Confounding Republican hopes

Polls show that Bush is failing to increase his support among mainstream Jewish voters, despite his strong support for Israel.

Published September 23, 2004 2:36PM (EDT)

George W. Bush has failed to win over any of the traditional Jewish backing for the Democrats, despite the unwavering White House support for Israel and a vigorous campaign by the Republican Party.

In a poll released yesterday by the American Jewish Committee, Jewish voters preferred John Kerry to Bush by a margin of nearly three to one: 69 percent to 24 percent. It is an improvement on Bush's 19 percent Jewish support in 2000 but well short of the Republicans' hope of 30 percent

Although Jews form only 2 percent of the U.S. population, they vote in great numbers and are prominent in this year's battleground states -- Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- where their support could be pivotal. In Florida they make up 3.9 percent of the population, more than the margin of victory in the 2000 election.

Bush appeals to a section of the Orthodox community because of his support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his open religiosity, but most Jews are not changing sides.

David Harris, director of the American Jewish Committee, said: "Most American Jews tend towards the liberal side of the political equation, and therefore instinctively lean towards the Democratic candidate, and this year may be no exception, despite a president with a strong track record on U.S.-Israeli relations, and who is waging a war on radical Islamic terrorism."

This is the second poll to confound Republican hopes: In a survey by Democratic pollsters Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner for the National Jewish Democratic Council, Kerry had 75 percent support and Bush 22 percent. Anna Greenberg said the findings showed that Jews were moved far more by domestic concerns than U.S. policy towards Israel, and that Jewish voters did not necessarily agree with Bush's wholehearted support of Israel. "What is clear from this survey is that Jewish voters don't necessarily believe that Bush is better on Israel than Kerry," she said.

The AJC poll showed an uneasiness with the administration's leadership of the "war on terror" and in Iraq, areas in which it expected to pick up Jewish support.

Fifty-two percent of respondents disapproved of Bush's stewardship of his "war on terror" and 66 percent were unhappy with it -- levels of discontent far higher than in the general population -- and 57 percent thought the threat of a terror attack on America had increased because of the war with Iraq. There was also dissatisfaction with Bush's unilateralist approach to world affairs, another area of strong contrast with Kerry, who has said consistently in campaign speeches that America needs to work with the U.N. and other institutions. Sixty-four percent said America should not act alone on the international stage.

Bill Clinton won 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992, and Al Gore 79 percent in 2000. Only Ronald Reagan managed to break through, winning 40 percent in 1980, but pollsters say that had more to do with many Jewish voters' dread of Jimmy Carter than with an affinity with the Republican Party.

Nevertheless, the Republican campaign organizers have made a concerted effort to break through this year, as part of a long-term strategy to woo minority voters away from the Democrats. In particular they hope to win the votes of Orthodox Jews -- devoting special sessions at the party convention to religious Jewish delegates -- and Jews from the former Soviet Union.

The Bush administration has been the most unabashedly supportive of Israel, culminating in Sharon's visit to Washington last April, when Bush broke with 30 years of diplomatic tradition by endorsing his Gaza withdrawal plan. But although Jews may appreciate Bush's support for Israel, they balk at the open religiosity of his administration, and at his party's moral crusading on issues such as gay marriage, stem cell research and abortion.

"The conservative social agenda gives Jewish voters serious pause," Republican pollster Frank Luntz admits. "They have to decide what is more important to them: their support of his position on Israel or their opposition to his social agenda."

Open religiosity does not scare away the entire community. Among the 10 percent who define themselves as Orthodox, there is relative comfort with the idea of asking faith-based bodies to provide services to the young and elderly, according to Abba Cohen, Washington director of the Agudath Israel, which represents ultra-Orthodox Jews.

"I think there is a real affinity for Bush ... in the Orthodox community," he said, but added: "Generally, no one expects the Jewish community's voting patterns to change dramatically."

By Suzanne Goldenberg

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