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Could the Iran Deal Cost Democrats the Jewish Vote in 2016?


One of the surest things in U.S. politics is that the Jewish vote goes overwhelmingly to Democratic candidates. Could President Obama’s questionable deal with Iran—which Israel strongly opposes—erode that grip? And would it make any difference in the next presidential election?

You have to go back to the 1920 election of Warren G. Harding to find the last time more Jews supported the Republican presidential candidate than the Democrat, and that was only because 38 percent of them voted for the socialist candidate, Eugene Debs.Ronald Reagan chipped away at that support in his first presidential run, taking 39 percent of the Jewish vote against Carter’s 45 percent. But since Bill Clinton, between 75 to 80 percent of the Jewish vote has gone to the Democratic candidate—that is, until the last presidential race. Barack Obama took only 69 percent in his second bid for the White House. 

And Obama’s Jewish support has declined since then. A new poll from the Pew Research Center finds that 61 percent of the Jewish vote leans Democratic and 31 percent leans Republican. The Pew graph tracking that trend shows a distinct drop in Democratic-leaning Jews and a corresponding rise in Republican-leaning Jews beginning in 2012.

If there has been an eight-point decline in Democratic-leaning Jews since 2012 (69 percent voting for Obama in 2012 versus 61 percent now), that’s a huge drop for a two-year period.

And Obama’s Iranian agreement is likely to exacerbate the problem, especially if it becomes clear the president misled the public on the key elements, if we discover the Iranians are breaking the agreement, or if U.S. Jews see the White House abandoning its support for Israel.

But would that be enough to make any difference in the next presidential election? Probably not—except in one important state.

According to the Federal Election Commission, Obama received 4,237,756 votes in Florida, compared to Mitt Romney’s 4,163,447, for a difference of 74,309 votes.

Florida has a Jewish population of 640,000, the third largest in the country. Had 12 percent of the state’s Jewish voters gone for Romney instead of Obama, he would have won Florida’s 29 electoral votes. That wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the election, and there wasn’t any other swing or blue-leaning state—e.g., Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio—where the Jewish population exceeded the difference between Obama and Romney.

On the other hand, a Republican presidential candidate pretty much has to win Florida, and growing Jewish resentment over the Iran agreement could put the Sunshine State squarely in the GOP corner.

And stronger Jewish support in some of the other swing states would decrease the margins the Republican candidate needs to win among other groups. Which leads to the other major finding in the Pew survey: 39 percent of those polled now consider themselves independent, the highest percentage in 75 years of public polling, according to Pew.

While it’s almost certainly true that the Jewish vote will continue to lean heavily Democratic for the foreseeable future, some Jewish voters may be reconsidering. A good showing could be enough to put a Republican candidate over the top.