Time, Once Again, To Explode Myth of Jewish Trend to GOP

At about this time in nearly every presidential cycle, you start hearing that Jews are going to leave the Democratic column in significant numbers either because a Democratic administration is insufficiently supportive of Israel or a Republican administration is all warm and cozy with Israeli leaders. Yes, there have been a couple of fairly recent presidential elections where the Jewish vote moved significantly: the 1980 cycle, when Jewish unhappiness (on both domestic and international issues) with Jimmy Carter held him to an extraordinarily low 45% of the Jewish vote (still more than Ronald Reagan, but with major defections to third-party candidate John Anderson), and the 1992 cycle, when Jewish unhappiness (on both domestic and internation issues) with George H.W. Bush held the incumbent to a mere 11% of that vote. By and large, though, the Jewish vote has been reasonably stable, with Democrats typically winning two-thirds to three-fourths of it.

And that’s how it looks in 2012, notes the distinguished Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg at TAP, drawing from a new survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. PRRI shows 62% of Jewish voters expressing support for President Obama’s re-election as opposed to 30% preferring a “generic” Republican. Generic GOPers have typically done better than actual candidates in polls this cycle, of course, and in addition, PRRI notes this split in sentiment is very similar to what it found at this point in the last cycle, where Obama ultimately won 78% of the Jewish vote.

Aside from the questionable nature of the quadrennial predictions of major Jewish defections to the GOP, related mythmaking involves the belief that American Jews are closely attuned to Israeli attitudes towards U.S. politics, or for that matter, vote primarily on Middle Eastern issues. That’s far from the truth, notes Gorenberg:

If Obama does lose some Jewish support, Israel won’t be the reason. Only 4 percent of PRRI’s respondents listed Israel as the most important issue for them in the election, and only another 5 percent listed it in second place. Some of those were already in the Republican camp, perhaps most. Anyone who is terribly impressed that Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu are old friends from their days as apprentice robber barons was not a likely an Obama voter to begin with.

Gorenberg does not specifically say this, but my own strong impression is that GOP solidarity with the Israeli Right is designed less to appeal to Jews than to conservative evangelical Christians. And the price Republicans pay for their close attention to that constituency when it comes to Jewish support is palpable:

If the GOP is even less popular among Jews than it was a generation ago, the reason is apparent: The party has become ever more rigid and homogenous in its economic and social conservatism, and its tests of ideological purity send none-too-coded messages to Jewish voters.

The party’s anti-abortion stance is not only an attack on reproductive freedom; it is an obvious demand to base law and policy on the beliefs of conservative Protestants and Catholics about when life begins. It broadcasts disdain for a religion-neutral polity. The party’s nativist orthodoxy toward immigration projects fear of difference, of anyone outside a narrowly defined “us.” Opposition to same-sex marriage encodes both messages at once. These are not messages designed to attract Jewish voters. Jewish comfort and safety in America—unique in Jewish history—rest upon cultural openness and religious neutrality.

Unlike conservative evangelicals and some “traditionalist” Catholics, Jews don’t tend to think of “religious neutrality” as including broad public policy concessions to religious leaders nestled in Christian nationalist rhetoric. Whatever gains Republicans might make among Jewish voters unhappy with the economy, disappointed by Obama, or anxious about Israel are probably capped and at least partially offset by GOP solidarity with the Christian Right, who may be tactical allies in supporting Israel but are ancient enemies in every other respect.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.