If Israel attacks Iran, what should the U.S. do? That was the question posed by a CBS News/New York Times poll this week. The difference between how Republicans and Democrats responded is startling--and could have an impact on the 2012 presidential election.
According to the poll, 72% of Republicans said the U.S. should "support Israel" in the event of an Israeli conflict with Iran. Only 38% of Democrats took that position. This is the latest in a series of developments in recent years that has given the GOP ammunition to argue that the Republicans are Israel's true friends.
Other public opinion polls during the past three years have pointed to a similar division between members of the two parties. A Zogby International poll in April 2009, for example, found sharp differences on Israel between those who voted for John McCain the previous November and those who voted for Barack Obama. Eighty percent of Obama voters wanted the president to "get tough" with Israel; 73% of McCain supporters disagreed. In the same poll, 67% of Obama backers supported U.S. negotiations with Hamas while 79% of McCain voters opposed such talks.
A Zogby poll in March 2010 asked if "the President should end the historic bond with Israel and treat Arabs and Israelis alike." To that, 76% of Republicans said no; 73% of Democrats said yes. In a similar vein, an October 2010 survey by McLaughlin and Associates asked, "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for a candidate whom you perceive as pro-Israel?" 69% of Republicans said they are more likely to vote for pro-Israel candidates; while only 40% of Democrats said so.
In the halls of Congress, too, one finds signs of such a partisan division. In January 2009, following the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, 60 Democrats in the House of Representatives signed a letter urging the Obama administration to send U.S. aid to Gaza. No Republicans signed it. In January 2010, another letter urging aid to Hamas-controlled Gaza was signed by 54 Democrats in the House--and again, no Republicans.
In March 2010, 333 members of the House signed a letter reaffirming the U.S.-Israel alliance, in the wake of the Jerusalem housing controversy. Of the 102 members who did not sign, 94 were Democrats and only 8 were Republicans. Twenty-four senators declined to sign a similar letter--20 Democrats, and 4 Republicans.
Certainly there have been many other congressional letters, and votes, where Democrats sided with Israel. But those Gaza and Jerusalem letters tend to stick out like sore thumbs.
These trends could affect the presidential race. Jewish voters, while relatively small in number, vote in greater proportion than other ethnic groups and are concentrated in areas that are crucial in a national election, including toss-up states such as Florida (which has 29 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (21 votes) and Ohio (20). In a close race, any one of those states could decide who will be our next president.
Years ago, the Democrats could take for granted that few Jews would vote for the GOP, which was widely perceived as the party of WASP country clubs, the John Birch Society, and James "F--- the Jews" Baker. But Jewish voters can be taken for granted no longer--especially when today's GOP is the party of Christian Zionism, strongly pro-Israel radio talk show hosts, and, now, support for action against Iran.
Democratic strategists who have resigned themselves to a significant number of Jews turning away from Obama in November, may be hoping for ticket-splitting--Jewish voters supporting the Republican nominee for president, while backing Democrats in Senate and House races. But if many Jews begin to perceive the entire Democratic Party as shifting away from Israel, there may be far less ticket-splitting than expected.
In short, the Democrats have their work cut out for them in the Jewish community. They will need to convince Jewish voters that the spirit of such pro-Israel stalwarts as Senators Scoop Jackson and Pat Moynihan has not been extinguished from their ranks, that support for Israel remains steadfast on both sides of the aisle. Thanks to polls such as the new CBS News/New York Times survey on Iran, that will not be an easy task.