And now, the myth of the “Jewish voter”

What would your GetReligionistas do without the many faithful readers who constantly send us URLs for stories that raise issues relevant our work here?

We simply can’t read everything that’s out there in the mainstream press, no matter how hard we try to keep up with the essentials. But readers see lots of things and often connect the dots that are needed to link news items back to the journalistic terrain that we try to cover.

For example, consider this recent New York Times piece on religion and politics. Here’s the top of the story:

A poll of American Jewish voters shows that they overwhelmingly support Barack Obama for president, just as they did four years ago, and that Israel and Iran rank low on their list of priority issues in the presidential election.

The results cast doubt on the claim that Mr. Obama has alienated a significant swath of Jewish voters because of his rocky relationship with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We show no slippage in Jewish support for President Obama,” said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, an independent research group based in Washington D.C., which conducted the poll of 1,004 Jewish adults from Feb. 23 to March 5. The margin of error is plus or minus five percentage points.

Support for Mr. Obama is still higher among Jews than among the general electorate, with 62 percent of Jewish voters saying they would like to see him elected, and 30 percent saying they preferred the Republican candidate.

A Jewish reader sent us this email with a note posing this question: Is it possible that a “pew gap” can be seen emerging among American Jews, one similar to that found among the alleged “Catholic voters” and the American population in general? Might the whole concept of a unified “Jewish vote” now be a myth?

In particular, this reader wondered if the divisions among Jewish voters might resemble those found in that familiar GetReligion typology about four camps among “Catholic voters.” You remember the one:

* Ex-Catholics. While most ex-Catholics are solid for the Democrats, the large percentage that has left to join conservative Protestant churches (including some Latinos) may lean to GOP.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter … 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 this is a very, very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Everything starts with questions about worship attendance.

Thus, note in particular that the Times says that Obama commands a rock-solid 60-plus percent of the “Jewish voters,” while 30 percent prefer various Republican options.

Those percentages may sound familiar, for those who follow the debates about the declining number of American Jews who regularly or semi-regularly attend worship services. It’s hard to pin down a specific number, but various surveys have found that somewhere between 25 and 15 percent of American Jews attend worship services on a weekly basis.

While, clearly, there are religious Jews who remain dedicated Democrats, is it possible that the 30 percent of American Jews who lean right politically are also more traditionally religious and, thus, tend to take part in worship services more often? If so, pollsters need to start inserting questions about worship attendance into surveys seeking insights into the future of the mythical, monolithic “Jewish vote.”

This issue actually came up here at GetReligion last year, linked to another mainstream news report. At that time, I wrote:

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. …

If you are a Democratic Party fieldworker, will you get a warmer welcome at a Jewish community center or an Orthodox synagogue?

So, other than worship attendance, what are the other cultural and doctrinal issues that pollsters need to probe to better understand the emerging trends among the various kinds of Jewish voters? Ideas anyone?

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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.

  • sari

    Tmatt,
    Pollsters need to look at education, income, sources of income (hourly/salary vs. investments), family history (degree of separation from original immigrants), Sefardi/Mizrachi/Ashkenazi, age, intermarriage, and whether or not the person is a Jew by birth. Among the more affluent, idealism is often replaced by pragmatism. Well-to-do Jews who belong to more liberal denominations commonly place more emphasis on retaining their fortunes than on social justice issues.

    Converts’ backgrounds color their understanding of traditional Jewish mores, since it is a religion with a distinct culture. Synagogues with significant numbers of converts will track differently than those whose members are primarily Jews by birth, even when the synagogue is Orthodox. Lastly, there’s always the question of how to define a Jew–child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother or child of a Jewish mother only.

    One interesting angle would be to contrast the party affiliation of older Y.U. graduates and those currently or recently enrolled. I think you will find that the older generation, though stringent in their observance, tracks more to the left, and that the younger generation, which has not had to overcome the same obstacles to be part of American life (and, in fact, often makes a conscious decision to withdraw from that life), leans in the opposite direction.

