Jewish Democrats don't seem to be hitting any panic buttons in the wake of last week's Pew Center poll suggesting a significant shift of Jewish voters to the GOP side of the aisle just three months before critical midterm elections – the same poll that shows that only 34 percent of Americans now believe President Obama is a Christian.
The reason: the survey, which focused on Americans' perceptions of President Obama, questioned only about 60 Jewish voters, a sample size too small to be a reliable indicator of likely voting behavior (see this JTA story) .
According to the survey, 33 percent of Jewish voters now say they identify as Republicans or lean toward the GOP. That's a big jump from 20 percent in 2008.
Still, if the numbers are to be believed, Jews are still far more likely to lean Democratic than any group other than Hispanic Catholics and black Protestant.
So how bad is the news for the Democrats, long accustomed to almost automatic support from big Jewish majorities?
I've talked to several political scientists and Democratic activists in recent days, and when offered a cloak of anonymity they confess to more than the usual uncertainty about the Jewish vote.
Their consensus: a seismic Jewish swing to the GOP is unlikely in November's congressional contest, and it probably won't happen in 2012, when Obama runs for reelection.
But they also say the tremendous volatility that's causing fits for incumbents in both parties this year is seeping into Jewish politics, making predictions riskier than usual. In that context, a modest shift is not beyond the realm of possibility.
And a shift of even 10-15 percentage points in Jewish support could be significant in a handful of swing states where the Jewish vote can be decisive in a close election, and it could reflect an even more worrisome trend for the Democrats: the shift of some Jewish campaign money to the GOP.
Speculation about a shift in Jewish voting usually centers on the Israel issue, but the political scientists I'm talking to say it's probably about something else: as it is for so many other voters, the still-faltering economy, Obama's detached leadership style and a national mood of generalized anti-incumbent, anti-government rage are the big political motivators, not foreign policy.
So: modestly bad news for the Democrats, right?
But it's also true that polls are about theoretical choices, elections about real ones. If the Republicans nominate candidates with close ties to the far right, all bets are off, and GOP gains in the polls could prove illusory.
Sorry, you're not going to convince me that a Sarah Palin – Barack Obama contest in 2012 is going to be good news for Jewish Republicans, no matter how much a significant proportion of Jews are disappointed with Obama and the Democrats today.
Confused? Join the crowd. What's evident: the nation is going through a kind of political nervous breakdown, and the Jewish community is not immune. Recent history suggests shifts in Jewish voting are possible – but not likely to be huge. In presidential voting,the general trend has been away from the Republicans, although there have been conspicuous exceptions. And depending on what the Republicans do, gains in today's polls could turn into big disappointments tomorrow.
If I was a Jewish Democrat, I'd be anything but complacent. If I was a Jewish Republican, I'd be encouraged, but I'd hold off breaking out the bubbly.
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