Are Jewish voters trending Republican—or at least becoming less heavily Democratic? Evidence is accumulating that the answer is yes. The benchmark is the 2008 exit poll, in which Jews were 2% of voters, they voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by a 78%-21% margin. In House races they voted for Democratic candidates over Republicans by an 81%-19% margin. The slightly higher margin for House candidates is in line with the national trend and also probably reflects the fact that most Jewish voters live in congressional districts which are heavily Democratic and which are not seriously contested by Republicans. The 2010 exit poll did not have enough Jewish respondents to provide comparable numbers for the House vote in that election.
Now here’s the evidence of the direction in which Jewish opinion has been moving since. In September 2011 the American Jewish Committee sponsored a survey of American Jews. It showed Obama’s job rating was negative, 45%-48%, with more negative ratings of his performance on the economy (37%-60%), immigration (43%-49%) and “handling of U.S.-Israel relations” (40%-53%). When paired against Mitt Romney, Obama led by a 50%-32% margin. In other words, Obama was running 28% behind his 2008 performance while Romney, less well known than he is today, was running 11% ahead of McCain’s percentage.
The next evidence came from the Pew Research’s compilations of party identification results from the multiple surveys it conducts each year. Pew found that overall Republican party identification, including those who lean Republican, increased from 39% to 43% between 2008 and 2011, while Democratic party identification, including those who lean Democratic, fell from 51% to 48%. Then Pew broke down these numbers by religious affiliation. It found that among Jews Republican party identification increased from 20% to 29% between 2008 and 2011 and Democratic party identification decreased from 72% to 65%. That was the biggest shift toward Republicans and away from Democrats among any religious group; the second biggest was among white Catholics.
Now comes the 2012 Jewish Voters Values Survey sponsored by the Public Religion Research Institute. In that survey 62% of Jewish voters say that they would like to see Obama reelected and 30% say they would prefer a Republican candidate. Of those who prefer a Republican, 58% prefer Mitt Romney and between 12% and 15% each favor Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. The pairing numbers reflect opinion on Obama: 61% have favorable feelings about him, 36% unfavorable. A 54% majority say that U.S. relations with Israel are about the same as in the past; only 7% say they are better and 37% say they are worse. That’s a disturbingly high percentage for Obama. In addition, 20% say they like Obama’s Israel policies and how he’s executing them, 15% say they like those policies but don’t like the way he is executing them; a majority say that they either oppose those policies (28%) or are not sure of their opinion (36%). That number is startlingly high for a group that is almost certainly more well-informed and articulate than average. Altogether this is disturbing news for Obama. His share of the Jewish vote is down 16% from the 2008 benchmark and the generic Republican is up 9% from McCain.
PPRI analysts depict these as positive results for Obama, and on their face they are. Obama strategists would love to see numbers like these among the population as a whole. But these are figures from a group that supported him by a 78%-21% margin four years ago, and among whom he has clearly lost support since.
Jewish voters are heavily concentrated in the affluent suburbs and affluent central city neighborhoods. They are a significant part of the reason that affluent counties like Bergen NJ, Montgomery PA, Oakland MI and Lake IL have been producing solid Democratic majorities in the last several presidential elections. There are even more white Catholics in these and other affluent suburban counties. If the Pew Research study is correct and the 2008-11 trend is sustained through November 2012, it will be difficult for Obama to match his 2008 percentages and margins in affluent counties. I have been made the case that Mitt Romney’s strong performance in affluent suburbs might carry over into the general election and enable him to run more strongly there than any Republican nominee in the last 20 years. These polls indicating a falloff in Obama support among Jewish voters provide support for that case.