A new analysis of polling data matching party and religious affiliation has reignited a decades-old debate over whether Jews are abandoning the Democrats, jeopardizing the party’s electoral prospects in races up and down the ballot.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report on Thursday showing that the 52-point advantage Democrats held with Jewish voters in 2008 has dropped 16 points. Fewer American Jews are identifying as Democrats or saying they lean Democratic at the same time that more are siding with the Republican Party.
Republicans say the shift reflects President Obama’s failure to advance issues important to the Jewish community and predict it could help them in November races for the White House, Senate and House.
Democrats say Jews are still one of their most loyal constituencies, and that any fireworks about GOP gains are overblown.
The Pew analysis found that among Americans overall, more self-identified independents say they now lean Republican.
But with Jews, it has gone even further.
“Jews are the only religious group where we actually see significant change and increase among the number of people identifying themselves as Republican, not just leaning toward the GOP,” said Greg Smith, a senior researcher for Pew.
To be sure, Jewish voters remain by and large supportive of Democratic candidates. Sixty-five percent of Jews in 2011 identified as or leaned Democratic, according to Pew. But the drop is enough to spark concerns that it could have a real effect in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“The poll speaks for itself. It is something the Democratic Party needs to look at,” said an aide to a Jewish Democratic member of Congress.
Republicans have been working for years to build the narrative that Democrats are no longer on the same side of issues vital to the Jewish community, such as Israel, Iran and the economy. That argument was bolstered in September when the Orthodox Jewish vote was largely credited with swinging a special House race in New York to the Republican.
“The Pew report is another in a series of data points that underscore the real problem that Obama has with Jewish voters,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
The GOP presidential candidates, meanwhile, have been falling over themselves to take declarative, strong stances in support of Israel and in opposition to Iran’s nuclear program — although some of that is clearly geared toward other constituencies that revere Israel, such as evangelical Christians.
Newt Gingrich has doubled down on remarks about the Palestinians being an “invented people” while pledging to give the order on his first day as president to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a symbolic but forceful affirmation of Israel’s right to all of the territory currently under its control.
Gingrich has said his support for Israel is a central reason he has the backing of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a die-hard Israel supporter who, along with his wife, has pumped at least $10 million into efforts to support Gingrich’s presidential bid.
And escalating speculation that Israel will launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear program sometime in 2011 could mean Obama has to confront the issue head-on before his November reelection battle.
But Democrats argue that Republicans have repeatedly celebrated polls showing gains among Jewish voters, only to find that when they go to the ballot box, Jews remain loyal to Democrats.
“We have 30 years of binders of these stories, and 30 years of quotations from Republicans and other saying this will be the year it happens, and it just hasn’t materialized since the New Deal,” said National Jewish Democratic Council President David A. Harris.
The dispute over whether Obama and Democrats are losing the Jews is made more difficult to resolve by the fact that Jews represent just 2 percent of the U.S. population. Virtually no group has the resources or sufficient interest to commission polling that could survey a large enough sample to be statistically infallible.
Pew’s study from 2011 included 330 Jewish voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 6.5 percentage points — higher than what statisticians generally seek.
“These numbers should be taken with a grain of salt,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and columnist for The Hill who has studied the Jewish vote. “The bottom line is Jews were and remain one of the most Democratic blocks in the electorate.”