Will Obama Get The Jewish Vote?

Will Obama Get The Jewish Vote?

AJC survey shows declining support, but much depends on which Republican runs against the president.

The thrill is way gone, to bastardize an old blues lyric, but American Jews are still likely to vote for President Barack Obama in 2012.

That’s the upshot of the just-released American Jewish Committee Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion. The new poll put Obama’s approval rating in the Jewish community at 45 percent, down from 51 percent in last year’s AJC poll, and more than 30 percentage points below the 78 percent of the Jewish vote that Obama garnered in his 2008 race against Sen. John McCain.

The survey found that most American Jews, like most other Americans, are less enthusiastic about Obama’s performance than at any time since he was inaugurated two years ago — but are still likely to vote for him again next year.

American Jewish voters, according to the AJC study, give Obama poor grades for both his handling of the economy, which has not full recovered from the national recession that began in 2008, and for his role in the stalled Middle East peace process.

At the same time, the survey revealed that Jewish voters’ approval of the way Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has conducted Israeli-U.S. relations has also slipped in the last year, from 62 percent to 54 percent.

While many Jews traditionally base their votes largely on candidates’ stances on Israel, this year the economy and Israel are swaying voters, said L. Sandy Maisel, professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Me., and a close observer of the Jewish community. “Jews are not single-issue voters,” he said, adding that while Jewish voters have lost their enthusiasm for Obama, so has almost every other ethnic group in the country.

“If I were the Obama people, I’d be very nervous … that there is a major loss [of support] among every group, including Jews,” Maisel said. He pointed out that “the fallout [of support among Jews] is less than for any other group.”

The AJC survey follows talk in many Jewish circles, especially Orthodox and politically conservative ones, that the president has unduly pressured Israel to make concessions in the Middle East peace process. It also comes on the heels of former New York Mayor Ed Koch’s endorsement of Republican Bob Turner in the special election in the city’s 9th Congressional District (in a surprise move, the independent-minded Koch endorsed Obama on Tuesday), and Turner’s subsequent victory in the heavily Democratic and heavily Jewish district; and the appointment last month of Ira Forman, former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, to improve relations with the Jewish community.

While Jews remain among the strongest supporters of the president — second only to African-Americans — the decrease in Jewish support is considered significant, political observers say, because of the symbolism of the Jewish vote, and because American Jews have ranked among the most consistent contributors to Democratic causes and voters for Democratic candidates since the middle of the last century.

So will the Jewish vote be in play next year?

“A certain percentage is in play,” said David Harris, AJC executive director. A quarter of the 2008 Jewish vote for Obama will be open to voting for a Republican candidate for president in 2012, Harris said — if the Republican nominee is someone like Mitt Romney, who is viewed as a moderate, as opposed to candidates like Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann who have conservative reputations.

“There’s potential” for a major swing of Jewish voters to the GOP, Harris said. “It’s not a done deal.”

Voting patterns and the AJC survey indicate that “Jews are not changing their registration” from overwhelming Democratic, “but are voting more independently,” said Gil Kahn, professor of political science at Kean University in Union, N.J. The question of normally Democratic Jews voting in 2012 for Republican candidates “has to be asked on a state-by-state basis,” he says — “it’s not a national picture.”

The percentage of Jewish voters who identify themselves as Democrats has decreased from 53 in 2009 to 48 last year and 45 this year, according to the AJC survey.

Obama received an estimated 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, just below the 79 percent received by Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman in 2000, and above the 74 percent that John Kerry received in 2004. Claims that the president, who entered office with accusations of at best a questionable record of support and sympathy for Israel, have become more frequent in the last year; Obama, critics says, is tone deaf to the needs of Israel and the feelings of Israeli supporters in this country.

However, a recent cover story in New York magazine, citing a long list of accomplishments by Obama in U.S.-Israel relations, called him “The First Jewish President.”

The AJC survey illustrated the mixed feelings.

