Obama '12

The JTA reports that President Obama's approval rating among American Jews has remained about 14 points higher than the general public's according to the latest Gallup numbers, despite some public disagreement and distrust between the Administration and Israel's government.

This may come as something of a surprise to many Jews who feel, based on anecdotal evidence or personal experience, that the Jewish community is becoming more conservative, or at least more trusting of conservatives when it comes to Israel. Dr. Steven Windmueller conducted a survey earlier this year of some 2,300 Jewish respondents, finding "a distinctive Jewish conservative voice emerging on Israel-related matters and an array of domestic social issues." He also noted "that among highly engaged Jews, those who are active within Jewish religious and communal life, there is a sharp divide on political attitudes and policies."

The emphasis is mine, and it brings up an important factor to keep in mind when bandying about anecdotal evidence among committed and connected Jews: the "feel" of where the community is among strongly affiliated Jews is not accurately going to reflect American Jewry as a whole, because a large portion of American Jewry is not in the rooms we're getting the "feel" for. (Of course, anecdotal evidence is always the weakest kind of evidence, if it can even be called evidence at all.)

Marc Tracy, reacting to the Gallup news, points to a different distinction as one of the more interesting angles to this story:

 About half of one group of Jewish voters has approved of Obama over the past three months, while more than one third of the same group disapproved of him; more than two-third of another group of Jewish voters has approved of Obama over the past three months, while only one quarter of this group disapproved of him. The two groups? The former, who are not as bullish on Obama, attend synagogue weekly or nearly weekly; the latter, who do still like the president by and large, attend synagogue rarely or never. The observance gap, to my mind, is the more fascinating dynamic.

Tracy is right to highlight the interplay of the religious and political spectra as deserving more attention, but I might caution him against assuming that observance per se is the critical factor. A reminder is in order regarding the findings of my esteemed boss Steven M. Cohen, along with Sam Abrams and Judith Veinstein, in their 2008 study of American Jewish political opinion. "[T]he truly significant gap," they found, "is the one that separates Orthodox Jews from all other Jews." Orthodoxy is closely correlated with observance, but as a not-insignificant number of ritually observant Conservative, Conservadox, Reconstructionist, trans-denominational, and even Reform Jews will tell you, the two are not synonymous.

Importantly, the Cohen/Abrams/Veinstein study broke down political preference not only by denomination, but by sub-groupings within denomination based on the proportion of respondents' friends who were Jewish. The result, at least to me, is partially counterintuitive:

Among Orthodox Jews, those whose close friends are all Jewish, almost universally support McCain over Obama (90% vs. 10%), far more than those with mostly, or even fewer, Jewish close friends (60% McCain vs. 40% Obama). However, the impact of having many Jewish friends is the reverse for the non-Orthodox. Among the vast majority of Jews who are not Orthodox, having more Jewish friends is associated with greater support for Obama (and less support for McCain). Support for Obama grows from 68% among those with mostly non-Jewish friends to 77% for those with mostly Jewish friends. In similar fashion, it grows from 68% among those with non-denominational identity (“just Jewish,” “secular,” etc.) to 77% among those who identify as Reform.

Tribal insularity, it seems, has opposite effects within Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy! For the Orthodox, the further isolated one is from non-Jewish attachment, the more conservatively one votes, while for the non-Orthodox, insularity tends to perpetuate the liberal politics which have dominated American Jewry since Franklin Roosevelt.

Another helpful reminder from this 2008 study is that Israel is not the one and only issue that concerns American Jewry. "Jews do care about the Israel-Palestine conflict more than other Americans," write Cohen, Abrams and Veinstein:

Yet, with that said, the Israel issue ranked 8th out of 15 issues in importance as a presidential election consideration for Jewish respondents. Aside from the economy (a prime issue of concern for the vast majority of respondents), ahead of Israel on Jewish voters’ minds were such matters as health care, gas prices and energy, taxes, and education. Ranking just below Israel in importance for Jewish respondents were appointments to the Supreme Court and the environment. In fact, when asked to name their top three issues, just 15% of Jewish respondents chose Israel as one of the three, and these were heavily Orthodox Jews.