President Barack Obama’s approval rating among Jewish voters has fallen six points in just seven months, and a surprisingly strong 33 percent of those surveyed say the nation would be better off with a Republican-led Congress, according to a just-released poll of Jewish voters by the American Jewish Committee.
That suggests one of the strongest pillars of the Democratic base is weakening just weeks before critical congressional midterm elections that are expected to result in strong GOP gains.
"A 51 percent positive rating for a Democratic president among Jews is, frankly, terrible," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "That is barely higher than Obama’s national approval rating of 42 to 48 percent, depending on the poll.
"This is Obama’s low point so far, no question," Sabato continued. "It is coming at just the wrong moment, given the Nov. 2 midterm elections."
The Jewish figures on the congressional election, too, tell a broader story, Sabato said.
"If 33 percent of Jewish voters say they prefer a GOP Congress, that tells me that the argument for ‘checks and balances’ has taken hold broadly, and that we are likely headed for divided government in some form," he said.
While Obama’s performance on Israel-related issues was one factor in his drop, the biggest decline came on the question of his handling of the economy, mirroring national concerns that have boosted Republican candidates and triggered the Tea Party surge.
In fact, only 45 percent of Jewish respondents now say they approve of his handling of the economy – a 10-point drop from an AJC survey in March.
The AJC’s executive director, David Harris, who has been overseeing the annual – and sometimes twice a year – surveys since they began in 1990, confessed to being surprised by many findings.
"What they show, more than anything else, is that the apprehension index is rising among American Jews," he said. "The gloom that has descended on the American public in general is also now revealed among American Jews. We didn’t do well in Iraq and are doing worse in Afghanistan, we’ve lost Turkey as an ally, our current strategy is not likely to convince Iran to change its course, on health care and the economy there are growing concerns – the anxiety pops out on almost every question."
In other findings, Jewish Democratic affiliation fell below 50 percent for the first time since the AJC surveys began, standing at 48 percent. But the Republicans seemed to gain little, increasing to 17 percent – from 15 percent earlier in the year and 16 percent in 2009.
"The administration’s misfortune does not necessarily become the good fortune of the opposition," Harris told the Jewish Week. "The number suggesting they might vote Republican is creeping up, but we are not seeing a discouraged Jewish community ready to embrace of the opposition."
Jewish Democrats point out that they still enjoy a big advantage in Jewish partisan identification – 48 percent to 17 percent. But few are taking solace in numbers that show an across-the-board erosion in support from the once-loyal community.
Harris pointed to another eye-popping number: 52 percent of those surveyed said they support Arizona’s tough new law on illegal immigration.
"It does seem to defy the conventional wisdom about Jews and their commitment to progressive social policy," he said.
A plurality of Jews surveyed – 49 percent – approve of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, a drop from 55 percent in March.
There was better news for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose standing went from a 57 percent approval rating in March to 62 percent in the current survey, which was conducted between Sept. 6 and Oct. 8. The poll, which had a sample size of 800 people, was conducted by Synovate, a leading research firm according to the AJC.
Although there is no data explaining the change in the Israeli prime minister’s standing, several veteran observers said it could be the result of Netanyahu’s effort to reposition himself as a strong supporter of direct negotiations with the Palestinians.
On one of the hottest issues in Jewish community life in recent weeks – the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in New York and what some analysts say is a national surge of Islamophobia – the AJC poll was mute.
"Basically, the controversy came after we had put the survey to bed," the AJC’s David Harris said. "Otherwise, we would have included questions about the issue."
Nor was there any data on the explosive issue of a West Bank settlement freeze, although 62 percent of Jews polled indicated that "all" or "some" settlements should be dismantled as part of an agreement with the Palestinians.
In contrast to the domestic political findings, there was little change on most questions involving Israel and the stalled Middle East peace process.
There was a slight drop in the proportion of Jews saying they are "very positive" or "somewhat positive" about U.S.-Israel relations; 60 percent say Israel should not compromise on the "status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction, about the same as the earlier 2010 poll.
And 95 percent said the Palestinians should be required to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in any final peace accord, with only 3 percent disagreeing.
There were no flickers of optimism on the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In the new survey, 72 percent believe there is "little" or "no" chance that a combination of diplomacy and sanctions will derail Iran’s nuclear program, 23 percent expressing confidence such measures might work.
Support for U.S. military action against Iran if sanctions and diplomacy fail continues to rise; in the latest survey, 59 percent of Jews support military action under those conditions, up from 53 percent in March. And 70 percent said they would support Israeli military action, up from 62 percent seven months ago.
There was also bad news for the government of Turkey, a nation once seen as Israel’s only ally in the Islamic world but which in the past year has turned dramatically toward Iran. Fifty percent of American Jews now say the government of Turkey is "not a friend" to the United States, 71 percent saying it is not a friend to Israel.
Another question seemed to repudiate the popular assumption that Israel is the determining political factor for most Jewish voters.
When asked about the issues that concern them most in the upcoming congressional elections, Israel was sixth in the "very important" category. Eighty-seven percent rated the economy "very important," 81 percent unemployment, 80 percent health care, 66 percent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 62 percent financial reform, with 61 percent saying Israel would be a very important factor.
Obama’s troubling stands on foreign policy issues weren’t confined to Israel and Iran.
A striking 64 percent of the Jews surveyed said America is losing the war in Afghanistan, a war Obama made his own with his controversial "surge" strategy. That contrasts with the 41 percent of Americans agreeing with that statement in a Newsweek poll in August.
But it’s the Jewish political numbers that will garner the most public attention in today’s intense pre-election climate.
While Jewish Republicans have some reasons to crow, Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said the new survey might reflect something more profound than a simple partisan shift.
"More than in the past, Jews are looking at specific policies and how they impact their own lives, and not at broad ideologies and political philosophies," he said. "They’re saying, ‘My son can’t get a job, my wife got laid off, the people in Washington aren’t answering our concerns. So maybe we need to let the other guys have a chance.’"
Colby College political scientist L. Sandy Maisel, a close observer of Jewish life, warned that Obama’s sinking Jewish numbers in the latest AJC survey may not accurately reflect likely voting behavior in 2012; approval ratings do not always reflect results when voters are faced with discrete, real-world choices.
"Obama is not running for re-election in 2010," he said. "You put him up against Sarah Palin, and you would probably see a very different result."
Polls, he said, are just snapshots of particular moments in politics.
But it’s hard to find political scientists who see anything but bad news for the Democrats, and Jewish Democrats in particular, when this picture was taken.