Foreign policy Wednesdays: Most Wednesdays we will feature a special poll watcher analysis of American public opinion on foreign policy. The series will be cross-posted at Foreign Policy Magazine’s Election 2012 page
President Obama and Republicans have repeatedly clashed over policy toward Israel, incited most recently by comments from the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, who argued that some anti-Semitism was rooted in territorial tensions between Israel and its neighbors. On Wednesday, Republican presidential hopefuls looked to court Jewish supporters at a forum held by the Republican Jewish Coalition.
The entire hubbub raises a critical question: How important is Israel as a voting issue?
In short, not very much. Domestic concerns are reigning supreme in 2012 and Jewish voters — who may be naturally more concerned about the state of Israel — make up a very small portion of the electorate, even in key swing states. But the low-interest issue could help clarify choices for Republicans, who see Israel relations as a higher national priority.
More than eight in 10 Americans cited domestic issues as their top voting issue in 2012 in a November Washington Post-ABC News poll, while less than 2 percent volunteered international issues. Even among international issues, Israel takes a back seat. None of the 1,004 adults interviewed for the survey mentioned Israel as the most important issue in their vote.
Jewish voters made up 2 percent of voters in 2008, similar to their representation in the public overall, with their numbers peaking at 4 percent in Florida, a perennial swing state often decided by a few percentage points. Nationally, Obama won Jewish voters by a nearly 4 to 1 margin over Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), according to exit polls.
But Obama currently faces the lowest ratings of his presidency among Jews. In the latest Gallup data provided to the Washington Post, 51 percent of Jews approved of the way the president is handling his job and 42 percent disapproved. While Obama continues to score higher among Jews than the public overall, the sizable well of disapproval among a core Democratic group provides an opportunity for Republicans in 2012.
Republicans and evangelicals
Despite the absence of people mentioning Israel relations as a deciding factor in their vote, the issue may play a more important role in the Republican primary than the general election. Two key groups — conservative Republicans and white evangelical Protestants — see Israel as especially important.
More than six in 10 white evangelical Protestants and conservative Republicans said protecting Israel is a very important goal for the United States in an April Pew Research Center poll, compared with fewer than four in 10 of Americans overall. Sympathy for Israel over Palestine also peaks among these two groups.
Heightened interest among evangelical Christians may reflect findings from a 2006 Pew survey, which found a majority of evangelicals believe Israel was given to the Jewish people by God and that Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) has earned accolades for his views on limited government, but his foreign policy stances have drawn criticism from his opponents in recent debates, including his position on Israel. In a November debate, Paul argued for reducing the U.S. role in Israel’s affairs, saying that “Israel should take care of themselves.” The Republican Jewish Forum barred Paul from Wednesday’s gathering, citing his “misguided and extreme views” on Israel.”
Why the strong calls of support?
Repeated declarations of support for Israel from Obama and his potential Republican challengers may reflect the lopsided nature in American views of the Israel-Palestinian dispute. Americans sided with Israel over Palestine by a 4 to 1 margin in a September Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll. Still more, half of all respondents sympathized with both, neither or offered no opinion.
In addition, Obama came under fire from a prominent Jewish donor this spring after his speech on resolving the border dispute with Palestinians. In November, the president worked to reassure Jewish campaign contributors, saying “we don’t compromise when it comes to Israel’s security.”