Despite his repeated differences with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a strong majority of U.S. Jews are likely to vote to re-elect President Barack Obama in November, according to major new survey of Jewish opinion.
More than six out of 10 (62 percent) of U.S. Jewish voters intend to vote for Obama, according to the survey of more than 1,000 self- identified Jews conducted between late February and early March by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), while 29 percent said they were inclined to vote for Obama’s Republican challenger.
If those figures are borne out, that would represent a fairly substantial erosion of Obama’s Jewish support compared to the 2008 election when 78 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballots for him.
But the current figures are remarkably consistent with those found by a Gallup poll of Jewish opinion at a comparable moment in the 2008 election campaign. In April of that year, 61 percent of Jews said they intended to vote for Obama, while 32 percent said they would probably vote for Republican Sen. John McCain.
“There has been some speculation about possible movements towards the (Republicans) among Jewish voters, but the current state of the race suggests that this year’s Jewish vote will resemble past elections,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI’s research director.
While the likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, was the most popular by far of the party’s remaining presidential candidates – 56 percent of those who said they wanted a Republican to win identified Romney as their first choice – he was preferred by only 17 percent of all Jewish respondents.
The survey, “Chosen For What? Jewish Values in 2012”, shows that Jewish voters, who make up only about two percent of the national population but comprise more than that in several key “swing states”, such as Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Illinois, remain largely liberal and Democratic in their political orientation. It also suggests that U.S. Jews are more concerned about issues such as social justice than foreign policy.
Seven of 10 respondents said they either identified with (50 percent) or lean toward (20 percent) the Democratic Party, compared to less than three in 10 who said they either identified with (13 percent) or lean toward (16 percent) the Republicans.
Asked what issue was most important to them in the upcoming election, 51 percent cited the economy; 15 percent, the growing gap between rich and poor; nine percent, health care; seven percent, the federal deficit; and four percent each for both “national security” and Israel. Only two percent of respondents cited “Iran”.
The relative lesser importance accorded by respondents to both Israel and Iran is remarkable in light of strenuous efforts over most of the past year by all but one of the Republican presidential candidates, as well as Republican lawmakers in Congress, to drive a wedge between Obama and his Jewish supporters over precisely those two issues.
Romney has repeatedly accused Obama of having “thrown Israel under the bus” on a number of counts, including the president’s initial demands that Netanyahu freeze all settlement expansion on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem; his call for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine based on the 1967 “Green Line” with territorial swaps; and increasingly blunt warnings by administration and Pentagon officials against an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Two of Romney’s rivals – Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, whose floundering campaign has been almost single-handedly financed by one of Netanyahu’s own political patrons, billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson – have also repeatedly denounced Obama for allegedly creating tensions with the Jewish state.
Among other things, they have both indicated opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state and called for Washington to attack Iran militarily to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon.
While these efforts may be succeeding in attracting wealthy Jewish donors with right-wing politics like Adelson — and in mobilising the Republicans’ Christian evangelical base — they don’t seem to be working with the vast majority of Jewish voters who do not see Israel or Iran as the most critical issues in the November elections.
It’s not that they necessarily disagree with the Republicans on these issues. Indeed, nearly six of 10 respondents (59 percent) said the U.S. should take military action to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon if diplomatic and economic sanctions don’t work, although a slight majority (53 percent) said they support the establishment of a Palestinian state.
But only for a relatively few Jewish voters will these issues decide how they will cast their ballot.
While a majority (54 percent) of respondents say U.S.-Israeli relations have remained about the same as in the past, a significant minority (37 percent) said they had worsened in recent years. Self-identified Republicans were more critical than Democrats or independents.
On the Arab-Israeli conflict, 35 percent of respondents said they agreed with Obama’s policies, 28 percent said they disagreed, while 36 percent said they weren’t sure. Of those who said they agreed with the president’s policies, however, nearly half said they didn’t like the way he was executing them.
That dissatisfaction could help explain some of the attrition that showed up in the poll. Of those who said they voted for Obama in 2008, 86 percent said they would support him in November. But seven percent of that group said they intended to vote Republican.
Overall, 61 percent of U.S. Jews said they approved of Obama’s performance, according to the PRPI survey. That was significantly more than the 45 percent of Jewish respondents who said they approved of Obama’s performance in a poll taken by the American Jewish Committee last September, and well above the roughly 50-percent approval rating given to Obama by the general public in recent polls.
Asked what is most important to their identity as Jews, 46 percent of respondents cited a “commitment to social equality”, while 20 percent said “support for Israel”. Another 17 percent cited “religious observance”, and six percent said “cultural heritage or tradition”.
Asked what specific Jewish values they considered “very important” in informing their political beliefs and actions, 52 percent cited pursuing justice; 35 percent, “tikkum olam” — a Hebrew expression for “healing the world”; 34 percent, caring for the widow and the orphan; 26 percent for welcoming the stranger; and 25 percent for seeing each person as made in the image of God.