With the presidential election campaign in full swing, that quadrennial question arises once more — how will the Jews vote? The majority of American Jews have been voting Democratic for some 80 years, often overwhelmingly so. Before each national election the Republicans try to break the pattern, and pundits wonder whether this time it will be different. Up to now it hasn’t.
AJC, the nonpartisan Jewish advocacy organization that has tracked Jewish voting behavior for more than three decades, used a new approach this year. Besides its usual survey of a national sample of American Jews, it also polled representative samples of Jews in two crucial swing states, Florida and Ohio, where the Jewish vote could make a difference in a close election. The surveys, conducted in September, asked not only about voting preferences, but also measured President Obama’s approval ratings in the Jewish community and gauged Jewish attitudes on the key issues of the day. A separate AJC survey was conducted earlier, during the summer, of Russian Jewish voters in metropolitan New York, containing some differently worded questions. All surveys are available at www.ajc.org.
The AJC data suggest that nationally, Jews continue to favor the Democrats by a wide margin, 65 percent reporting that they will vote for President Obama, 24 percent for Governor Romney, and the rest undecided. The support for Obama is consistent among all age groups, and Jewish women tend to be more pro-Obama than men. Ohio Jews split roughly along the same lines as the national sample, 64-29 percent for the president. In the other swing state, Florida, Obama did even better, attracting 69 percent of the Jewish vote as against 25 percent for Romney.
In the national and both state surveys, more Jews approve than disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy, health care, national security, U.S.-Israel relations and other issues, and believe that the Democrats are more likely to make the right decisions about those issues than the Republicans. The great majority of respondents say that the economy and healthcare are the most important issues in deciding whom to support for president. Still, more than 90 percent in all three surveys are concerned over the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. And, reflecting deep pessimism over the situation in the Middle East, the percentage of Jews who think that prospects for Arab-Israeli peace have risen in the past year languished in the single digits in all the surveys.
However, there are two Jewish subgroups that appear to diverge from the majority-Democratic consensus—Orthodox Jews and Russian Jews. While the Ohio and Florida samples do not contain enough Orthodox respondents to draw any conclusions, the national survey shows Romney beating Obama by 54 percent to 40 percent among the Orthodox. The edge for the Republican is also reflected in the president’s high unfavorable ratings in the Orthodox community on each of the issues.
Although it was held earlier in the year and hence includes many more “undecided” responses — 41 percent — than the other surveys, AJC’s survey of Russian Jewish New Yorkers similarly favored Romney over Obama, 47 percent to 12 percent. This was consistent with the last two presidential elections, when a majority of Russian Jews also favored the Republican candidates.
Barring any October surprise, Jewish voters will in all likelihood give the bulk of their support to the Democrats, as in presidential elections past. Yet there are signs that this political tradition might erode over time. The Orthodox tendency to maintain high levels of Jewish affiliation and to have more children than other American Jews — characteristics clearly evident in the recent demographic survey of the Jews of New York City — portend a far greater voice for Orthodoxy in the Jewish community, and together with the steady integration of Russian Jews into American Jewish life, may eventually change the political profile of American Jewry.