Social issues keep Jews from supporting the GOP

In the midst of the never-ending debate about whether this will be the election that moves Jews to the right, an intriguing new poll is just out from the Public Religion

Research Institute. Titled “Chosen for What? Jewish Values in 2012,” it found that 62 percent of Jews want to see President Barack Obama re-elected, compared to 30 percent who favor a Republican candidate.

Around 58 percent of American Jews approve of the president’s job performance, quite a bit higher than the electorate as a whole. Not so long ago, Jewish support for Obama had been falling, as the economy languished. Now, with the shoots of recovery growing, Jews are returning to where they were before the 2008 election.

A closer look at the poll highlights the wide divisions among white voters. On one end, you find Jewish voters leaning Democratic and supporting the president. At the other end are white Evangelicals leaning Republican and opposing the president. The biggest gaps between the two groups are not on the standard economic issues that have divided Democrats and Republicans. The gaps shown here are on the social issues, such as abortion and gay rights.

And therein lies the biggest problem for the Republican Party in reaching out to Jewish voters today. While Jews are somewhat to the left of Republicans on economic matters, they are far, far from the Republicans on the social issues that animate the party’s base. On economic issues, the gap is not quite as stark.

Put simply, to the extent that Republican candidates reflect the most socially conservative elements of the party, their prospects of winning Jewish support are dim to nonexistent. The real giveaway is on two issues: abortion and gay rights. On both of those, Jews are, by a large margin, the most liberal group in America.

A majority of Jews (51 percent) strongly support gay marriage, by far the largest support among religious groups. Only 24 percent of all Americans take the same position. Another 30 percent of Jews somewhat favor gay marriage, leading to 81 percent support overall, compared to 48 percent of the nation. Among white Evangelicals, by contrast, only 6 percent strongly and 14 percent somewhat favor gay marriage.

On abortion, nearly half of Jews (49 percent) support abortion being legal in all cases, compared to 21 percent of all Americans. Another 44 percent of Jews favor abortion rights in most cases, for a total of 93 percent support. Among all Americans, support for legal abortion is at 53 percent. Among white Evangelicals, only 11 percent think that abortion should be legal in all cases, and 21 percent in most cases.

The recent debates about contraception have driven the gender gap to a yawning chasm, particularly among well-educated middle-class women. Other polls have long shown Jewish women in particular to be pro-choice at very high levels. Laws being passed in a number of states to make abortion nearly impossible to obtain, as well as debates over the availability of contraception or funding for Planned Parenthood, are likely to alarm Jewish voters.

And yet these vast differences on social issues are not replicated to the same degree on traditional economic issues. While 24 percent of Jews strongly favor tougher environmental laws, so do 17 percent of all Americans and 11 percent of white Evangelicals. While 58 percent of Jews strongly favor raising taxes on those earning a million dollars or more, so do 43 percent of all Americans and 36 percent of white Evangelicals. While 43 percent of white Evangelicals strongly believe that poor people have become too dependent on government programs, so do 21 percent of Jews.

Put another way, in a political system that contrasted pro-government Democrats against free-market Republicans, moderate Republicans could do rather well with Jewish voters. Conversely, Democrats could do much better with white Evangelicals on strictly economic populist issues if the social issues were out of the way. But of course the social issues do not go away so easily. Each party derives some short-term benefits from keeping them alive. For Republicans, the social issues cause their party base to oppose economic policies that might benefit them, because they are proposed by the same party that is pro-choice and favors gay rights. For Democrats, the social issues prevent desertions by upscale liberals who might be drawn to a centrist Republican economic alternative.

The link between the Republican Party and its socially conservative base will be difficult to change. The energy of social conservatism is critical to the party’s competitiveness. Mitt Romney can only reach across the aisle to Jewish voters by moderating his positions on, for example, Planned Parenthood, or the availability of abortion. But suspicious social conservatives will be closely watching him for any signs of waffling. House Republicans are likely to put a lot of pressure on Romney to toe the party line. In fact, Romney’s image of moderation that might appeal to Jewish voters is the reason that conservatives are particularly watchful for any deviation.

Republicans continue to believe that Jewish voters will be in play because of concerns among Jews about the Obama administration and Israel. Polls have never shown this to be a winning strategy. Among Jews, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is certainly seen as a good representative of Jewish values (73 percent), but so is Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan (appointed by Obama, with 66 percent), and “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart checks in at 63 percent.

There are really only two ways that Republicans can break their contemporary isolation from Jewish voters. One is for the economy to drop back into recession. The other is for the Republicans to move to the center on social issues. The first would be a stroke of fortune politically for Republicans, while the second would require an internal battle that would cost them dearly but might be worth it nonetheless.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.