  • Jerry

    Your topic title should have had a question mark since you’re asking the question if there is a difference. Because otherwise your headline does not match the text of your post.

  • Pamela Zohar

    Synagogue attendance – while easy to quantify -is not a perfect analog for ‘religiousity’ (if I should call it that, I’m not sure) for Jews. ‘Going to services’ is not the same for Jews as it is for Christians. For Christians, ‘going to services’ is a major component of ‘being religious/worshiping God’. The same cannot be said for Jews.

    The feeling of identification with the Jewish people similarly does not track with ‘attends services weekly’.

    I think the first poster has a very valid point: there are a lot more relevant characteristics to look at that would correlate more closely with voting behavior, than service attendance.

  • Julia

    What are the relevant characteristics?

  • Sam

    Actually, synagogue attendance does track very clearly with religiosity in Judaism.

    The most orthodox don’t just go to services every week, but twice a day every day. Most orthodox go at least 1x/wk.

    It is a clear minority of reform and conservative who go 1x/wk. Most of those temples do not even have daily services.

  • Rick

    The less religious one becomes, the more leftism replaces Judaism as their core value source.

  • sari

    Joe Straus is the current Speaker of the Texas House, a Republican, and a lifelong member of Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue in San Antonio. The longtime (now former) president of the local Republican Jewish Coalition belongs to a Conservative shul that leans far to the left and is married to non-Jewish woman. A couple of years ago he debated a prominent Orthodox Rabbi from Yeshiva University who is a staunch Democrat.

    We cannot assume. As Jews of all denominations become progressively more assimilated into American culture and divorced from the immigrant culture of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, they will come to reflect the mores of their neighbors. Most survivors of the Holocaust and the pogroms are no longer here to testify to the need for social justice. No one remembers the poverty, the ostracism and marginalization experienced in the Old Country or the prejudice Jews endured when they came here.

    Actually, synagogue attendance does track very clearly with religiosity in Judaism.

    Can you provide a link to substantiate your claim? Having belonged to all three major denominations at some time in my life, I can tell you that each has people who are very religious and very dedicated to their particular version of Judaism and each has people who show up only for major holidays or Yizkor. It is time to stop judging other religions by the criteria used to define degrees of Christian observance or religiosity.

    One cannot equate attendance at services with degree of religiosity or party affiliation. Most orthodox men pray all three (not two) services daily, but not necessarily with a minyan. Women are exempt from formal prayer, and, in many shuls, are not present at all except for Saturday morning services (if they live within the boundaries of an eruv or have no small children) and major holidays.

  • peterorvis

    Sari- Sam is correct. If you look at ANES data (American National Election Studies) at U. Michigan (at the ICPSR). You can examine the questions of service attendance & vote choice. Also, nearly every introductory text in US public opinion with a chapter on the religion will confirm his point. This piece is nothing new to those who study the American Electorate.

  • sari

    Peterorvis-
    Went through the ANES website and was unable to find any study that differentiated between observant and non-observant Jews. What I did find was a 2006 Pilot Study which addressed how previous questionnaires leaned towards evangelical Christians:

    …there are important reasons to suspect that standard survey measures of religiosity are inadequate to capture fully the complexity of religion. The current measures tend to be tradition-specific; that is, what counts as a “good” or “faithful” Catholic, Episcopalian, African-American Christian, or Jew, etc. is measured by criteria appropriate for a “good” evangelical Protestant…

    and from the conclusion:

    As our results show, the individual piety dimension of religiosity is effectively measured by the current ANES items on church attendance, prayer, and importance/guidance of religion, and this dimension is powerfully linked to political attitudes, affiliation, and behavior. But our analysis of the new 2006 religion items also shows that the neglected communal dimension of religion has profound political consequences that have gone largely unmeasured in previous surveys.

    http://www.electionstudies.org/resources/papers/Pilot2006/nes011907.pdf