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Sarna discusses Jewish voting on WGBH

Published: August 31, 2012
Section: News

There has been a lot of talk of religion during this election cycle, Kara Miller noted on WGBH on Monday. From Mitt Romney’s Mormonism to the evangelical right, theories and predictions have permeated the media. She spoke about the role of Jewish voters in 2012 with Professor Jonathan Sarna (NEJS), a professor of American Jewish history and the director of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program.

On the program, Sarna discussed Jewish voting patterns, including why Jews tend to vote Democrat, and how Obama fares with Jewish voters in his re-election campaign. The program was preceded by a June Gallup poll showing that Obama had fallen 10 points with Jewish voters.

Until the 1928 election, Jewish voters were much more evenly split between political parties, Sarna explained, but since 1928 have voted overwhelmingly Democrat—up to 90 percent for presidential candidates like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. The single exception since then was the election of 1980, when the majority of Jewish voters voted against Jimmy Carter, who had been perceived as anti-Israel.

While Israel is an important topic to Jewish Democrats, Sarna emphasized that the Republican base is actually thought to be more consistent and unyielding in their support.

At the time of the June Gallup poll, Obama’s popularity had dropped several points. Jews, Sarna said, are moving away from Obama for the same reasons as other Americans. Though reasons include his seeming lack of support of Israel as an additional cause, this is not their most influential.

Other politicians have demonstrated a more personal investment in Israel, Sarna explained on WGBH, joking that Bill Clinton “could be elected Prime Minister of Israel tomorrow.” It helped, he added, that Bill Clinton was significantly more ideologically similar to then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whereas Obama and current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are at different ends of the political spectrum.

Israel, however, is just one of many factors in Jewish political ideology. “Jews vote according to their perceived interests,” Sarna said on WGBH, listing examples like discrimination, the separation of church and state, and domestic issues.

Jewish voters also have a much higher rate of turnout than most other demographics, increasing their importance, especially with large populations in swing states like Florida, he said.