AnalysisUS elections

Flying blind on the Jewish vote

Candidates have spent more heavily than ever on outreach to Jews, but it probably hasn’t made much of a difference

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Voters stand in line to pick up their absentee ballots in Doral, Fla., Sunday, Nov. 4, (photo credit: AP/Alan Diaz)
Voters stand in line to pick up their absentee ballots in Doral, Fla., Sunday, Nov. 4, (photo credit: AP/Alan Diaz)

For many months now, the US presidential campaigns and their supporters have spent vast resources and energies on the Jewish vote. Billboards and op-eds and phone banks and websites and celebrity endorsements and an unending stream of viral videos have all sought to shift the views of Jewish voters in swing states.

With millions of dollars spent on the efforts by both sides, the acrimony, too, ratcheted up.

“I’m 63 years old. I can remember elections back to the 1962 elections,” says Prof. Ira Sheskin, who researches American Jewish demographics and political affiliation at the University of Miami. “I have never seen a party accusing another party of being anti-Israel.”

Never, that is, until this year.

In this election campaign, Republicans have posted videos online accusing Democratic President Barack Obama of endangering Israel’s security through his missteps in Mideast diplomacy and engagement with the Iranian regime during the first years of his term. “Friends don’t let friends get nuked — Stop Obama!” reads one south Florida billboard in a heavily Jewish neighborhood, referring to a putative Iranian nuclear weapon aimed at Israel.

Democrats countered that Obama has offered Israel unprecedented diplomatic cover at the United Nations and dramatically upgraded American military cooperation and sales to Israel.

And Democrats gave as well as they got, blasting Republican candidate Mitt Romney for what they said was his failure as governor to divest Massachusetts state pension investments from companies that do business with Iran, even as he advocated other states and companies do the same. Indeed, Romney was personally invested in companies doing business in the Islamic Republic, they charged. Democrats were still pressing the issue just days before Election Day, putting up a minisite last week titled “Mitt Romney: Connect the Dots” that railed against Romney’s “duplicity” on the issue.

Republicans have countered that Romney’s personal investments are in a blind trust, and that no US state had undertaken divestment from Iran when Romney was still governor, with the first state pension divestment from Iran taking place in Florida in 2007, many months after Romney was out of office.

The debate saw both sides arguing that the other side would place Israel in danger.

Were the sides justified in so blatantly dragging Israel’s security into the race? Disregarding the question of whether it was healthy for Israel itself to be used in such partisan fashion — the vast majority of Jews I’ve asked have said no, even if they were actively participating in the activities described above — one can ask a more practical question: Is it working?

Jews matter because they vote

The raw math seems to justify an inordinate investment in the Jewish vote. Jews are heavily concentrated in swing states such as Florida (some 640,000), Ohio (150,000) and Pennsylvania (290,000), with reliable studies such as the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey showing 90 percent of Jewish eligible voters are registered to vote, compared to a national average of just 64%. Fully 96% of Jewish registered voters are believed to have voted in 2008.

A comparison to the Hispanic vote demonstrates how high those numbers are. While more than 20 million Hispanics are eligible to vote, just half that are actually registered. In June, The New York Times estimated that some 9 million Hispanics actually voted in 2008. In comparison, some 5 million Jews are thought to have voted in the same year. Hispanics make up some 16% of the US population, Jews just 2%. Yet Jews account for as many as 55% the number of Hispanics when it comes to casting actual votes.

Jews vote, but do they swing?

For all the sound and fury, experts who study Jewish voting patterns believe the Jewish vote, or what little we can discern about it, isn’t up for grabs. And even if it was, they say, it’s extremely unlikely to mean much on Tuesday.

The American Jewish Committee was one of the few groups to venture into the question of Jewish political opinion this election season, publishing a poll of Florida Jews and another of Jews nationally. But the results were limited by relatively small sample sizes.

“No one really knows exactly how many Jews [there are] in the United States: too few to be reliably polled, too confusingly defined to be reliably counted,” notes analyst and journalist Shmuel Rosner in his new book, The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney: A Voter’s Guide.

Of the limited information we have, the evidence of recent elections suggests Jewish votes aren’t changing and wouldn’t make a difference if they did change, he writes.

