Forecasts of the Great Jewish Shift began as soon as the presidential campaign did: This year, we are told, Jews will finally vote Republican, or at least significantly more of them will than have done so in many a decade, perhaps forever. The predictions are a quadrennial ritual. They are made most often by Jewish Republicans, speaking in the bright voice of a compulsive gambler who knows that on this spin, the little ball will absolutely land on the right number. They are made by social scientists certain that reality will finally behave according to their models. They are made by Jewish Democrats as unable to control their anxiety as someone is to stop a tic. This year's minor variation is the explanation that Jews will switch because they are upset with Barack Obama's attitude toward Israel.
As an Israeli political writer, I admit, I am particularly conscious of this ritual, because the Great Jewish Shift (GJS) is the second thing that people want to discuss with me as soon as I get off the plane in America, after they ask me if Benjamin Netanyahu will bomb Iran and before I have put down my suitcase. I do not know if Netanyahu will bomb Iran; he does not tell me such things. However, I submit that there is considerable public evidence that the GJS will not happen this year. A newly released survey of American Jews provides the latest data. History and the Republicans' demonstrative cluelessness about Jewish voters provide more.
The survey, conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in Washington, found that 62 percent of Jewish voters want to re-elect Obama, compared to 30 percent who'd vote for a generic Republican. Let's reframe that: 92 percent of Jews say they've made up their mind. Of them, just over two-thirds would vote for the incumbent, and one-third for the GOP challenger.
Yes, this would be a drop-off from the 78 percent of Jews who voted Obama last time around, according to exit polls. It would not be a vast historic shift. Republican contenders won between 31 percent and 39 percent of the Jewish vote in four out of the five elections between 1972 and 1988. But the poll results do not actually suggest even that much of a change since the 2008 election. "Current levels of support for Obama among Jewish voters are nearly identical" to those "at a comparable point in the 2008 campaign," says the PRRI polling report. Between the spring of 2008 and November that year, Obama's Jewish support rose. Was that a result of onetime, nearly accidental circumstances, such as John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin? Probably not. Suspected of moderation, McCain needed a running mate to satisfy the Republican base—and even a more qualified ultra-conservative would have been a deal-killer for wavering Jewish voters. Massachusetts Mitt Romney will face similar pressure to reassure his right flank. Besides, I suspect that Palin was a pretext, rather than a cause, for many Jews to return to the fold.
It's one thing to register under-satisfaction with the Democratic candidate by telling a pollster in the spring you'll vote Republican. It's another to defy upbringing and instinct to mark the ballot that way in November, especially while imagining your brother or aunt asking you over Thanksgiving dinner how you voted.
If Obama does lose some Jewish support, Israel won't be the reason. Only 4 percent of PRRI's respondents listed Israel as the most important issue for them in the election, and only another 5 percent listed it in second place. Some of those were already in the Republican camp, perhaps most. Anyone who is terribly impressed that Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu are old friends from their days as apprentice robber barons was not a likely an Obama voter to begin with.
The historic context for reading the poll goes back further than 2008. Those elections in the 1970s and 1980s actually represent an unusually high level of Jewish support for the GOP, which has dropped off significantly since. Even in 2004, when the Republican predictions of the GJS were particularly manic, George W. Bush managed to get just a quarter of the Jewish vote.
If the GOP is even less popular among Jews than it was a generation ago, the reason is apparent: The party has become ever more rigid and homogenous in its economic and social conservatism, and its tests of ideological purity send none-too-coded messages to Jewish voters.
The party's anti-abortion stance is not only an attack on reproductive freedom; it is an obvious demand to base law and policy on the beliefs of conservative Protestants and Catholics about when life begins. It broadcasts disdain for a religion-neutral polity. The party's nativist orthodoxy toward immigration projects fear of difference, of anyone outside a narrowly defined "us." Opposition to same-sex marriage encodes both messages at once. These are not messages designed to attract Jewish voters. Jewish comfort and safety in America—unique in Jewish history—rest upon cultural openness and religious neutrality.
As for economic issues, look again at the PRRI poll: 81 percent of respondents supported the Buffett Rule for increasing taxes on millionaires. Nearly three-fourths agreed with the statement that the American economic system "unfairly favors the wealthy." A majority of those with household incomes over $125,000 a year said they'd be willing to pay more taxes to support programs for the poor. This is not a target audience for the Ayn Randian policies of the 2012 GOP.
Yes, the standard disclaimer is in order: Anything could happen before November: renewed recession, an Iranian nuclear test, $10 a gallon gasoline, an unexpected White House scandal. What affects the non-Jewish swing voter can also sway the uncertain Jewish voter. But the primary campaign has served to sharpen the Republican political identity: against economic equality, for faith-based policy, against difference. No matter how much Mitt Romney would like to shake his Etch A Sketch, neither the Obama campaign nor the GOP base will allow him to drop the Republican brand. And the Republican brand is not engineered to produce the Great Jewish Shift.
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