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March 27, 2019 10:21 am

Misreading Polls on Israel — Again

avatar by Mitchell Bard


The US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Photo: Reuters / Jim Bourg.

Gallup has released its annual survey on American public opinion towards Israel, and the reactions were predictably a mixture of hysteria and misinformation.

Typical was this Haaretz headline — “New Poll Shows Support for Israel Plummeting Among U.S. Liberals, Millennials and Women” — and this one from The Times of Israel: “New poll: Americans’ support for Israel falls to lowest point in a decade.”

Was the data really that dire?

Here’s what Gallup analyst Lydia Saad concluded:

Americans’ overall views toward Israel and the Palestinian Authority have changed little in the past year, with roughly seven in 10 viewing Israel very or mostly favorably and two in 10 viewing the Palestinian Authority in the same terms. … While liberal Democrats are no less favorable toward Israel today than they have been over the past two decades, they have grown more favorable toward the Palestinians.

So, should the pro-Israel community be worried?

It is true that overall support for Israel did fall from its all-time high of 64 percent to 59 percent — its lowest point since 2009. Nevertheless, that figure is still well above the historical average of 48 percent registered in the 89 Gallup polls since the Six-Day War.

Overall, support for Israel has been on the upswing. In the 1970s, the average level of support for Israel was 44 percent; in the 1980s and 1990s, it was 47 percent, including the record highs during the Gulf War. Since 2000, support for Israel is averaging 54 percent.

When Gallup asked respondents their opinion of different countries, 69 percent said that they had a favorable opinion of Israel, ranking it eighth behind Canada, the UK, Japan, Germany, France, India, and South Korea. By contrast, just 21 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of the Palestinian Authority, placing it near the bottom of the rankings with Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

The real hysteria has focused on an alleged decline in Democratic support for Israel. But the data does not justify such concern. Yes, 76 percent of Republicans compared to 43 percent of Democrats were more sympathetic towards Israel than the Palestinians. This sounds bad — unless you know that support among Democrats in 37 polls since 1993 averaged 46 percent. Support for Israel was lower than that in the mid-1970s.

Democratic support for the Palestinians has increased to an average of 20 percent since 1993 (30 percent this year), and that is more than double the percentage of Republicans. Is this alarming? Perhaps, especially if you look at ideological differences in support for Israel and the Palestinians: conservatives (76 percent-11 percent), moderates (43 percent-30 percent), and liberals (43 percent-30 percent). This is consistent with the general view that liberals have become more critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinians, while the opposite is true of conservatives.

On the other hand, support for Israel among liberal Democrats has remained consistent for a decade. Furthermore, when asked their attitude toward Israel this year, 58 percent of liberal Democrats and 66 percent of moderate/conservative Democrats had a favorable view, and only nine percent viewed Israel very unfavorably.

The real story is the growth of Republican support for Israel. Back in the mid-1970s, Republicans were more supportive than Democrats, but their numbers were in the 40s and the partisan gap was virtually zero. Since 1993, however, Republicans have averaged 67 percent with a partisan gap of 22 points (it was 33 points this year).

There has also been a lot of discussion about declining support for Israel among younger Americans. That notion is bolstered by the data on sympathy for Israel and the Palestinians across age groups: 18-34 (47 percent-29 percent), 35-54 (57 percent-21 percent), and 55+ (70 percent-15 percent).

This should not be surprising, however, if put into historical context. Older Americans are typically more sympathetic to Israel. The disparity across age groups may appear alarming; however, if past trends persist, today’s young people will become more supportive of Israel over time. Of course, Jews being Jews, that “if” is magnified when we read exaggerated accounts of the situation towards Israel and Jews on college campuses.

And what about the whole notion of a “Jexodus” of Jews leaving the Democratic Party for the Republicans?

Haaretz ran this headline, “U.S. Jews’ Support for Trump at Serious Low Despite anti-Democratic Campaign, Poll Finds.” According to Gallup, only 26 percent of Jews approve of Trump’s conduct as president while 71 percent disapprove. Guess what? In 2016, 71 percent of Jews voted for Clinton and 24 percent for Trump, the historical averages for Democratic and Republican candidates since 1968.

The poll also found that “only 16 percent” of Jews identified as Republican. That is exactly the same percentage that the American Jewish Committee found in its 2018 survey. The only place where that figure is expected to change is in the fantasies of Republicans.

As unhappy as Jews may be with the Democrats, especially with regard to the antisemites now in Congress, they are not going to join a party whose leader they disagree with on virtually every issue. Many liberal Jews do not even agree with what other Jews consider positive steps that Trump has taken toward Israel, such as moving the embassy, pulling out of the Iran deal, and now recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

It is possible that Jewish votes could shift in the presidential election. It is unlikely, however, that their support for Democrats in Congress would change; therefore, Republicans can only dream about a realignment.

The best chance for Republicans to pick up Jewish votes is if the Democrats nominate one of the candidates from the far-left for the presidency. Even then, unless it is someone hostile to Israel, it is unlikely that Trump will significantly increase his share of the Jewish vote. Absent some catastrophic revelation of wrongdoing, most Jews who supported Trump are likely to stay with him based on — among other things — his pro-Israel policies.

This is not only my opinion. Responding to Trump’s tweet that “Jewish people are leaving the Democratic Party,” Frank Newport, a Gallup senior scientist, said that “the stability of Jewish support for the Democratic Party over the past decade suggests that such a shift in allegiance is unlikely.”

Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library.

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