“For the first time during Obama’s presidency, disapproval among Jewish voters exceeds approval of his performance,” a press release that accompanied the release of the study stated; approval of the president’s handling of the economy slipped from 55 percent to 37 percent in the last year, and approval of his handling of U.S.-Israel relations dropped from 49 percent to 40 percent.

“Jewish approval of Obama’s handling of his job as president declined to 45 percent, with another 48 percent disapproving and 7 percent undecided,” the AJC press release stated. In the last annual AJC survey, a year ago, 51 percent approved, and 44 percent disapproved.

Among Jewish voters, the percentage that approves of “the way Barack Obama has handled his job as president” decreased slightly over the last year from 57 percent to 51 percent, the AJC survey found.

Recent public opinion surveys of other groups have indicated a wider loss of support for the president, with the approval among the general public at the 40 percent level or below according to the Gallup poll.

“Jews’ opinions of Obama are coming to approximate those of non-Jews,” an analysis article by Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post reported this week, “but when it comes to voting for him, they plan to stick by him in greater numbers than the general population. Jews may be moving away from their reflexive attachment to the Democratic Party, but they have hardly renounced it.”

Jewish organizations that lobby, respectively, for the Democratic and Republican parties, predictably put their own spins on the findings of the AJC survey.

“I think it’s important to note that more than 60 percent of Jews characterized U.S.-Israel relations as ‘positive’ under this administration,” said National Jewish Democratic Coalition David Harris (no relation to the AJC’s David Harris). “To then not approve of the way this administration is conducting those relations is like loving the food at a restaurant but having reservations about the chef.”

Said Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks in a statement: “The AJC poll reinforces what we saw in the special elections in New York’s 9th Congressional District two weeks ago,” in which political neophyte Turner defeated Democrat David Weprin in Rep. Anthony Weiner’s vacated seat. “President Obama is losing Jewish support.”

The decrease in Jewish approval for the president’s handling of many issues “show[s] why Democrats are scrambling to shore up their support in the Jewish community,” Brooks said.

The Post story pointed out that “only 29 percent” of the Jews surveyed identified themselves as Reform, and another 37 percent as “Just Jews.” Demographic studies of the American Jewish community in recent years usually put the percentage of self-described Reform Jews at approximately 40 percent.

A putative undercounting of Reform Jews — traditionally the most steadfast supporters of Democratic candidates and policies — “suggests that the AJC poll may be slightly more anti-Obama than the larger Jewish community,” the Post article stated.

“I stand by these numbers … absolutely,” including the survey’s denominational breakdown, said David Singer, AJC research director. He said the survey reflects past polling done under AJC auspices.

The telephone survey of 800 Jewish voters was conducted from Sept. 6-21 by the Synovate research firm.

The survey indicated a large gap between Orthodox and non-Orthodox voters: while Orthodox Jews, who made up 9 percent of the 800 people sampled give the president a 72 percent disapproval rating, the figure among Conservative Jews is 48 percent, and 44 percent among Reform Jews. While 80 percent of Orthodox Jews disapprove of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, the figures are 59 percent for Conservative Jews and 46 percent for Reform Jews.

“Looking ahead to the 2012 presidential race,” the AJC release stated, the survey found “that if the election were held today, Obama would still hold a considerable lead over potential Republican challengers among Jewish voters.” According to the survey, Obama would defeat former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney 50-32; Texas Gov. Rick Perry 55-25 and Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann 59-19. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has not entered the presidential race but is reportedly under heavy pressure to declare his candidacy, would lose to Obama 53-26, the AJC survey reported.

In any presidential election, some 30-40 percent of the Jewish vote is “in play,” not committed automatically to the Democrats of Republicans, said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. The GOP’s choice for president and vice president will determine which way the Jewish swing vote will go, he said.

Until the Republican Party chooses the nominee, Sarna said, “it can be assumed it’s the Messiah” — in other words, a candidate who is considered to be preferable to Obama.

When the major parties’ candidates are clear next year, “the question for a lot of Jews,” Sarna said, “is will they vote for a party they think is better for the country [on a wide range of social issue],” or avoid “voting for a man they think is bad for Israel?”

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

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