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New York’s Ninth District and Obama’s Orthodox Jewish Problem

The results of last week’s special election in New York’s heavily Jewish Ninth Congressional District are being widely interpreted as signaling both problems for Democrats in the 2012 congressional elections and a major erosion of support for President Obama among Jewish voters. The special election, which was caused by the resignation of Democrat Anthony Weiner in the aftermath of a sexting scandal, resulted in a Republican victory in what had been considered a safe Democratic district.

Following the election, Republican leaders were quick to attribute the outcome to the president’s declining popularity among voters in general and among Jewish voters in particular. However, a closer look at the evidence raises serious doubts about attempts to draw any conclusions about either the president’s standing among Jews or the outlook for the 2012 congressional elections from the Republican victory in NY-9.

The first thing that needs to be said about the outcome in NY-9, as well as the Republican victory on the same day in another special election in Nevada, is that the results of special congressional elections do not accurately predict the results of the subsequent general election. An analysis of the results of all special House elections since World War II shows that while there is a weak relationship between the net party swing in special elections and the net party swing in the subsequent general election (the correlation is .32), special election results have no impact once you control for other factors such as the party of the president in midterm elections, seats held by the parties going into the election and the incumbent president’s approval rating.

Moreover, the net party swing in special elections this year has been zero. Since the 2010 midterm election there have been four special elections for vacant House seats with each party picking up one seat previously held by the opposing party. Just a few months ago, Democrats picked up a seat in an upstate New York district that was vacated by the Republican incumbent due to, ironically, a sexting scandal. So the main lesson from this year’s special elections may be that sexting while governing can be hazardous.

But what about President Obama’s supposed problems with Jewish voters? Well, the president has seen his popularity among Jews erode somewhat in the past 18 months. But according to the Gallup Poll, which has surveyed enough Jewish respondents to draw meaningful conclusions about their opinion of the president, the decline in Obama’s approval rating among Jews has been comparable to the decline in his approval rating among other groups. Moreover, despite this decline, the President’s popularity among Jews remains considerably higher than his popularity with other groups of white voters.

But while President Obama may not have big problems with Jewish voters in general, he may very well have big problems with one group of Jewish voters — the Orthodox — and that may help to explain the results of last week’s special election in New York. The Ninth District has a large and growing population of Orthodox Jews. According to estimates from Republican pollsters, Orthodox Jews make up about a third of the registered voters in the district, and they may well have made up an even larger share of those who turned out for last week’s special election.

What makes this significant is that Orthodox Jews have very different political opinions from other Jewish voters. They are much more conservative on domestic social issues, take a much harder line on issues involving Israel and the Middle East, and are much more likely to vote for Republican candidates.

But this is nothing new. Orthodox Jews were unhappy with the Democratic Party and its policies long before Barack Obama appeared on the political scene. The data in the following table from the 2004 Survey of Jewish Public Opinion conducted by the American Jewish Committee show that compared with other Jewish voters, the Orthodox were much more likely to identify with the Republican Party, describe themselves as conservatives, oppose gay marriage, support the war in Iraq and oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. And they were also much more likely to express a preference for George Bush over John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

Chart 1: Political attitudes of American Jews in 2004 by religious identity

Source: American Jewish Committee, 2004 Survey of Jewish Public Opinion

Given these results, it is hardly surprising that Orthodox Jewish voters in NY-9 would be dissatisfied with President Obama’s Middle East policies or that they would have voted for a conservative Republican for Congress over a Democrat who supported same-sex marriage and the construction of a Muslim cultural center and mosque in lower Manhattan. But Orthodox Jews make up less than 10 percent of Jewish voters in the United States. The vast majority of Jewish voters hold moderate-to-liberal views on domestic and foreign policy issues.

If Republicans hope to make significant gains among Jewish voters in the 2012 presidential election, they would do best to nominate a candidate whose appeal extends beyond the conservative Orthodox minority to the moderate-to-liberal Jewish mainstream. However, given the current field of Republican candidates and the views of Republican primary voters, that seems unlikely to happen.