Jewish voters remain overwhelmingly Democrats, study shows

Despite speculation every four years that American Jews are on the verge of dropping their allegiance to the Democratic Party, the Jewish population has grown more Democratic and liberal than it was throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, according to a new, long-term study of voting behavior.

For an extremely small population – less than 2% of the American total – Jews have long attracted a disproportionate amount of attention from political commentators.  Conservative intellectuals predicted for years that Jewish voters would become more Republican over time as the community became wealthier and more assimilated.  More recently, the basis for the predictions shifted to the contention that strains over policy toward Israel would push Jews toward the GOP.

At the presidential level, however, the opposite appears to have happened, according to the new study, by Democratic pollsters Mark Mellman and Aaron Strauss and University of Florida political scientist Kenneth D. Wald. The study was conducted for the Solomon Project, a nonpartisan public policy group. 

During the 16 years from Richard Nixon’s reelection in 1972 through the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1988, Republican presidential candidates garnered between 31% and 37% of Jewish votes, the authors found by analyzing years of election-day exit polls. But starting with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, Jewish support for the GOP dropped sharply and has stayed low, ranging from 15% to 23% of the total.

Barack Obama took 74% of Jewish votes in 2008 compared to 23% for Arizona Sen. John McCain. Obama’s total was 3 percentage points less than Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s in 2004, but more than any Democratic presidential candidate from 1972-1988.

Gallup recently reported that Obama was receiving 64% of Jewish votes in its tracking poll. Since Obama has lost roughly 5 points overall compared with his election totals, that would suggest his support has declined slightly more among Jews than among the electorate as a whole. But Gallup’s Jewish sample was small, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5  percentage points, so the apparent shift could be statistical fluctuation.

Republicans insist Obama’s Jewish support will decline significantly this election. “Every public poll shows a significant erosion of support for Obama among Jewish voters and highlights his Jewish problem,” Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition said in an email.

Exit polls don’t offer any hint why Jews shifted  toward more-Democratic voting in the early ‘90s. But the timing strongly suggests a reason, the study notes: the GOP’s greater reliance on a Southern, evangelical Protestant base that many Jews find discomforting. Further evidence for that theory comes from the fact that the Democrats’ only Southern, evangelical nominee in the last 40 years,  Jimmy Carter, is also the one who did worst among Jewish voters in both of his campaigns.

The study points to one bright spot for Republicans hoping to boost their Jewish vote totals: As with Christians, Jews who attend religious services every week are considerably more likely than others to vote Republican. Demographers project that high birth rates among Orthodox Jews will increase their share of the Jewish population. Over time, that could lead to greater Republican and conservative numbers.

If that change comes to pass, however, it will take awhile. For now, Jews have become slightly more likely to identify themselves as liberal. The exit poll data showed about 40% of Jews calling themselves liberal in the early 1970s, a number that has slowly climbed in recent elections. In the last three presidential elections, the percentage of Jews calling themselves liberal was  46%, 46% and 45%. Only 13% of Jews identified themselves as conservative in 2008. Among voters as a whole, 22% called themselves liberal in 2008 and 34% identified themselves as conservative.