Surveys of Jewish voters confound the experts
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
For many years, Shmuel Rosner was the Washington correspondent for Ha’aretz, where he also created his blog, Rosner’s Domain. He has followed and reported on American politics with insight, and continues to do so at the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. In a recent column he asks, “So, how many Jews will vote for Mitt Romney?”
Rosner wonders whether the fact that fewer Jews are registered as Democrats will translate to a support for a Republican not seen since Ronald Reagan won 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980. Rosner’s analysis is interesting and worth reviewing, but has a number of flaws. Among these is a missing piece concerning why some Jewish voters today may be shifting their long-held Democratic loyalties.
American voters today overall have the lowest party affiliation since such data has been kept. Since Democrats had more registered voters than Republicans they have lost more registered party members. This is especially true among young, newer, and first-time voters. Older voters may no longer believe in their party, but they have tended not to have gone to the trouble of changing affiliation. The growth of independents has had a significant effect on the primary system, especially in states where one must be registered for a party before the primary election and cannot affiliate with a party on primary day. As a consequence of this pattern, party affiliation means much less, and voters are voting more for the individual than for his or her party.
In this regard, Jewish voters are exactly like general population. In the Florida presidential primary, for example, many Jewish Democrats, ostensibly dissatisfied with Obama, were not eligible to vote in the Republican primary because, like older voters everywhere, they tend to hold on to their party affiliation. Similarly, as Jewish voters leave the Democratic Party, they are more likely to become independents than Republicans, according to an American Jewish Committee survey. Even then, their political views remain largely unchanged, surveys show.
Rosner and others are confident Romney will surpass the 22 percent of Jewish votes that McCain received in 2008, but it seems too early to tell and unlikely that he’ll achieve Reagan’s mark of 39 percent.
Thus Rosner places too much significance on the Jewish vote in 2012. Unless Jews swing to the GOP in numbers as dramatically as they did in 1980, a small percentage shift in the swing states — which are the only places where such shifts would matter — will not affect the electoral vote tally in those states. In Florida, for example, Jews represent 3.4 percent of 18.8 million voters. Similarly, in Ohio they are 1.3 percent of 11.5 million, and in Pennsylvania 2.3 percent of 12.7 million. Given the nature of the Electoral College, the Jewish vote — notwithstanding the fact that 80 percent of eligible Jews do vote — would be significant only if the margin of victory were smaller than .5 percent of the total vote. Even a 3 to 4 percent Republican shift among Jewish voters in those states would likely have no effect on the outcome.
What is most interesting to scholars of voting behavior, however, is an issue that Rosner does not address: As an Israeli observer of American-Jewish voting behavior, he would like to believe that American Jews have and will shift according to which candidate is perceived to be better for Israel.
In fact, a number of studies suggest that only a minority of Jews place Israel as their number one priority when it comes to voting. An April 2012 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 4 percent of American Jews identified “Israel” as the most important issue in the 2012 election. In May, an AJC survey found that only 6 percent placed “U.S.-Israel relations” as their top priority. Asked to pick their second and third most important issues, only 9 percent and 8 percent of AJC’s respondents said “Israel.” Israel tended to rank below issues like the economy, health care, and taxes.
If Jews are less liberal than they once were, it is because they seek to protect their success and earning potential, not because of their concern for Israel.
In trying to assess how Jews are going to vote in November, it seems that the disaffection with the Democratic Party — however large Rosner or others might believe it to be — is not nearly as significant as is being projected. In addition, among those who have drifted away from the Democratic Party, it largely is not for the assumed reasons.