The notion that Jews are on the verge of deserting the Democratic Party is one of the perennial canards of American political commentary. It comes up every few years, spurred by the wishful thinking and manipulative polling of Republican operatives and the depressing credulity of campaign reporters. And now, for the umpteenth time, it’s returned. “Obama’s policies in the Middle East are alienating Jewish voters,” Dick Morris, the right-wing operative behind a widely touted new survey of American Jews, told Fox News earlier this month. The Washington Times made the same point in a story citing a poll by the conservative group Secure America Now. Obama’s “ambivalence toward Israel leaves an opening for the GOP,” read the subhead.
A close look at these polls reveals how flawed they are, but pointing that out is unlikely to stop pundits from recycling the underlying narrative of an imminent Jewish realignment. It’s a story that won’t die, no matter how often it’s proven wrong. This latest iteration is part of a long history of nonsense, built on a constant, almost willful overestimation of the commonality of interest between American Jews and evangelical Christians. Both of these groups care a lot about Israel. Both see anti-Semitism as a profound evil and a worldwide threat. But American evangelicals and Jews have very different ideas about Israel’s future. Besides, lots of evidence suggests that when it comes to identity politics, American Jews are most concerned with the place of Jews in America. They don’t trust people who want to turn their country into a Christian nation, even if those people swear to protect the Jewish state.
The last time a Republican presidential candidate won a plurality of the Jewish vote was in 1920, when Warren Harding won a landslide victory over James Cox. Even then, Harding didn’t get a majority—38 percent of Jews supported Socialist Eugene Debs; 43 percent went for Harding. But in the election of 1980, Jewish support for the Democrats reached a contemporary nadir: According to the book Jews in American Politics, Jimmy Carter, an evangelical who who was widely seen as unfriendly to Israel, got only 45 percent of the Jewish vote. Reagan received 39, and John Anderson 15 percent.
Not surprisingly, many people saw this as the beginning of a long-term shift in Jewish voting patterns, one they expected to continue in 1984. In that re-election year, Mort Kondrake wrote in the New Republic that “Jews are pulling loose from their traditional Democratic moorings.” The Reagan Administration, he reported, was trying to convince the American Jewish community that Walter Mondale would be weak on Israel, caving in “to Jesse Jackson and confirmed Arabisants from the Carter State Department.” (At the time, Jackson’s derisive reference to New York as “Hymietown” was very much in the news.) For the first time in 60 years, wrote Kondrake, “it’s not clear which party will receive a majority of the Jewish vote.”
That November, despite one of the worst showings in modern presidential campaign history, Mondale carried 67 percent of the Jewish electorate. Reagan got less of the Jewish vote in 1984 than Nixon did in 1972, despite the latter’s long reputation for anti-Semitism.
What happened? An important part of the answer lay in the growing association between the Republican Party and Christian fundamentalism. Reagan’s empowerment of the religious right was a significant issue in 1984. Endorsing Mondale, the New York Times concluded: “Mr. Reagan’s opponent talks about church and state with a care that verges on eloquence. [T]hat, alone, would be reason on Tuesday to vote for Walter Mondale.” Concerns about religion in politics did not sway the electorate at large, but Jews took them seriously. As a Commentary article said, “It seems that Reagan’s increasingly vocal embrace of the New—specifically, the Christian—Right scared Jews more than anything said by either Jackson or [Louis] Farrakhan.” Indeed, exit polls showed that Jews had a significantly more unfavorable opinion of Jerry Falwell—a man who’d been awarded the Jabotinsky Prize by Menachem Begin—than of Jesse Jackson.
Fast forward to the first George W. Bush campaign. Once again, Republicans had a candidate whose fierce Zionism derived from his evangelical convictions. And once again, Republican strategists thought they had a shot with American Jews. “Two issues stand in the way of Republicans gaining a significant percentage of the Jewish vote: abortion and the ‘religious right,’ ” GOP pollster Frank Luntz said at a Republican Jewish Coalition forum. “But here we have an answer. The magic word is ‘Israel.’ ” A Jewish Telegraphic Agency story asked, “Can George W. Bush Win the Jewish Vote?”
