Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #10: Democratic support for Israel isn't down, GOP support is up

Something akin to the game of telphone seems to happen too much these days, especially in the Jewish community. Some sort of fact comes out, and then as it gets repeated, others, intentionally or sometimes unintentionally, distort it until the alleged fact that everyone is familiar with isn't the actual fact at all. (One example is the poll that found 6 percent of Israelis thought Obama is "pro-Israel," which incorrectly evolved into 6 percent approval for Obama among Israelis.) And it seems to be happening with this recent Gallup poll on support for Israel broken down by political party.

Earlier this week, both Shmuel Rosner in the Jerusalem Post and Jim Besser in The Jewish Week both correctly noted the growing partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans on support for Israel and speculated on the implications of that fact (a fascinating issue, but one I'm not concerned with in this post.) But then Marc Tracy in Tablet, in providing his own analysis of the findings, referred to "the Democratic turn from Israel," followed by the Republican Jewish Coalition's Noah Silverman writing that the poll showed Democratic support for Israel "eroded" and that there is a "shrinking proportion of Democrats who say they support Israel."

Problem is, while the poll does show that the partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans is widening, this is not due to any significant change over the last decade in Democratic support for the Jewish state. It's almost entirely due to a striking increase in Republican backing for Israel.

Yes, Democratic backing for Israel went from 54 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2010 -- hardly an enormous jump in a poll with a plus or minus four percent margin of error. But if one looks at the long-term trend, here is the Democratic number on this question from 2001-2009: 51, 48, 48, 46, 41, 50, 51, 48, 54, 48. So actually, the Democratic support for Israel is actually down three points from 2001, even with 2002 and 2003 and even with 2008 too. In fact, four of the ten years polled had 48 percent support for Israel among Democrats, one had 46 and two others had 50 and 51, with a couple outliers either way. In other words, as Gallup says in its report: "Support for Israel among Democrats has been relatively flat."

Contrast that to the Republican numbers, which increased remarkably from 60 to 85 percent from 2001 to 2010. The numbers took a big jump from 2001 to 2002, from 60 to 67 percent, and then another 10 percent jump the folllowing year before basically leveling off there. From 2006 to 2009, GOP backing for Israel (the actual question is where does one's "sympathies" lie, with Israel or the Palestinians) was 77, 76, 77 and 77 before jumping to 85 percent this year (It's not clear why, but it appears like a possible explanation for the big jump after four years of stability would be a reaction to Republican feelings of Obama's policies in the region.)

Anyway, that's remarkable -- this poll shows support for Israel among Republicans went from a significant majority to almost unanimous in ten years. Support among independents also has skyrocketed, from 42 percent to 60 in the decade. That's the story -- how did Israel become so popular among Republicans and why? Is it all because of 9/11 and the war on terror? Something else?

Democratic support for Israel certainly isn't increasing. But it's not decreasing, either. While there is no doubt that there are elements on the left that aren't sympathetic to Israel, and they do seem to be more vocal and noticeable than they may have been a few years ago, this poll shows that this segment of the left, or Democratic Party, doesn't appear to be growing. So when we discuss this poll, we can discuss why it is exactly that GOP sympathies for Israel are so sky high. We can discuss why Democratic support for Israel isn't rising in the same way. But don't say that Democratic support for Israel is eroding or slipping -- because that's not what the numbers say.

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