2012 election: Is there a Jewish ‘pew gap’?

The pros in the Obama White House are facing a number of tough decisions as they head into the 2012 election. However, nobody expected a Democrat to face a growing sense of panic about the Jewish vote.

I mean, check out this recent New York Times lede:

WASHINGTON – Not since Jimmy Carter in 1980 has a Democrat running for president failed to win a lopsided majority of the Jewish vote. This has been true during times of peace or war, and even when there has been deep acrimony between the White House and the Israeli government.

Republicans see a chance to change that in 2012, with President Obama locked in a tense relationship with Israel’s leaders and criticized by many American Jews as being too tough on a close and favored ally.

Oh my. We’re talking Jimmy “one term” Carter?

So what is Barack Obama going to do?

Sensing trouble, the Obama campaign and Democratic Party leaders have mobilized to solidify the president’s standing with Jewish voters. The Democratic National Committee has established a Jewish outreach program. The campaign is singling out Jewish groups, donors and other supporters with calls and e-mails to counter the Republican narrative that Mr. Obama is hostile to Israel.

Now, from a journalistic point of view, the problematic term in that paragraph is easy to spot — “Jewish voters.”

This is similar, of course, to the emphasis that many journalists continue to place on that vague, almost always meaningless phrase “Catholic voters.” This is a topic that has been discussed many, many times here at GetReligion, where we have argued that there is no one bloc of Catholic voters. There are several, as detailed in the following list that grew out of a long talk with a savvy, very experienced priest here inside the DC beltway:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece — depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but it is a small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Now, I have never set down with a DC rabbi and tried to create a corresponding list of niches inside that broad, broad “Jewish voters” umbrella. Obviously there are secular Jews, there are cultural Jews (who go to High Holy Days services and that’s about it), there are doctrinally liberal Jews who frequent pews, there are several varieties of Orthodox Jews, etc., etc.

I would assume that Obama is doing better with voters in some of these camps than in others. Readers can see a hint of this reality in this Times paragraph about a key Democratic party loss at the polls. The first voice is that of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who chairs the Democratic National Committee. :

Like other Democrats, Ms. Wasserman Schultz played down the broader implications of the upset in New York, arguing that the district’s Orthodox and Russian-Jewish population makes it more conservative than other Jewish areas. She pointed to polls showing that a majority of Jews still support Mr. Obama and that their level of approval for his performance largely tracks that of the broader electorate.

Still, American Jews are clearly less enchanted with Mr. Obama than they were in 2008, when nearly 8 out of 10 voted for him (in a Gallup poll last July, the most recent month for which data was available, his approval rating was 60 percent). Jewish lawmakers have been warning the White House that this disaffection could hurt the president in turnout, fund-raising and enthusiasm.

Here’s my point: Clearly, this story must address issues about Obama and his administration’s record on Israel, with Jewish voices on both sides. The Times handles that political angle with ease. However, the story never asks if Judaism — as a faith, with doctrines and traditions — is playing any role in this debate.

In the past decade or so, pollsters have found that one of the most dependable methods for determining how people will vote — especially among white voters — is to ask one question: How often do you attend a worship service of any kind?

This has become known as the “pew gap,” with good cause. The more often a voter enters a religious sanctuary, the greater the chance he or she will vote Republican. This does not mean that Democratic voters are “godless” or do not have religious beliefs. It simply means that they are less likely to express their beliefs in corporate worship, in comparison with those who enter religious sanctuaries more often.

At the end of this story, I was left wondering if the same kind of gap is affecting these tensions between Jews and the Obama administration. If we are a Democratic Party fieldworker, will you get a warmer welcome at a Jewish community center or an Orthodox synagogue? At the local Chabad House or at a Reform Temple?

If there is a Jewish “pew gap,” what questions would mainstream reporters need to ask in order to investigate it? Are basic issues of doctrine and tradition involved (other than beliefs about Israel)?

Just asking.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • MT

    I was thinking more or less the same thing when I heard the media discussing the “Jewish vote”. I’m no sociologist, but among my Jewish friends there is very little uniformity on any political issue, even tho most of them would probably be called “practicing” Jews. The old cliche seems to hold true: Ask 3 rabbis the same question and you’ll get 12 different answers!