The answer, of course, was no—Al Gore won 79 percent of the Jewish electorate. Yet four years later, predictions of a Jewish swing to the right started up again. After all, Gore was a special case—he’d chosen a Jewish running mate. Besides, Sept. 11 had made the Middle East paramount in American politics. The Republican Jewish Coalition conducted a survey that, it said, showed a growing Jewish tilt to the GOP. “We are seeing a major shift in American political-party alliances,” the RJC’s Matt Brooks told the right-wing website WorldNetDaily. “We expect these realignment trends to continue.” There was no trend. Kerry won 76 percent of Jewish votes.
Nevertheless, in 2008, journalists and pundits once again speculated about a potential rightward lurch among Jews. After all, the Democratic candidate was named Barack Hussein Obama. He counted among his friends the Palestinian intellectual Rashid Khalidi. “Some Jews are incapable of deluding themselves that Obama would be the most resolute candidate in defending Israel,” the conservative Jennifer Rubin wrote in a Jerusalem Post piece titled “Why more Jews won’t be voting Democrat this year.” There were even Jews, she promised, with “a lifetime of Democratic voting” who would realize that “some things rank higher than even the top items on the liberal political agenda.” Perhaps there were, but not very many. Obama ended up getting 78 percent of the Jewish vote.
Now we’re once again hearing about a Jewish realignment. “Has Obama lost the support of some Jews—and their funding?” asked a Jerusalem Post story in June. Morris purported to show widespread Jewish disaffection with Obama, claiming that if the election were held today, the president would get just 56 percent of the Jewish vote. Then came the Secure America Now poll that seemed to show that only 43 percent of Jews planned to vote to re-elect Obama. Once again, the conservative media exulted.
Both polls, though, were sketchy. The website of the American Association of Public Opinion Research offers a guide to deciding whether a poll can be trusted; one of the most important things to consider, it says, is whether a pollster discloses his or her methodology. Morris does not. Meanwhile, what we know of Secure America Now’s methodology reveals the poll to be, as Adam Serwer wrote in the Washington Post, “laughably bogus.” It began with a conservative sample—only 64 percent of its respondents voted for Obama in 2008—and then posed a series of questions designed to turn them against the president. “Considering what President Obama has proposed for Israel just over a year before his 2012 re-election campaign—a return to the 1967 borders, dividing Jerusalem, and allowing the right of return for Palestinian Arabs to Israel—how concerned would you be about President Obama’s policies towards Israel if he were re-elected and did not have to worry about another election?” asked one. Finally, it asked whether the respondent would “consider” voting for someone else. Forty-three percent pronounced themselves unwilling to even entertain the idea. From that, the pollsters concluded that Obama’s support had dwindled to just that number.
That fact is, many American Jews might consider voting for “someone else,” but only a fraction would consider voting for the type of person that the GOP is likely to nominate. American Jews have shown, again and again, that they care more about social justice and a defense of American pluralism than a zealous defense of Israeli maximalism. They might get anxious about liberal criticism of Israel, but this anxiety tends to pale beside their abhorrence of the Christian right.
There actually was a moment in the summer of 2008 when Obama’s Jewish support looked relatively weak. “We did polling in the summer of 2008,” says Ira Forman, the former CEO of the National Jewish Coalition. “Obama was getting anywhere from 59 to 61 percent of the Jewish vote and McCain was at about 30. According to Gallup the numbers started shifting in August and they really jumped in September and October.” There is a simple, two-word explanation for this: Sarah Palin.
