Religion will play less of a role in the 2012 presidential vote than it has in recent elections, three leading political analysts agreed this week, with the economy far outweighing other voter concerns.
Discussing “Religion and the 2012 Election” at a well-attended forum sponsored and hosted by Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women on Monday evening, the panelists spent little time discussing the heavy religious infusion from Republican candidates in the primaries and focused on the next six months of the campaign.
Jeff Greenfield, the longtime television reporter currently with PBS, noted that “every four years the neocons say ‘this is the year’” that the Jews will turn to the Republicans, “but they don’t.” And this year is no exception, he said, with the most recent polls showing 62 percent of American Jews favoring President Barack Obama in November.
That is down from the 2008 election’s 78 percent — Obama’s numbers are down with voters across the board compared to four years ago — but the president remains more popular with Jews than he is with most other Americans.
Fellow panelist Anna Greenberg, a leading Democratic pollster, said that despite “the perception that Republicans are better for Israel,” most American Jews continue to vote Democratic.
Greenfield offered one of his few political rules that he said holds true: the party that is out of office “is always more pro-Israel,” even though their campaign promises, like moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, tend to turn up empty.
Greenberg agreed with the third panelist, religion columnist Peter Steinfels, who noted that the best indicator of voting patterns in terms of religion is not what denomination you are but “whether you pray at meal time.”
In other words, the more observant a person is, regardless of his or her religion, the more likely that person will be socially conservative and voting Republican.
The panelists, who tended to agree with each other’s observations, said that America is becoming more secular, more diverse and less religious, which is a plus for Democrats.
Steinfels said he regrets the fact that religion is less of a political factor of late, noting that in the upcoming presidential election in France, a highly secular country, religion has hardly been mentioned.
“Some would say that’s a good thing,” Steinfels acknowledged, “but not me,” adding that votes should be based on more than cold, hard facts.
The presidential election is very even at this point, the three experts observed, and in many ways similar to the 2004 election, where the incumbent (in that case, George W. Bush) was not popular with the electorate, but voters were skeptical of his opponent.
Greenfield said the mainstream media tends to cover religion in a superficial and simplistic manner, and that Mitt Romney’s Mormon beliefs will probably not attract deep attention, primarily because the election will focus on the economy and serve as a referendum on Obama’s tenure.
Independents, who make up about 10 percent of the electorate, will play a key role. And since so many Democrats and Republicans will vote along party lines, Greenberg said that mobilizing the vote will be key, and “we’ll see a lot of money spent on a small group of people” in seeking to attract the independent voters.
Greenfield predicted that the first Jewish presidential candidate will be a Republican, adding that he was not necessarily thinking of Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader who is Jewish.
Greenberg said that given widespread Jewish acceptance among Americans, a Jewish presidential candidate would be “almost a non-event.” She added that more significant would be the election of a gay president.