In 2008, after a summer campaign in Florida that saw Jewish favored son Senator Joe Lieberman campaigning hard for Republican John McCain, fall surveys nevertheless “put Jews right where they usually belong. A Gallup poll revealed that nationally, the ‘proportion of US Jews backing Obama is identical to the level of support the Democratic ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards received in the 2004 presidential election – 74% – and was only slightly lower than what Al Gore and Joe Lieberman received in 2000 – 80%.’ More specifically, a Quinnipiac University poll of the Florida vote gave Obama a 77% to 20% lead over McCain in the Sunshine State.”

In 2012, Rosner notes, predictions abound that the Jewish vote will swing Florida. But “all in all, it is worth remembering that thus far no presidential election in US history has been determined by Jewish voters flocking to one side or the other. Counting Jews, counting them in the crucial states, counting those that can be swayed to the other side, counting those that can make an electoral difference — counting all those hardly explains all the coverage and noise associated with the Jewish vote. But if counting isn’t the way to measure the importance of the Jewish vote, which way is the right way?”

That “coverage and noise” has more to do with Jewish intellectual influence than with votes, suggested American Jewry scholar Dr. Steven Bayme in a conversation with The Times of Israel last month.

“Jews are writing for publications. Jews are giving speeches. Open up virtually any [political] magazine — Commentary, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard — to say nothing of the major newspapers. In any major newsmagazine — you’re going to find a large number of Jewish intellectual contributors. If you can affect those people, if you can get at Jewish thinking, you in turn will do very well for yourself” in national politics, he said.

Funny, you don’t vote ‘Jewish’

Jews are disproportionately more likely to vote — and to write and talk about their vote — than other Americans. But this laudable civic engagement does not translate into a “Jewish” vote, at least in the narrow sense of voting based on the sort of Israel-related advertising that has made up much of the Jewish outreach in this campaign.

Study after study have shown that while Jews identify with Israel and are concerned about its security, if they do not perceive a meaningful threat to the Jewish state, they move on and vote on other issues. And on those other issues, whether they are economic policies, cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage, or health care, Jews heavily favor the Democrats.

Republicans hoped to drive a wedge between pro-Israel Jews and the Democratic Party this year. After a rocky couple of years in which Obama clashed with the Israeli government over mishandled settlement freezes and the best way to tackle the Iranian nuclear program, Republicans believed Obama was vulnerable.

But while American Jews did express skepticism about Obama’s relationship with Israel in 2010 and 2011, a change in Obama’s policies in the wake of his early failures, coupled with the administration’s enormous investments in Israel-US security cooperation, seems to have turned Jewish opinion around on the issue.

In September 2011, 53% of Jews still disapproved of Obama’s handling of the Israel-US relationship, while 40% approved. By April 2012 that figure had flipped, according to an American Jewish Committee study released that month, with approval rising 18 points to 58%, and disapproval dropping 13 to 40%. If that trend continued, a large majority of Jews today believe that Israel is not endangered by a second Obama term, freeing them to vote their conscience on other issues — where they largely agree with the Democratic Party.

So how will Jews vote? Wait two months

Pundits who will spend Tuesday night anxiously awaiting exit polls about the Jewish vote may be disappointed by the results, according to Sheskin.

“We need to wait until about eight weeks later, when people are polled randomly and asked who they voted for,” he says.

Exit polls are heavily tilted toward specific local conditions. “When they do exit poll, it’s not a random sample. You have to have a ‘probability sample’ to go from a sample [of Jewish voters] to saying how all Jews voted.”

In other words, “Every Jew who voted has to have an equal probability to be in the sample.”

But national polling of the Jewish vote after Election Day is difficult. Jews are simply too small as a percentage of the American population to offer statistically valid sample sizes in national polls.

“When Gallup does a survey, they do 1,200 interviews nationwide in a week. They only get 20 to 25 Jewish respondents. The margin of error on 25 respondents is +/- 20%. So if 70% say they voted for Obama, it can actually be anywhere between 50% and 90%.”

After roughly eight weeks of polling, Gallup “will interview maybe 200 Jews, with a margin of error of about 7%.”

Only then, approximately eight weeks after Election Day, will we have reliable numbers on the Jewish vote.

In an election year that began 18 months ago and has seen unprecedented levels of cash spent on the Jewish community, will we find a meaningful shift in Jewish political opinion?

According to the best available data and most experts on the subject: probably not.

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