Does President Barack Obama have his Jewish mojo back?
Did the rightward tilt of the Republican presidential primaries, where culture war issues surged to the top of the GOP agenda, scare off potential Jewish voters?
Or is Election Day simply too far in the future for a poll in April to carry much significance?
Those are some of the questions to emerge as analysts dissect the data from the latest opinion poll of American Jews by the American Jewish Committee.
The survey of 1,074 people who identify as Jewish, taken between March 14 and March 27, found that in the prior six months, the president — who has spent much of his term trying to beat back criticism from the Jewish right that he is anti-Israel — has seen his appeal to Jews spike to 61 percent, from 45 percent in September.
And if the election were held today, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, would receive just 28 percent of the Jewish vote.
Obama’s share of 61 percent is virtually identical with the 62 percent Jewish approval rating found by the Public Religion Research Institute a month earlier. (Those figures are well below the 78 percent he garnered in the 2008 election, but Jews continue to support Obama more than almost any other group in the country). It sampled 1,004 self-identified Jewish adults between Feb. 23 and March 5.
The AJC poll found that more Jewish women (67 percent) than Jewish men (55 percent) said they would vote for Obama, while Romney was the favorite of 34 percent of Jewish men and 22 percent of Jewish women.
In addition, it found that among the 14 percent of American Jews who attended religious services at least once a week, Obama was less popular but would still beat Romney by 52 to 34 percent. Interestingly, the 31 percent of Jews who said they never attend religious services liked Obama the best — 67 percent said they would vote for him while only 21 percent favored Romney.
David Harris, the AJC’s executive director, said he believes Obama’s surge in popularity stems “from a sense the economy is starting to show signs of life, and second, from a more focused effort by President Obama to woo Jewish voters. As for Gov. Romney, his challenge in the coming months is to introduce himself to Jewish voters and become better known both as a politician seeking the presidency and as a person.”
Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University, ascribed Obama’s improved popularity to Jews’ reaction to the just concluded Republican presidential primary.
“It is very difficult for most American Jews to relate to the ideas that were articulated by candidates like [former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick] Santorum,” she said. “His skeptical attitudes towards higher education—he said it makes [people] into snobs — is something that is the antithesis of Jewish attitudes towards higher education.”
In addition, she said Jews were turned off by the Republicans’ “extreme judgmentalism towards different lifestyles.” Fishman pointed out that in the PRRI survey, Jews were consistently liberal on issues like abortion and same- sex marriage and “uncomfortable towards the government bullying these people.”
“All of this alienated [Jewish] people from the field of Republican candidates,” Fishman said. “And 86 percent of those who supported Obama in 2008 would like to see him re-elected. It’s not that they are not worried — many are — but they are still going to vote for him.”
But Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, said that if Obama’s approval rating does not improve beyond 61 or 62 percent he might lose the election.
“That is on the low side of what Democrats have received,” he said. “One has to notice that Republicans like Ronald Reagan were able to win with 40 percent of the Jewish vote. A Republican who wins 40 percent of the Jewish vote — like Reagan and Ike [Dwight Eisenhower] — frequently is a winning candidate. To that extent, the Jewish vote is a canary in the mine.”
Sarna pointed out that Richard Nixon won in 1972 with as little as 35 percent of the Jewish vote, the same percentage George W. Bush received when he won in 1988. And he noted that Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote when he won four years ago.
Sarna said he believes the Obama campaign is aware of the president’s polling in the Jewish community and has “become very focused on winning the Jewish vote. The president is visiting many Jewish settings” — he has spoken in recent months at the AIPAC policy conference, the Reform movement biennial and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — “and a lot of people believe he will be visiting Israel before the election.”
But Sarna stressed that a lot could happen between now and November and that Romney has not yet selected his vice presidential running mate.
“Had McCain made [Hawaii’s first Jewish governor] Linda Lingle his vice presidential candidate, I think the Jewish vote might have been very different and the whole election might have been somewhat different,” Sarna said. “If Romney feels obligated to bring in a Tea Party person as his vice president, it would likely diminish his chances with the Jewish community. If on the other hand he brings in someone the Jewish community is comfortable with, like the New Jersey governor [Chris Christie], it might help him.”
But Gilbert Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University, said the overall Jewish vote is not as important as the Jewish vote in four swing states: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
“If the Jewish vote there is weak, it could affect the final results,” he said. “The national number [for Obama] may be declining, but ultimately it comes down to those individual states. One can’t generalize based on national numbers. I think Obama will get between 65 and 70 percent of the Jewish vote nationally. If he does, he will be fine.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council hailed the poll results as confirmation that “Obama is strong among Jewish voters.” A statement from the group pointed out that an AJC poll at this time in 2008 found that Jews would vote for Obama over Sen. John McCain by a similar margin, 57 percent to 30 percent. It noted also that in the AJC poll taken last Sept. 6-21, Jews preferred Obama to Romney by an 18-point gap, which has now widened to 33 points.
Both the Republicans and the Democrats “can take satisfaction in these poll results,” according to Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
“There is no question these numbers will change,” he said. “The undecided will fall into place. But at this time no one knows what will happen to the economy or the Middle East or whether there will be a misstep by one of the candidates.”
The AJC poll found that 80 percent of American Jews listed the economy as the most important issue in this election, compared to 57 percent who cited health care, 26 percent who said national security and just 22 percent who said U.S.-Israel relations. Although Romney, a former businessman, has been campaigning on his economic prowess, 62 percent of Jews who cited the economy as their top issue favored Obama to Romney 62 percent to 28 percent.
Obama similarly came out ahead among Jews who cited health care as their top concern, with 72 percent saying they would vote for the president compared to 19 percent who favored Romney.
In addition, 58 percent of Jews approved of the way Obama is handling U.S.-Israel relations, compared to 40 percent who disapproved. On the other hand, Romney nudged out Obama (45 percent to 42 percent) among the one-quarter of Jews who cited national security concerns as their top priority.
Interestingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a resounding 70 percent approval rating when it came to his handling of U.S.-Israel relations, compared with just 28 percent who disapproved. And although 55 percent of Jews believe the prospect for Arab-Israeli peace have stayed the same, 37 percent said they have decreased in the last year.
Rabbi Saperstein said Israel is not high on the list of concerns of American Jews because “people have confidence both parties are good for Israel. Had the question asked how they would vote if one candidate was anti-Israel or his policies were damaging to Israel, that number would be significantly higher.”
Steven Bayme, the AJC’s national director of Contemporary Jewish Life, said the polls confirmed that “Jews will vote for the liberal candidate provided he is seen as not unfriendly to the Jewish community. This has held since the birth of the State of Israel. When [President Jimmy] Carter was perceived as unfriendly to Israel, Jews deserted him in droves.”
He received just 45 percent of the Jewish vote.
The AJC survey found also that 71 percent of respondents said caring about Israel is a very important part of being a Jew, but 59 percent said they have never gone. Of those, 48 percent said it was because they never had the opportunity, 32 percent said it is too expensive, 13 percent said they were afraid to go and 31 percent said they had no interest in going.
“Those findings suggest that once you leave the religiously involved, the attachment to Israel is unfortunately much weaker than any of us would have hoped,” Bayme said.