  • Uriel Levi

    The “Pew Gap” exists within Judaism but with even more denominational parallels. Between 75% – 90% of all Orthodox Jews vote Republican regardless how many times they attend synagogue. Now it just so happens that most Orthodox Jews tend to go synagogue at least weekly and many go daily. The comparison of Orthodox Jews to conservative , reform or reconstructionist Jews – as far as Synagogue attendance goes – is really a non comparison. Very few of non-orthodox Jews attend daily services and the majority of Reform & Conservative Jews attend only High Holiday services. Its really a simple breakdown of how committed Jews are in terms of learning about their tradition and attending services. The ones that are most committed to Judaism – in the above mentioned context- tend to vote Republican. It just so happens that the majority of Orthodox Jews fit that category. However, if a reform,conservative, reconstructionist, or even non-affiliated Jew were to be committed to learn – as much as possible – all the sources of his/her tradition and attend services weekly or daily, chances are they would tend to vote Republican as well.
    May we all be committed to the One G-d who seeks Justice and mercy for all of HIS children.

  • Judy Harrow

    Hi, TMatt

    The problem is the Jewish situation does not look like the linear spectrum of Catholics you describe.

    You’d need to draw a chart with (at least) two dimensions. One would look very much like your spectrum of Catholics, the other would be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — and the Orthodox might further segment into Chasidic, Haredi, and Modern Orthodox at that. Or even more complex — Satmar Chasidim, for example, are fervently anti-Zionist.

    The real complication is that there are also “cultural” and “Saturday morning” Orthodox Jews, people like my own family, whose weddings and funerals were Orthodox even though they did not otherwise attend synagogue, and people who attend on Sabbaths and Holidays but do not daven daily. And there are Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews who are deeply involved in Jewish spirituality and the lives of their congregations.

  • Jeffrey

    The other problem is the numbers just aren’t that consequential. Except maybe in Fllorida, the Jewish vote doesn’t really matter and even in Florida, a significant swing wouldn’t change the outcome. Unlike Catholics, they aren’t large enough to impact outcomes.

    The NY9 is probably the only district in the country where there are enough orthodox to impact an election and it took a bad candidate, Ed Koch, and gay marriage for it to even matter.

  • sari

    I think there’s been a shift from the “What’s good for the Jews” mentality of my youth, understood by Jews of all denominations, to “What’s good for me”, as the importance of being a Jew, even one who practices to a greater or lesser extent, has faded. For better or worse, most Jews have assimilated to the point where their values reflect those of their neighbors rather than the more uniquely Jewish sensibility of past generations new to the U.S. No consensus exists, even among the most observant, *especially* with regards to Israel.

    Religion writers should be careful not to extrapolate the practices of NYC’s Jewish enclaves to the whole of the country. Every locale, every rabbi, every congregation has its own unique dynamics. For instance, whereas some rabbis studiously avoid political topics, others preach them from the bimah (pulpit). In my current locale, those rabbis tend to be of the most liberal; in other places, they are of the most conservative denominations. Some Orthodox groups, like the Satmar Hasidim, are ferociously anti-Israel whereas others (most) are not. I have lived all over the country, both in the enclaves of the East Coast and in the West Coast/Southern galut (diaspora), grew up in one denomination but now belong to another as my level of observance grew, and can say that no one rule holds fast.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Almost every factor you mentioned is in my post.

    I am not arguing for the Catholic version to transfer over to Judaism. No way. I specifically asked how the niches in the Jewish vote could best — most accurately — be described.

  • Michael

    I rather suspect that sophisticated political operatives know exactly who they mean when they refer to the “Jewish vote,” and they realize that description includes people who identify as Jewish culturally as well as (and sometimes, rather than) religiously.

    The “Catholic vote” is similarly complex. People who are culturally Catholic frequently depart from the pronouncements of the Catholic hierarchy on social issues.

