Why Republican efforts to corral Jewish vote may come up short

As expected, Republican presidential candidates courting the Jewish vote made mention Wednesday of Israel and Iran, but experts say it's unrealistic to expect they'll make major inroads on Jewish support for Obama.

Cliff Owen/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the 2012 Republican Presidential Candidates Forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition, on Dec. 7, in Washington.

One by one, Republican presidential candidates auditioned before Republican Jewish activists Wednesday, touting their conservative economic philosophies and love of Israel.

Inevitably, fears that Iran is obtaining a nuclear-weapons capability came to the fore, as the candidates tried to one-up each other on toughness.

“I want every country in the region that harbors aggressive designs against Israel to understand that their ambition is futile and that pursuing it will cost them dearly,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is trying to use his foreign policy expertise to catch on in the race, also rattled his saber at the prospect of a nuclear Iran. “All options are on the table,” he warned.

In her remarks, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota used the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to liken Iran to World War II Japan. “We are ignoring the warning signs, and I worry what other ‘Pearl Harbors’ might be in our future,” Representative Bachmann said.

But, as the 2012 presidential campaign kicks into gear, it’s a stretch to suggest that Obama’s Jewish vote – 78 percent in the 2008 election – is in jeopardy.

A Gallup poll released in September showed a decline in Jewish support for Obama to 54 percent, but that was not disproportionate to his overall decline among the American electorate, with support then at 41 percent. That 13-point gap between the Jewish vote and the overall vote is typical of the gap seen throughout Obama’s presidency.

Another poll released in September, by the American Jewish Committee, found Jewish opinion on Obama split nearly evenly, with 45 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval. But in head-to-head matchups against the Republican candidates, Obama came out on top. The candidate who fared the best was Romney, who got 32 percent of the Jewish vote to Obama’s 50 percent.

To be sure, Obama’s standing with Jewish voters bears watching. The financial largesse of Jewish donors is disproportionate to the size of the community, at just 2 percent of the US population.

In August, Obama brought in Jewish Democratic activist Ira Forman to reach out to the Jewish community. Obama faced outrage last May over a speech he gave proposing that new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations use the 1967 borders as their starting point. And in September, the upset victory of a Republican in a heavily Jewish congressional district in New York – the seat formerly held by Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner – was seen as a rebuke of Obama.

But the fact that Obama’s declining support among Jewish voters tracks his overall decline in job approval “calls into question attempts to link a decline in Obama’s approval among Jews to his statements or policies on matters important to Jewish policymakers and lobbyists,” Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport wrote in September.

Experts on the Jewish vote question other assumptions. In a recent column in the Jewish-focused magazine Moment, Nathan Guttman cites five “myths about the Jewish vote.”

One: Polling Jewish voters can predict how Jews will vote.

Mr. Guttman, the Washington bureau chief of the Jewish-American newspaper The Forward, says that getting a good sample of that geographically diverse 2 percent “is a nightmare.”

Two: Jews are becoming increasingly Republican.

It’s true, Guttman says, that Republicans are making small, steady strides into the Jewish community, citing the growing influence of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

“But take a look at the past three decades of exit polls, which are more reliable than pre-election polls, and the numbers are clear: Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic,” he writes.

Three: Jews can tip a swing state.

The vast majority of Jews vote in states that are reliably Democratic – New York and California. He lists two exceptions, albeit crucial ones: Florida and Ohio.

Four: Jewish money bankrolls election campaigns.

Guttman gives this one a “maybe.” He acknowledges plenty of “Cohens and Goldmans” on campaign disclosure lists, but then suggests that under newly relaxed campaign finance rules, “the Jewish proportion of overall donations is expected to decline.”

Five: Israel is a deciding factor for Jewish voters.

“Not true,” Guttman writes. “Poll after poll, survey after survey, show that Jewish Americans love Israel and want their elected officials to support Israel, but don’t view this issue as decisive. Topping the Jewish voter’s priority list are economic and social issues. Israel is somewhere in the middle.”

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