American Jews are likely to stick to tradition on Election Day.
Given the history of high voter turnout among Jews, and their concentration in states with many Electoral College votes, how they cast their ballots is of great interest to both major parties. 2012, however, will not be the year when Jews break with decades of support for Democratic presidential candidates.
The non-partisan American Jewish Committee (AJC), which has done polling of U.S. Jews for more than 20 years, found in a September national survey that 65 percent would vote to reelect President Barack Obama and 24 percent would choose Gov. Mitt Romney. Among the 10 percent undecided, when asked to choose, 63 percent favor Obama against 27 percent for Romney. A Gallup survey, also in September, found Obama defeating Romney by a margin of 70 to 25.
AJC surveys in two battleground states, Florida and Ohio, mirrored the national survey. In Ohio the split was 64 percent for Obama and 29 percent for Romney. In Florida, 69 percent chose Obama and 25 percent Romney.
Partisan groups affiliated with the two major political parties, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) and the National Democratic Jewish Council (NJDC), have spun these results in the ongoing intense efforts to garner support for their candidates. The RJC asserted that Jewish support for Obama was on the decline and a shift of even a few percentage points could be significant, while the NJDC claimed that backing for the president was holding steady. Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008.
Nonetheless, with only a few weeks of campaigning left, and early voting underway in a number of states, a significant shift from Democrat to Republican among Jewish voters clearly is not in the cards this year.
For months there have been increasing expectations, fueled by Jewish GOP activists, of a potential shift in voting patterns after decades of consistent majority support for Democratic presidential candidates. (The exception was 1980, when Jimmy Carter failed to get a majority of the Jewish vote.)
Many in the media enhanced perceptions of disappointment with the Obama administration by focusing on every syllable uttered by Obama and Romney about Israel. Some major media outlets went further by reporting on certain donors, and by also erroneously suggesting that somehow the Israeli prime minister was weighing in on the US presidential race.
Although it makes good headlines, such reporting ignores the fact that the average Jewish voter, like the general American population, is not concentrating on a single issue. Moreover, domestic issues this year top the list of concerns when deciding whom to choose for president. The economy and health care are the top concerns of Jews, according to the AJC surveys.
Does that mean less interest in Israel? Not at all. Seventy-one percent agreed and 27 percent disagreed, in the national survey, with the statement, “Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.”
Apparent tensions between the U.S. and Israel notwithstanding, 61 percent of American Jews approve, and 39 percent disapprove, of the way President Obama is handling the bilateral relationship. When asked which party is likely to make the right decisions regarding US-Israel relations, 60 percent chose the Democratic and 39 percent the Republican.
Looking at the breakdown of registered Jewish voters, it is not surprising that on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues Jews prefer the Democratic Party over the Republican. Only 16 percent of AJC national survey respondents self-identified as Republicans, while 55 percent said they were Democrats and 27 percent independents.
Support for Obama is consistent among all age cohorts, though, as with other groups, he does better against Romney among Jewish women, 69 to 19 percent, than among men, where the gap is 61 to 29.
The one Jewish demographic that diverges substantially from this pattern is religious denomination. Orthodox Jews support Romney over Obama by 54 to 40 percent. All the other denominational categories back Obama by wide margins, Conservative Jews by 64 to 23 percent, Reform by 68 to 23 percent, and “just Jewish” or unaffiliated by 68 to 19 percent. The Orthodox preferences may not influence the 2012 election, since they make up no more than 10 percent of American Jewry, but their impressive demographic growth could have an impact in future contests, notably in the Northeast where more than 50 percent of the Orthodox voters live.
Interestingly, vice presidential candidates may be having an impact on Jewish voter thinking. Sixty-six percent said the choice of running mate is important in deciding how to vote, and 33 percent said it is not. Seventy-three percent approved, and 27 percent disapproved, of Obama's selection of Joseph Biden as his running mate again. For Romney's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, 35 percent approved and 63 percent disapproved.
The final tally on Election Day will be instructive for both parties as they continue to strategize on how to engage and attract the support of American Jews.