    You seem to think that journalists should apply some kind of litmus test to verify the Jewishness or Catholicness of these demographics. But Catholics who you might dismiss as “cafeteria Catholics” consider themselves no less Catholic that those who spend much more time in the pews than the Catholics who adhere more closely to the pronouncements of the hierarchy.

    I suspect journalists know to whom they refer when they use phrases such as Jewish vote, Catholic vote, and even Evangelical vote.

  • sari


    Judy’s last point is very relevant. In theory, Jews are supposed to pray three times daily (Jewish men, anyway), so using weekly attendance to define degree of religiosity is irrelevant. Further, the observant do not drive on the Sabbath or on major holidays, which means that those who live a certain distance will forgo communal services and pray at home rather than transgress Jewish Law. One can always find a synagogue close by in NYC, but the same is not true in Texas, for instance.

    The definition of an observant Jew is very different than that of an observant (religious??) Christian. From what’s been written here and elsewhere, the latter is defined by how often s/he attends services. For Jews, it’s defined by how one keeps the Sabbath, the degree to which one keeps kosher (different standards and if one is kosher only at home or all the time), whether one adheres to the family laws, etc. One can pray alone just as easily as one can pray with a group (though the group is preferable for many reasons).

  • Judy Harrow

    Hi, TMatt

    In my experience, many non-Jews (and even some Jews, like Uriel Levy above in post #2) conflate being Orthodox with something like what you call a “sweat the details” Catholic. They are not aware that there are “Saturday morning” Orthodox and even cultural Orthodox, like my own family.

    I suspect you would personally understand this, as I imagine you get the full range among Orthodox Christians. Like somebody of Greek or Russian family origin who does not regularly go to church but does expect to get married and buried there.

    In ordinary English, the word “orthodox” — not capitalized — means scrupulously observant. Both Jews and Christians use the same word capitalized to designate a particular denomination or movement. This makes for confusion.

    Similarly, I’ve hard people conflate “Shiite” with “extreme Islamist,” not realizing that you get the full range within both Shia and Sunni Islam.

    And just how any of this effects how people vote in secular elections is a whole ‘nother question.

  • sari


    Non-observant Jews often worship at or belong to Orthodox congregations, especially those outside enclaves like Borough Park or parts of Baltimore, but no one identifies them as Orthodox. They may be Israelis, who prefer a service entirely in Hebrew and for whom other denominations were not a choice back home, formerly Conservative congregants unhappy with liturgical changes and/or female clergy, people whose families have history with the shul and/or were once observant, people who like a particular rabbi, singles looking to meet prospective mates who are Jewish by anyone’s standard, or people who have friends in the congregation. At many Chabad Houses, for instance, the only observant person in the room is the Chabad shaliach.

    The way the Orthodox define Orthodoxy is through the degree of ritual observance. A person who drives to shul on Shabbos (synagogue on the Sabbath) is not Orthodox and will never be considered such by someone who is observant. Ditto a person who fails to keep a stringent level of kashrut both in and out of the house. The Orthodox are continually observant rather than occasionally so, and strive to keep all the commandments dictated by the Halakhah. Synagogue attendance does not reflect in either direction, and there are usually communal standards dictated by one or more Rabbis.

    I was thinking about Uriel’s comments and the statistics he quoted. Maybe they’re true and maybe they’re not, but knowing the communities I believe he’s referring to, the big determinant may be educational background rather than attendance or degree of observance (setting aside the different Hasidic groups, whose voting patterns are usually determined by their Rebbes). Children who go through the Yeshiva system often receive the most token secular education and little exposure to mainstream culture or even to Jews from other denominations. There’s been a huge move to the right in response to what is perceived as a very loose mainstream culture and especially to the Internet (a la AvenueQ), movies, and television. The push right now is for more stringent observance; in practice, the lines between Haredi, generic Orthodox, and Hasidism have become very, very blurry.

  • mitch

    The frequency of synagogue attendamce surely correlates with voting habits. It is true, as Sari notes, that an observant Jew would opt to pray at home rather than drive on the Sabbath. But anyone concerned with this commandment finds a residence that is near a synagogue; they don’t stay home every week to “observe” the driving prohibition.