The upside – and downside – of ‘low threshold’ voter support for Israel

November 12, 2012

As I promised last week, the discussion of the Jewish 2012 vote will continue this week, and as I also promised, this post will be about the Jewish voter and Israel. As I showed in my previous post, different questions lead to different, even contradictory, assessments of the way in which the electorate weighs Israel into voting considerations. The J Street poll, compatible with many previous polls, found that Israel is not a top-of-the-list issue for the Jewish voter (this is something that I discuss in my book in some length).


A couple of months ago, Steven Cohen and Sam Abrams wrote, based on their Workmen’s Circle survey, that “Obama voters and Romney voters do differ on Israel; Romney voters are more attached to Israel and more confident in Israel’s commitment to peace. However, these differences are totally explained by prior factors like religiosity and political ideology, than are the primary determinants of Obama vs. Romney preferences”.

Nevertheless, the Republican Jewish Coalition survey – by asking a markedly different question, not about the top issues but rather, pointedly, about Israel – revealed that things aren’t as simple as saying that Israel plays no or very little role in voters’ considerations: “Israel was an important element in Jewish voter choices this year”, the authors of the RJC survey write. “Our survey shows that 76.5% of respondents said that Israel was ‘somewhat important’ or ‘very important’ in determining their vote”.

How should one comprehend the seemingly contradictory information concerning the importance of the Israel component in the minds of American Jewish voters? An answer can begin with an interesting observation made by J Street pollster Jim Gerstein, as he analyses his survey. First he says (and I agree), that Israel is a “threshold voting issue”. Namely, that Jewish voters need to be convinced that the candidate is not anti-Israel before they “move on to consider other issues”.

But then Gerstein adds this: “the ‘Israel threshold’ is an easy threshold to pass”. I think that if Gerstein is right, maybe that’s the gist of the problem: American Jews no longer have a threshold on Israel that has any meaning. By saying this, Gerstein – unintentionally I’m sure – is giving ammunition to those who argue that Obama can be considered pro-Israel only because the threshold on being pro-Israel has been placed so low. 

Now look at the detailed results of Gerstein’s poll for yet another sign of the low threshold: when asked to “mark whether you think Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would do a better job” on Israel, the number of voters who answered “Obama” is 53% – much lower than the actual number of respondents voting for Obama. This means that there are Obama voters who believe that Romney is the better candidate on Israel, but for whom this belief is not a good enough reason to switch their vote. Look at the crosstabs: 9% of Obama voters believe that Romney would be better on Israel (while another 9% believe that “both” would be the same).

These 9% of voters can be subjected to two possible interpretations: A. They don’t care about Israel enough to take it into consideration. B. They are “low threshold” voters – namely, the voters for whom passing the threshold makes Israel a moot point. Not because they don’t care about Israel, but rather because their expectations have been met by their candidate of choice.

This enables them to move to other issues they also consider important as they go to the polls, and Gerstein believes that such a “threshold” is a way for Jewish voters to refrain from allowing the Israel issue from becoming a wedge issue. The candidate – as he meets the minimum requirement of being pro-Israel – makes the issue disappear. Thus, voters can feel at ease in saying that the other candidate might be better on Israel, without feeling that this puts any burden on them to change their vote. Romney is better on Israel? Maybe. But Obama is a better dancer. If dancing beyond a certain basic level is not something that the voters deem important, the advantage a candidate might have on the floor – even a significant advantage – would not make a difference.

From an Israeli viewpoint, there’s an upside and a downside to such process of muting the Israel component of the vote. The upside: It is in Israel’s long-term interest to keep itself a bipartisan issue, agreeable to all, supported by all. The downside: It is in Israel’s long-term interest to raise the bar for candidates to been seen as Israel supporters as high as possible, and not to be a bipartisan issue only because the threshold of support is low.

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