Does Iran deal rift mean Jews will go GOP in 2016?

Ami Eden

U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touring the Iron Dome Battery defense system, at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 20, 2013. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touring the Iron Dome Battery defense system, at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 20, 2013. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images)

One conspiracy theory making the rounds is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s various Iran-related confrontations with President Barack Obama are part of a Sheldon Adelson-plot to turn American Jews into Republican Party voters in 2016.

Even if one rejects this theory out of hand, the question still stands: Will Obama’s championing of the Iran deal trigger a significant realignment, with Jews jumping to the GOP in 2016?

The answer is maybe — but probably not, judging from the latest annual Jewish survey from the American Jewish Committee. (Before jumping in, keep in mind the survey’s margin for error is 4.7% — more than some of the shifts discussed.)

Let’s start with Obama and the Iran deal. The survey would seem to give Jewish GOPers reason for optimism.

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Yes, the majority of American Jews back the deal, but only by a sliver — 50.6 percent approve and 47.2 percent disapprove. And when you dig deeper, you find that the depth of disapproval is much stronger: 16.4 percent approve strongly and 34.2 percent approve somewhat; versus 27.4 percent disapprove strongly and 19.8 percent disapprove somewhat.

About 63 percent of American Jews are not confident that the deal will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and 42.8 percent believe Israel will be more threatened because of the deal. Only 4.9 percent are very confident that the deal will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and 17.9 percent believe Israel will be less threatened.

About 53 percent approve of the way Obama is handling United States-Israel relations — a low number in light of the 70 percent or so of the Jewish vote that he won in 2012. And only 8.9 percent approve strongly.

You’d think all that would open the door to big GOP gains in 2016. Sure enough, AJC’s 2015 survey found 37.4 percent of American Jews backing a Republican presidential candidate. So if that number holds, GOP Jewish donors and activists will have plenty to smile about — that would amount to the best Republican showing since Ronald Reagan took 39 percent of the Jewish vote to best Jimmy Carter in 1980.

On the other hand, that’s not much of a GOP boost considering Obama and Netanyahu are in the middle of a full-frontal, existential slugfest. Obama won’t be on the ticket. Odds are it will be Hillary Rodham Clinton, with a deep bench of longtime Jewish backers, validators, donors, etc. She talks tougher on Israel than Obama. If you believe Michael Oren, her chemistry with Netanyahu is better. Ditto on all counts for Vice President Joe Biden.

Clinton was by far the most popular presidential candidate among Jews — with 39.7 percent identifying her as their first choice. Next up was Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with 17.8 percent. The socialist in the race almost doubled the top Republican, Donald Trump, who registered 10.2 percent. (Side note: The Donald appears to be less popular among Jewish Republicans than he is with Republicans overall — Jeb Bush is a close second in the Republican field with 8.7 percent.)

Dig a little deeper and you find that the underlying data hasn’t shifted much. In the 2013 survey, 47 percent of American Jews identified as liberal, 35 percent as moderate/middle of the road and 20 percent as conservative. This time around it was: 45.1 percent liberal, 33.8 moderate/middle of the road and 20.9 percent conservative. There is a little more movement on the Democrat-independent- Republican question — with those identifying with the GOP jumping from 15 percent to 19 percent (those identifying as Democrats dropped from 52 percent to 48.6 percent and independents stayed the same at about 32 percent).

(The deeper question behind all of these numbers — for a future column — is how much any Republican Jewish gains are attributable mainly to the growing numbers of Orthodox Jews and their nearly two decade shift to the GOP column as opposed to a wide Jewish realignment.)

The survey data also suggests that Israel-Iran issues are unlikely to be the main decision point for Jewish voters. About 75 percent identified a domestic issue as their top concern, with nearly 42 percent citing the economy. National security finished second with 12.3 percent, barely beating out health care (12 percent) and income equality (11.6 percent). U.S.-Israel relations (7.2 percent) edged out Supreme Court appointments (5.6 percent). Republicans can hope that they can make inroads via these various domestic issues — but previous polling results (not to mention their own previous campaign messages) suggest that Jews skew relatively liberal on these issues; and with the GOP candidate likely to stake out solidly conservative positions, a domestic-based case will be hard sell to most Jewish voters.

One final issue that might shed light on where the kishkes of American Jews are at: Anti-Semitism in Europe. About 90 percent said that it was a problem (with 45.5 percent calling it a very serious problem). Where it gets interesting is the follow-up question, about the extent of the problem on the far right versus the far left — respondents were twice as likely (20 percent versus 10 percent) to say that most people on the far right were anti-Semitic.

In short: There is just enough here to fuel another election cycle-worth of speculative articles on whether this is the year that Republicans make major strides with Jewish voters — but odds are most of them will (again) prove to be full of hot air.

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