The exit polls from the 2008 presidential race suggested that Barack Obama overwhelmingly defeated John McCain with Jewish voters, winning by 78% to 21%. As I wrote at the time, while it was certain that Obama handily defeated McCain with Jewish voters, his actual margin of victory was not at all clear.
Exit polls have consistently under-sampled Jewish voters as a share of all voters and are likely to interview a somewhat skewed sample of the Jewish population (more liberal voters and fewer Orthodox Jews, who tend to be more conservative voters). In fact, the exit polls have consistently overstated the Democratic share of the vote overall and in individual states for years, as President-elect John Kerry (for 8 hours) learned on Election Day in 2004.
The exit polls do not claim to survey a random sample of Jewish voters or other subgroups within their total population. Nonetheless, the results from exit polls of one presidential race can be compared to those from other presidential contests to get a sense of any movement within the Jewish community over time. Jewish support for Republican candidates was in the 30% range until George Herbert Walker Bush ran for re-election in 1992 against Bill Clinton and saw his Jewish support level crash to barely 10%. That level crept up for a few elections to hit 25% in the 2004 exit poll until sliding a few points in 2008.
With the 2012 election a few weeks away, various surveys are purporting to show that Barack Obama is maintaining a very large lead among Jewish voters this time around, though his support level may have slipped a few points from 2008. Many articles were written after an IBD/Christian Science Monitor/TIPP survey in September suggested that Obama was defeating Romney with Jewish voters by only 59% to 35%, which, if carried forward until November, would be the weakest performance by a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter won only 45% of the Jewish vote in a three-candidate race in 1980 (Reagan 39%, Anderson 15%).
The number of articles written about this poll result probably matched the number of Jews in in the IBD/CSM/TIPP survey. Only 808 registered voters were polled nationally, and given the Jewish split of the vote that is listed, it is fairly apparent that the sample likely contained 32 Jews (almost 4% of all those surveyed, an over-representation). They split 19 for Obama, 11 for Romney, and 2 undecided. No one should spend two seconds obsessing over, or drawing conclusions from, this sample.
Now, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) is out with its own survey, a random sample of 1,000 Jews, and it indicates that Obama has a big lead (almost 41 points ) over Romney among Jewish voters, 65% to 24%. For liberal Jews, the AJC survey is a sign that all is well in the Jewish world. It assures them that, despite attacks by groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition directed against President Obama for his problems in dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Israel or his dithering on Iran’s nuclear program, Jews are, for the most part, staying on the Democratic reservation again.
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.