And now, the myth of the "Jewish voter"

What would your GetReligionistas do without the many faithful readers who constantly send us URLs for stories that raise issues relevant our work here? We simply can't read everything that's out there in the mainstream press, no matter how hard we try to keep up with the essentials. But readers see lots of things and often connect the dots that are needed to link news items back to the journalistic terrain that we try to cover.

For example, consider this recent New York Times piece on religion and politics. Here's the top of the story:

A poll of American Jewish voters shows that they overwhelmingly support Barack Obama for president, just as they did four years ago, and that Israel and Iran rank low on their list of priority issues in the presidential election.

The results cast doubt on the claim that Mr. Obama has alienated a significant swath of Jewish voters because of his rocky relationship with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We show no slippage in Jewish support for President Obama,” said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, an independent research group based in Washington D.C., which conducted the poll of 1,004 Jewish adults from Feb. 23 to March 5. The margin of error is plus or minus five percentage points.

Support for Mr. Obama is still higher among Jews than among the general electorate, with 62 percent of Jewish voters saying they would like to see him elected, and 30 percent saying they preferred the Republican candidate.

A Jewish reader sent us this email with a note posing this question: Is it possible that a "pew gap" can be seen emerging among American Jews, one similar to that found among the alleged "Catholic voters" and the American population in general? Might the whole concept of a unified "Jewish vote" now be a myth?

In particular, this reader wondered if the divisions among Jewish voters might resemble those found in that familiar GetReligion typology about four camps among "Catholic voters." You remember the one:

* Ex-Catholics. While most ex-Catholics are solid for the Democrats, the large percentage that has left to join conservative Protestant churches (including some Latinos) may lean to GOP.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter ... depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very, very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Everything starts with questions about worship attendance.

Thus, note in particular that the Times says that Obama commands a rock-solid 60-plus percent of the "Jewish voters," while 30 percent prefer various Republican options.

Those percentages may sound familiar, for those who follow the debates about the declining number of American Jews who regularly or semi-regularly attend worship services. It's hard to pin down a specific number, but various surveys have found that somewhere between 25 and 15 percent of American Jews attend worship services on a weekly basis.

While, clearly, there are religious Jews who remain dedicated Democrats, is it possible that the 30 percent of American Jews who lean right politically are also more traditionally religious and, thus, tend to take part in worship services more often? If so, pollsters need to start inserting questions about worship attendance into surveys seeking insights into the future of the mythical, monolithic "Jewish vote."

This issue actually came up here at GetReligion last year, linked to another mainstream news report. At that time, I wrote:

Obviously there are secular Jews, there are cultural Jews (who go to High Holy Days services and that’s about it), there are doctrinally liberal Jews who frequent pews, there are several varieties of Orthodox Jews, etc., etc. I would assume that Obama is doing better with voters in some of these camps than in others. ...

If you are a Democratic Party fieldworker, will you get a warmer welcome at a Jewish community center or an Orthodox synagogue?

So, other than worship attendance, what are the other cultural and doctrinal issues that pollsters need to probe to better understand the emerging trends among the various kinds of Jewish voters? Ideas anyone?

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