Maybe Mitt Romney should have saved the airfare. Sure, July’s Israel trip helped him with his Jewish donors and perhaps with some Christian evangelicals. But if it bought him any good will among Jewish voters, he’s just given it back—and then some—by selecting Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate.
To read the press, you’d think Israel drives the American Jewish vote. That’s a myth. An October 2008 poll by Steven M. Cohen, Sam Abrams, and Judith Veinstein found that only 15 percent of American Jews ranked Israel as one of their three top voting issues. This March, when the American Jewish Committee asked American Jews what most influences their presidential vote, only 6 percent answered “Israel,” with another 4 percent citing “Iran’s nuclear program.”
So what do American Jews vote on? The economy, of course. According to the AJC poll, it registered almost five times the number of first-place votes as did Israel. Second, with more than three times the number, was health care. Indeed, while among Americans as a whole health care has far less salience than does the economy, among Jews the margin between the two is smaller. One reason may be that Jews are simply older. As the University of Miami’s Ira Sheskin points out, 16 percent of American Jews are above the age of 65 compared with 13 percent of Americans as a whole.
When it comes to health care, Jews are also big fans of government spending. According “Jewish Distinctiveness in America,” a detailed 2005 study for the AJC, Jews were more supportive than any other religious group of government health-care spending and more supportive than any ethnic or racial group except African-Americans.
Another driver of the Jewish vote is fear of the Christian right. Although the percentage of American Jews who cite abortion or separation of church and state as their top voting issue is low—a combined 7 percent, according to the AJC poll—those Jews who do care about cultural issues lean massively to the left. According to the 2005 “Jewish distinctiveness,” study, Jews are the most pro-choice ethnic or religious group in America, by far. Almost 80 percent of American Jews think it’s fine for a woman to have an abortion for any reason, which is close to twice the percentage for Americans as a whole. Jews are also the religious and ethnic group most supportive of giving birth control to teenagers and most hostile to school prayer. And this cultural liberalism produces deep hostility to the Christian right. According to a 2012 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, American Jews feel almost twice as sympathetic to American Muslims as they do to the Christian right.
All of which makes Ryan a really lousy candidate when it comes to appealing to Jews. He opposes the right to abortion even in cases of rape or incest. He’s against government funding for family planning. And, of course, he wants to turn Medicare into a voucher program.
In a study last month for the Solomon Project, Mark Mellman, Aaron Strauss, and Kenneth Wald noted an interesting historical trend. In every election between 1972 and 1988, Republicans won at least 30 percent of the Jewish vote. Since then, they’ve always been in the low 20s or teens. The most plausible answer is that when the Cold War ended and people like Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and even Ronald Reagan handed over the reins of the Republican Party to the likes of Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin, the GOP swung right. Conservative Christian evangelicals gained unprecedented power, and a new generation of Republican leaders began to challenge the foundations of the American welfare state in a way their predecessors would never have dared.
Romney’s best hope for reversing the GOP’s declining Jewish fortunes would have been to remind American Jews of the cultural and economic moderation he showed as Massachusetts governor. Indeed, were he still the Romney of a decade ago—pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights, and pro-universal health coverage—he might be on his way to grabbing 40 percent of the Jewish vote. But any trace of that Romney died when he chose Ryan. The race for the American Jewish vote is now probably over. Oh well, there’s always 2016.