Jewish aversion to Palin has been clear to observers across the political spectrum. Rubin, author of the Jerusalem Post piece predicting a Jewish defection from the Democrats, acknowledged it in a Commentary article titled “Why Jews Hate Palin.” The piece would have read as vaguely anti-Semitic if a gentile had written it—among other things, she suggested that Jewish women were turned off by Palin’s decision to give birth to a baby with Down Syndrome because they “couldn’t imagine making a similar choice.” But Rubin had a point when she wrote, “If one were to invent a political leader designed to drive liberal, largely secular, urban, highly educated Jews to distraction, one would be hard pressed to come up with a more effective figure than Palin.”
At least, she had a point at the time, because since then, just such a leader has emerged—Michele Bachmann. Bachmann is even more rooted in the evangelical right than Palin is. Indeed, while at Oral Roberts University, she was the research assistant on a book by John Eidsmoe titled Christianity and the Constitution, which argued that the United States was founded as a Christian theocracy and that it should become one again. “The church and the state have separate spheres of authority, but both derive authority from God,” Eidsmoe wrote. “In that sense America, like [Old Testament] Israel, is a theocracy.”
Bachmann, like many evangelicals, believes in the scriptural imperative to restore the entire biblical land of Israel to Jewish control. She first went to Israel after high school, on a trip sponsored by the evangelical group Young Life, and she talks about Israel in the language of premillenial dispensationalism, the influential theology that holds that the second coming of Christ depends on the return of the Jews to their homeland. “If we reject Israel, then there is a curse that comes into play,” she told the Republican Jewish Coalition last year. “And my husband and I are both Christians, and we believe very strongly the verse from Genesis, we believe very strongly that nations also receive blessings as they bless Israel.”
This sort of thing has endeared her to some Jewish conservatives, but if history is any guide, it will not sway the community at large. (Her mispronunciation of “chutzpah” won’t help.) American Jews are savvy enough to realize that evangelical support for Israel does not necessarily imply concern with Jewish safety. After all, the dispensationalist scenario culminates in a third world war in the Middle East and the consignment of unconverted Jews to hell before the messiah returns. For those who truly see Israeli politics in terms of evangelical prophesy, an apocalyptic battle on Israeli soil is not something to be avoided at all costs. Instead, it’s the portal to paradise.
Yet this chiliastic theology is only a small part of the reason that Jews will likely remain wary of the Christian right. In the end, American Jews care most about America. They are unwilling to assume a role in their own country that’s in any way analogous to that of Arab citizens of Israel—a people with legal equality who are nonetheless excluded from their nation’s raison d’être. Jews know they can never be full citizens of a Christian nation.
And Republican politics have never been so fully Christianized. The Tea Party was initially mischaracterized as a libertarian movement, but it is deeply imbued with religious fundamentalism, and polls show that a majority of its members believe that the United States is a Christian nation. It’s no accident that, upon taking over statehouses nationwide, Republicans elected with Tea Party support enacted a record number of abortion restrictions—80 in the first six months of 2011, compared to 23 for all of 2010.
Of the serious Republican presidential candidates, the only one who is not entirely aligned with the Christian right is Mitt Romney. Indeed, his campaign has gone out of its way to point out how, as a fellow member of a religious minority, he understands Jewish concerns. Yet he is running for the nomination of a party dominated by religious literalists; the majority of Republicans, for example, don’t believe in evolution, and more than half of them believe that humans were created in their present form less than 10,000 years ago. In his desire to appeal to the GOP base, he has already forsworn his earlier pro-choice position and now opposes not just legal abortion but also stem-cell research. Should he win the nomination, he will almost certainly do what McCain did and choose a running mate meant to energize the Republican base. Some consultants are already speculating about a Romney-Bachmann ticket.
Whoever is ultimately the nominee, we can be sure that he or she will reiterate Romney’s accusation that Obama has “thrown Israel under a bus.” We can be sure that he or she will support the religious right’s agenda in domestic politics. And we can be relatively certain of what will matter most to Jewish voters.
CORRECTION, July 26: It was Adam Serwer, writing on Greg Sargent’s Washington Post blog, and not Sargent himself, who called the Secure America Now’s poll methodology “laughably bogus.” The error has been corrected.