The AJC survey reveals why so many Jews remain supporters of the president. Support for how Obama has handled U.S.-Israel relations and Iran’s nuclear program is lower than for any other issue, but he still gets over 60% support for his policies in each case. More importantly, Israel and Iran simply do not register among the most important issues for Jewish voters. U.S.-Israel relations rank fourth (at 4.5%) and Iran’s nuclear program ranks seventh (at 1.3%) among the top issues for Jewish voters. The economy (at 61%) and health care (at 16%) lead the pack of issues of greatest importance, but even abortion (at 4.7%) outranks U.S.-Israel relations. Only 15% rank U.S.-Israel relations among the top three issues, and only 7% rank Iran’s nuclear program among the top three issues.
The most revealing parts of the survey deal with what being Jewish means today to the Jewish community. Over 27% do not believe that caring about Israel is a very important part of being Jewish. Seventy-four percent of Jews attend synagogue only a few times a year, once a year, or not at all. Thirty-one percent indicate that being Jewish is not important in their lives. In essence, the picture that emerges is one of a largely secular liberal community, with an engaged minority of observant Jews that is growing due to a higher-than-average birth rate. Orthodox Jews represent only 8% of those in the survey but account for about 1 in five Jewish births in the United States. The answer to Norman Podhoretz’ question “Why are Jews liberals?” is that being liberal is the preeminent identifying characteristic of Jews, more important certainly than living a Jewish life or supporting Israel.
At the moment, President Obama holds a solid lead nationally and in almost all of the swing-state polls. Jews are concentrated in the United States in states that are not competitive in presidential elections — 70% or more in New York, California, New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Georgia, Arizona, and Texas. The first seven of these states vote Democrat, the last three tend to vote Republican. Florida is the one state where a shift from an 80-20 split to a 60-40 split among Jewish voters could tip the state in a close race (a margin shift of over 150,000 votes). A lower Jewish share of the vote could also hurt the president in Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, or Pennsylvania if the races in those states are decided by tens of thousands of votes rather than 100,000 or more as they all were in 2008.
The safest prediction one can make at this point is that Barack Obama will win as comfortably among Jewish voters in 2012 as he did in 2008 and that his drop-off in support from his 2008 margin will not be great. Over time, as secular Jews continue to intermarry at high rates and maintain a below-average birth rate and the Orthodox share of the total Jewish vote grows, things may slowly change in terms of Jewish political preferences.
But for now, the Jewish community remains distinct in its voting pattern, delivering 70% of its votes to Democrats, much like other minority groups, as opposed to the roughly 40% of the votes Democrats win among other white voters.