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GOP’s Jewish movement stalls

Community still overwhelmingly votes Democratic

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NEW YORK — Like Chicago Cubs fans in spring, Jewish Republicans start every presidential election season hoping this will be their year.

They hope American Jews, who have voted overwhelmingly Democratic for decades, will start a significant shift to the political right, but scholars who study Jewish voting patterns say it won't happen in 2012.

Although recent studies have found potential for some movement toward the Republicans, analysts say any revolution in the U.S. Jewish vote won't occur any time soon.

"I would be very surprised to find that this is the transformative election," said Jonathan D. Sarna, an expert in American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Surveys confirm that growth in socially conservative Orthodox Jewish communities, which tend to have more Republican voters, is greater than in Jewish groups from other traditions. Russian-speaking Jews are also emerging as a strong GOP constituency, as evidenced when Republican Bob Turner won the special election to succeed disgraced Democratic Rep. Anthony D. Weiner of New York.

But a generous estimate of the two groups combined would make them only a quarter of American Jews, with many living in heavily Democratic New York and thus not a factor in presidential politics.

Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University's Wagner School, predicts little change for a decade or more, at least until the many Orthodox children reach voting age.

The enduring liberalism of Jewish voters has confounded Jewish conservatives, who tend to view support for Democrats as a youthful habit Jews should have outgrown long ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, when U.S. Jews were becoming more assimilated and wealthier, expectations rose that they would follow the pattern of other ethnic groups and start voting Republican.

It didn't happen. President Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, according to exit polls. The only Democrat who failed to win a majority of Jewish voters in recent decades was President Carter, in a three-way race in 1980 with Republican Ronald Reagan and independent John Anderson.

This year, Republicans saw a new opening. Surveys also found a softening of support for Mr. Obama among Jews, down anywhere from a few to 10 percentage points compared with four years ago.

The Republican Jewish Coalition has been hammering away at Mr. Obama with ad campaigns such as "My Buyer's Remorse" and a video, "Perilous Times," on Israeli security under the president. The focus has been on Mr. Obama's frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and critics' claims that Mr. Obama is doing too little to stop Iran's nuclear program.

Billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson poured funds into the coalition, especially for outreach in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mr. Adelson, a staunch supporter of Israel, has said he would spend up to $100 million to defeat the president.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, noted that since 1992, the percentage of Jews voting Republican increased in every presidential election except for 2008. "Republicans have been making inroads and gaining market share," Mr. Brooks said.

But Ira M. Sheskin, a University of Miami professor and director of the Jewish Demography Project, said Republicans aren't on the way to overtaking the Jewish vote.

Mr. Sheskin argued that Jewish votes for Republicans are recovering from a low of 11 percent for President George H.W. Bush, whose policies toward Israel had upset many Jews. Of the 12 Jewish U.S. senators and 24 House members currently serving, only one, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, is a Republican, he said.

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