One conspiracy theory making the rounds is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s various Iran-related confrontations with President Barack Obama are part of a Sheldon Adelson plot to turn American Jews into Republican Party voters in 2016.
Even if one rejects this theory out of hand, the question still stands: Will Obama’s championing of the Iran deal trigger a significant realignment, with Jews jumping to the GOP in 2016?
The answer is maybe — but probably not, judging from the latest annual Jewish survey from the American Jewish Committee. (Before jumping in, keep in mind that the survey’s margin of error is 4.7 percent — more than some of the shifts discussed.)
Let’s start with Obama and the Iran deal. The survey would seem to give Jewish GOPers reason for optimism.
Yes, the majority of American Jews back the deal, but only by a sliver — 50.6 percent approve and 47.2 percent disapprove. And the level of disapproval is much more intense: 16.4 percent approve strongly and 34.2 percent approve somewhat, versus 27.4 percent disapprove strongly and 19.8 percent disapprove somewhat.
About 63 percent of American Jews are not confident that the deal will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and 42.8 percent believe Israel will be more threatened because of the deal. The numbers get really small when it comes to seeing a best-case scenario: Only 4.9 percent are very confident that the deal will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and 17.9 percent believe Israel will be less threatened.
About 53 percent approve of the way Obama is handling United States-Israel relations, with only 8.9 percent saying they approve strongly — low numbers in light of the 70 percent or so of the Jewish vote that he won in 2012.
You’d think all that would open the door to big Republican gains in 2016. Sure enough, AJC’s 2015 survey found 37.4 percent of American Jews backing a Republican presidential candidate. So if that number holds, GOP Jewish donors and activists will have plenty to smile about — that would amount to the best Republican showing since Ronald Reagan took 39 percent of the Jewish vote against Jimmy Carter in 1980.
On the other hand, that’s not much of a GOP boost considering Obama and Netanyahu are in the middle of a full-frontal, existential slugfest. Obama won’t be on the ticket. Odds are it will be Hillary Rodham Clinton, with her deep bench of longtime Jewish backers, validators, donors, etc. She talks tougher on Israel than Obama. If you believe Michael Oren, her chemistry with Netanyahu is better. Ditto on all counts for Vice President Joe Biden.
Clinton was by far the most popular presidential candidate among Jews — 39.7 percent identify her as their first choice. Next up was Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with 17.8 percent. The socialist in the race almost doubled the top Republican, Donald Trump, who registered 10.2 percent. (Side note: The Donald is in a tighter race when it comes to Jewish Republicans than Republicans overall — Jeb Bush is a close second in the Republican field with 8.7 percent.)
Dig a little deeper and you find that the underlying data hasn’t shifted much. In the 2013 survey, 47 percent of American Jews identified as liberal, 35 percent as moderate/middle of the road and 20 percent as conservative. This time around it was 45.1 percent liberal, 33.8 moderate/middle of the road and 20.9 percent conservative. There is a little more movement on the Democrat-independent-Republican question, with those identifying with the GOP jumping from 15 percent to 19 percent. Those identifying as Democrats dropped from 52 percent to 48.6 percent and independents stayed the same at about 32 percent.
(The more pertinent question behind all of these numbers — for a future column — is how much any Republican Jewish gains are attributable mainly to the growing numbers of Orthodox Jews and their gradual two-decade shift to the GOP column as opposed to a wider Jewish realignment.)
The survey data also suggest that Israel-Iran issues are unlikely to be the main decision point for Jewish voters. About 75 percent identified a domestic issue as their top concern, with nearly 42 percent citing the economy. National security finished second at 12.3 percent, barely beating out health care (12 percent) and income equality (11.6 percent). U.S.-Israel relations (7.2 percent) edged out Supreme Court appointments (5.6 percent). Republicans can hope that they can make inroads via these various domestic issues. But previous polling results suggest that Jews skew relatively liberal on these issues — hence why previous Republican efforts to flip the Jewish vote have generally focused on Israel and the Middle East). Assuming that the GOP nominee is someone with solidly conservative positions, once again a domestic-based case to Jewish voters will likely be a hard sell.
One final survey topic that might shed light on where the kishkes of American Jews are at: anti-Semitism in Europe. About 90 percent said it was a problem, with 45.5 percent calling it a very serious problem. Where it gets interesting is the follow-up question, about the extent of the problem on the far right versus the far left. Twenty percent agreed that most people on the far right were anti-Semitic — double the 10 percent who said the same about the far left.
In short: There is just enough here to fuel another election cycle-worth of speculative articles on whether this is the year that Republicans finally make major strides with Jewish voters. But if you’re looking to bet some money, you’re better off playing the odds at one of Adelson’s casinos.