewish votes in 2016 than it has in previous elections. In fact, the Republican presidential candidate will count himself lucky if he succeeds in emulating the 29-30 percent that GOP candidate Mitt Romney picked up in 2012. Frankly, I don’t think that’s going to happen, either.
It’s true that opposition to the Iran deal ran deeper and wider among American Jews than their usual political preferences would indicate. The polls were few, far between and all over the place, with one, by the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, giving supporters a 49-31 percent majority. Another, by the left-leaning J Street, showed the margin to be 60-40 percent in favor. A third, by the right-leaning Israel Project, indicated that a slim plurality actually opposed the deal by 47-44 percent, while a fourth, by the nonpartisan American Jewish Committee, indicated a slim majority, 51-47 percent, in favor.
From all of these polls and others, however, one can safely deduce that a sizeable chunk of American Jews who identify as Democrats and who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 joined Jewish Republicans and conservatives in opposing the Iran deal. But does that give the Republicans enough grounds to predict an upsurge of new Jewish support in 2016? Hardly.
First, because the Iran debate and the raw emotions it unleashed last summer will have faded and abated by the winter of 2016, unless Iran insists on helping the Republicans by flouting the nuclear deal in the months leading up to the elections. Second, the Iran deal is only one element in the spectrum of American-Jewish emotions and attitudes toward Israel: Some of the opponents of the Iran deal may also be critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies on peace with the Palestinians, religious pluralism and even relations with the United States. It’s hardly a given that the GOP’s promise of blanket support for Israel, or the unprecedented pledge made by presidential candidates such as Marco Rubio and John Kasich to refrain from publicly criticizing Israel altogether, will appeal to Jews other than those who belong to the die-hard Orthodox/Likudnik minority.
The economy, not Israel
More importantly, American-Jewish Republicans tend to look at themselves in the mirror and believe they represent the mainstream Jewish voter. They then forget that Iran and/or Israel are not among the top issues that determine the American-Jewish vote – as many polls have shown. In a J Street poll following the 2012 election, only 10 percent cited Israel as one of the two main factors deciding their vote, compared to 53 percent who said it was the economy. A pre-election poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that Israel was the top issue for no more than 4 percent of American Jews. Important as Israel may be for most American Jews, the economy, health care, immigration and civil rights are much more pertinent to their lives and voting preferences.
Moreover, one of the prime factors that has driven the Republican Party to unequivocally embrace Israel in recent decades, no strings attached, is Christian Evangelicals, whose inordinate influence on the GOP has been on public display throughout the primary season. But Jews dislike and distrust Evangelicals more than any other religious group in America, turning the GOP’s Evangelical-inspired support for Israel into a double-edged sword that can repel American Jews no less than it attracts them.
And on the myriad other issues that concern American Jews and have forged their historic loyalty to the Democratic Party since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – the 2016 version of the GOP is more distant from their views than ever before. While the GOP is becoming more conservative, more religious, more insular and more estranged from minorities, the recently released Pew Research Center poll on religious outlooks shows that Jews remain the most liberal and secular voting bloc in America.
Seventy-one percent of American Jews support environmental regulations – so they’ll vote for a candidate (Marco Rubio) who denies global warming and says such regulation “will ruin America’s economy”? Nearly 80 percent of Jews think that society should accept homosexuality – so they would vote for a party whose candidate (Ted Cruz) backs “conversion therapy” and thinks homosexual conduct is “a choice”? Seventy-seven percent of American Jews support gay marriage – so they’ll vote for a candidate (Ben Carson) who has pledged to constitutionally overturn the June 2015 Supreme Court decision allowing it? Sixty-seven percent of American Jews support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants – so they’ll vote for a candidate (Donald Trump) who thinks they should all be deported by force or who suggested after the Paris terror attacks that a religious group such as Muslims should be required to bear special identity cards? Finally, no less than 84 percent (!) of American Jews support legal abortion – so they’ll support a party whose candidates oppose legal abortions across the board, including some (Carson, Rubio, Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum) who would outlaw abortions even in cases of rape and incest?
Forget about it. Twenty-six percent of American Jews define themselves as Republicans, but only 21 percent as conservatives. Given the party’s increasingly archconservative profile, some of the GOP’s potential presidential candidates will be hard-pressed to hold on to the 5 percent who are, according to the poll, non-conservative Republicans. Convincing Jewish moderates and independents to support the GOP at a time when the party is rubbing Jews the wrong way on such hot-button issues as minority rights and separation of church and state will be a much tougher sell – even mission impossible.
The trend runs both ways
The Republicans are relying on their abridged version of electoral history: Brooks told the General Assembly that the Republican share of Jewish voters has tripled between 1992 and 2012. “Election after election we continue to make gains and inroads,” Brooks said. “The Democrats are on the wrong side of the trend line.”
That’s true, but history didn’t conveniently begin in 1992, when George H.W. Bush garnered a historically low 11 percent of the Jewish vote. In 1988, the same Bush got 35 percent – 5 percent more than Mitt Romney received a quarter of a century later. Reagan got 31 percent in 1984 and 39 percent in 1980, and even Richard Nixon received 35 percent of the Jewish vote when he ran against George McGovern in 1972. So the trend, in fact, runs both ways, depending on your point of view.
And 2012, don’t forget, was supposed to be a watershed year for Republicans, with Obama already painted as being anti-Israel, the Jewish vote heavily courted by the well-funded Republican Jewish Coalition and the relatively moderate Romney almost openly endorsed by Benjamin Netanyahu. Next year’s election doesn’t look nearly as good for the GOP, if only because the likely Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, is perceived as more hawkish than Obama, more supportive of Israel and better connected to liberal Jewish donors. Most Jews who aren’t Orthodox will find it difficult, in any case, not to cast their vote for the first woman who could be president.
Of course, some Republican candidates will do better than others. In the current field, the three most promising candidates from a Jewish point of view would have to be the centrist Kasich and the dynastic Jeb Bush,
and perhaps New Jersey’s Chris Christie. Others, including Trump, Carson, Cruz, and Rand Paul, are likely to pick up less Jewish votes than Romney did. Even Marco Rubio, for all his political talent and natural charisma, would have a hard time convincing Jewish voters to overlook his views on most of the economic and social issues of the day, which are diametrically opposed to their own.
True, a serious deterioration of the security situation in America, a major terrorist attack, heaven forbid, on its shores, perhaps even a complete collapse of the nuclear deal with Tehran – all of these could change the dynamics of the Jewish, as well as the general, vote, though I’m sure the Republicans wouldn’t wish that on America. Otherwise, as Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, “That which hath been is that which shall be, and that which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.”
And as essayist Milton Himmelfarb once famously observed, American Jews will “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans” in 2016 as well. And Jewish Republicans will be tearing their hair out when the results are in, as they always do, wondering what the hell is wrong with their fellow Jews, who once again refused to see the light.
The writer is Haaretz’s U.S. editor and correspondent.