2012 election: Is there a Jewish 'pew gap'?

The pros in the Obama White House are facing a number of tough decisions as they head into the 2012 election. However, nobody expected a Democrat to face a growing sense of panic about the Jewish vote. I mean, check out this recent New York Times lede:

WASHINGTON -- Not since Jimmy Carter in 1980 has a Democrat running for president failed to win a lopsided majority of the Jewish vote. This has been true during times of peace or war, and even when there has been deep acrimony between the White House and the Israeli government.

Republicans see a chance to change that in 2012, with President Obama locked in a tense relationship with Israel’s leaders and criticized by many American Jews as being too tough on a close and favored ally.

Oh my. We're talking Jimmy "one term" Carter?

So what is Barack Obama going to do?

Sensing trouble, the Obama campaign and Democratic Party leaders have mobilized to solidify the president’s standing with Jewish voters. The Democratic National Committee has established a Jewish outreach program. The campaign is singling out Jewish groups, donors and other supporters with calls and e-mails to counter the Republican narrative that Mr. Obama is hostile to Israel.

Now, from a journalistic point of view, the problematic term in that paragraph is easy to spot -- "Jewish voters."

This is similar, of course, to the emphasis that many journalists continue to place on that vague, almost always meaningless phrase "Catholic voters." This is a topic that has been discussed many, many times here at GetReligion, where we have argued that there is no one bloc of Catholic voters. There are several, as detailed in the following list that grew out of a long talk with a savvy, very experienced priest here inside the DC beltway:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece — 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 it is a small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Now, I have never set down with a DC rabbi and tried to create a corresponding list of niches inside that broad, broad "Jewish voters" umbrella. 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. Readers can see a hint of this reality in this Times paragraph about a key Democratic party loss at the polls. The first voice is that of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who chairs the Democratic National Committee. :

Like other Democrats, Ms. Wasserman Schultz played down the broader implications of the upset in New York, arguing that the district’s Orthodox and Russian-Jewish population makes it more conservative than other Jewish areas. She pointed to polls showing that a majority of Jews still support Mr. Obama and that their level of approval for his performance largely tracks that of the broader electorate.

Still, American Jews are clearly less enchanted with Mr. Obama than they were in 2008, when nearly 8 out of 10 voted for him (in a Gallup poll last July, the most recent month for which data was available, his approval rating was 60 percent). Jewish lawmakers have been warning the White House that this disaffection could hurt the president in turnout, fund-raising and enthusiasm.

Here's my point: Clearly, this story must address issues about Obama and his administration's record on Israel, with Jewish voices on both sides. The Times handles that political angle with ease. However, the story never asks if Judaism -- as a faith, with doctrines and traditions -- is playing any role in this debate.

In the past decade or so, pollsters have found that one of the most dependable methods for determining how people will vote -- especially among white voters -- is to ask one question: How often do you attend a worship service of any kind?

This has become known as the "pew gap," with good cause. The more often a voter enters a religious sanctuary, the greater the chance he or she will vote Republican. This does not mean that Democratic voters are "godless" or do not have religious beliefs. It simply means that they are less likely to express their beliefs in corporate worship, in comparison with those who enter religious sanctuaries more often.

At the end of this story, I was left wondering if the same kind of gap is affecting these tensions between Jews and the Obama administration. If we are a Democratic Party fieldworker, will you get a warmer welcome at a Jewish community center or an Orthodox synagogue? At the local Chabad House or at a Reform Temple?

If there is a Jewish "pew gap," what questions would mainstream reporters need to ask in order to investigate it? Are basic issues of doctrine and tradition involved (other than beliefs about Israel)?

Just asking.

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