Scholars say Jewish shift to GOP a long way off

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By RACHEL ZOLL, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Like Chicago Cubs fans in spring, Jewish Republicans start every presidential election season hoping this will be their year: American Jews, who have voted overwhelmingly Democratic for decades, will start a significant shift to the political right. But scholars who study Jewish voting patterns say not this year.

Or anytime soon, for that matter.

Although recent studies have found potential for some movement toward the GOP, analysts say any revolution in the U.S. Jewish vote is a long way off.

"I would be very surprised to find that this is the transformative election," said Jonathan Sarna, an expert in American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Surveys confirm that growth in socially conservative Orthodox Jewish communities, who tend to be GOP voters, is greater than in Jewish groups from other traditions. Russian-speaking Jews are also emerging as a strong GOP constituency, as evidenced when Republican Bob Turner won the special election to succeed disgraced New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner.

But a generous estimate of the two groups combined would make them only a quarter of American Jews, with many living in heavily Democratic New York. Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University's Wagner School, predicts "status quo ante" — the way things were before — for a decade or more, at least until the many Orthodox children reach voting age.

The enduring liberalism of Jewish voters has confounded Jewish conservatives, who tend to view support for Democrats as a youthful habit Jews should have outgrown long ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, when U.S. Jews were becoming more assimilated and wealthier, expectations rose that they would follow the pattern of other ethnic groups and start voting Republican.

It didn't happen. President Barack Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, according to exit polls. The only Democrat who failed to win a majority of Jewish voters in recent decades was President Jimmy Carter, in a three-way race in 1980 with Republican Ronald Reagan and independent John Anderson.

This year, Republicans saw a new opening. Surveys found a softening of support for Obama among Jews, as his favorability also dipped with the American public over the economy and other issues. Polls have the president down anywhere from a few to 10 percentage points among Jewish voters compared with four years ago.

The Republican Jewish Coalition has been hammering away at Obama with ad campaigns such as "My Buyer's Remorse" and a video, "Perilous Times," on Israeli security under the president. The focus has been on Obama's frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and critics' claims that Obama is doing too little to stop Iran's nuclear program.

Obama has repeatedly pledged his support for Israel. His administration considers military action against Iran an option but says all nonmilitary means of pressuring Iran must first be exhausted.

Billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson poured funds into the coalition, especially for outreach in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. A staunch supporter of Israel, Adelson has said he would spend up to $100 million to defeat the president.

While American Jews make up only 2 percent of the U.S. electorate, they register and vote at a much higher rate than the general public. In Florida, the prize battleground, about 3.4 percent of state residents are Jewish.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, noted that since 1992, the percentage of Jews voting Republican increased in every presidential election except for 2008.

"Republicans have been making inroads and gaining market share," Brooks said.

However, Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor and director of the Jewish Demography Project, said Republicans aren't on the way to overtaking the Jewish vote. Sheskin argued that Jewish votes for Republicans are recovering from a low of 11 percent for President George H.W. Bush, whose policies toward Israel had upset many Jews. Of the 12 Jewish U.S. senators and 24 House members currently serving, only one, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, is a Republican, Sheskin said.

Rabbi Kurt Stone, an Obama surrogate in South Florida, accused the Republicans of creating a false impression that "the Jewish community is moving in droves away from the Democratic Party."

"Everybody's having these thoughts pounded into their consciousness over and over again," said Stone, spiritual leader of the North Broward Havurah, or worship community, in Coral Springs.

Overseas, many Jewish communities are, in fact, becoming more politically conservative. In Canada, Australia and Britain, Jews have shifted to the right in the face of liberal party stands against Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories. By contrast, in the United States, major-party candidates compete for the mantle of better friend to Israel.

"If you have two candidates for a political office that has an impact upon national security and both appear to be supportive of strengthening Israeli security and the American-Israeli relationship, the American Jewish community quickly addresses other issues that are of deep concern in the field of social issues and human rights," said Gordon Zacks, a founder of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who advised Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

In a survey conducted last month for the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy and humanitarian organization, Jewish voters listed the economy, health care and national security as their top concerns. Nancy Kaufman, chief executive of the liberal National Council of Jewish Women, said her group was organizing in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and elsewhere on issues such as supporting gay marriage, protecting abortion rights and opposing voter identification laws.

"Jewish voters' preferences depend on their views on economic justice and social diversity, things like fairness in taxes, health care and reproductive rights," Cohen said. "Once those views are taken into account, then their views on Israel — be they passionately for or not, dovish or hawkish — have little if any effect upon their vote."

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