American Jewish Voting Patterns Are Major Obstacle for Hopeful Republicans in 2012

A new study shows that Jewish support for Democratic candidates and liberal causes are deeply ingrained and consistently rising.

Only deep Jewish disaffection with President Barack Obama and a dramatic shift in the general political beliefs of American Jews will buck the historical trend and yield the kind of swing in American Jewish voting patterns that Republicans are hoping for in the upcoming November 2012 elections.

This is the unavoidable conclusion from a new study released on Tuesday entitled “Jewish American Voting Behavior 1972-2008: Just the Facts” that analyzes and combines exit polls and other data from presidential and Congressional elections since Richard Nixon’s election to a second term in 1972. It comes on the same day that a delegation sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) and led by former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer launched a Republican voting drive in Israel to drum up support for Republicans among Israel’s estimated 150,000 American Jewish voters.

The study was carried out on behalf of the non-partisan Solomon Project by former Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who now heads an independent public opinion group, along with researchers Aaron Strauss and Kenneth Wald. The connection between the researchers and the Democratic Party will enable the Republicans to question the objectivity of the study, though it refrains from addressing the 2012 elections and is solely based on well-known polling data, especially exit polls, which, the researchers claim, are much more detailed and dependable than regular public opinion polls.

The study, in fact, “reduces” the accepted share of Jewish vote that Obama is said to have received in the 2008 elections, from 78% to 74% - 3% less than Democratic candidate John Kerry received in the 2004 Presidential elections against Republican George W Bush.

At the same time, the study shows that the Democrats’ share of the Jewish vote, including Obama’s, has, in fact, climbed significantly in the past 16 years compared to the preceding 16 years. Between 1972-1988, Republican candidates garnered 31%-37% of the Jewish vote, but in 1992 the Jewish Republican vote dropped precipitously to 15% and in the ensuing 4 presidential elections has only slowly climbed to the 23% that John McCain received in 2008.

And while conventional wisdom holds that the meager 15% of the vote that George Bush Sr received in 1992 was mainly the outcome of his harsh confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over loan guarantees, the study points to a different explanation: the increased influence of the Christian Right on the Republican Party, which first became pronounced in the early 1990’s. In fact, Mellman and his colleagues believe that the same Jewish suspicion of religiosity in the political arena – and not his attitude towards Israel – was probably the main factor that turned Jewish voters away from the deeply religious and evangelical Democratic President Jimmy Carter, not only in the 1980 elections against Ronald Reagan following the Iran hostage crisis, in which Carter garnered only 44% of the Jewish vote, but in the 1976 elections as well, before his perceived animosity towards Israel was known, in which Carter received 64% of the Jewish vote.

According to the study, Jewish women are significantly more likely to vote for Democrats than men, a trend that holds true for the general population as well; contrary to the general trend, however, older Jews are more likely to vote for Democrats than younger Jewish voters. Unmarried Jews are more likely to vote Democratic, but synagogue attenders vote for Republicans in higher numbers than their unaffiliated co-religionists. Educated Jewish voters are more Democratic than non-educated Jews, with the greatest divergence occurring in the 2008 elections, in which Obama got 14% more votes from educated Jews than from non-educated voters.

Interestingly, Jewish support for Democratic candidates is higher and more stable in Congressional elections than in Presidential elections, running consistently close to 80%. 60% of American Jews identify as Democrats, compared to only 15% who identify as Republicans. And Jews, living up to their image, have become more liberal in recent years than they were a few decades ago, and are the most consistently liberal group in American politics, with well over 40% of those questioned in exit polls in the past three elections identifying as liberals.

Of course, Republicans are banking on the possibility that Jewish criticism of Obama’s first term in office, his attitudes towards Israel and the Middle East and his economic performance runs so deep that the 2012 ballot will mark a historical turning point and will prove dramatically different than previous elections. But Democrats contend that there is a difference between Jewish grumbling and criticism and their actual votes, that the influence of the Tea Party and Christian Evangelicals on the Republicans will deter even the most determined Obama-critics and that Jews will eventually “come home” and vote in decisive numbers for the Democratic candidate, as usual.

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Obama at the AIPAC convention in Washington, 2011
AIPAC convention