WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama enjoys the support of three-fifths of American Jews, according to the latest American Jewish Committee survey, a significant improvement over where he stood half a year ago in the organization’s polling.
The poll, released Monday, shows Obama with 61 percent of the Jewish vote, as opposed to 28 percent for Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is the likely Republican nominee.
That’s an improvement for the president over an AJC survey in September, when Obama scored 50 percent and Romney 32 percent.
But it’s still substantially lower than the 78 percent Obama scored among Jews in exit polls in 2008 and an improvement for Romney over the 22 percent garnered by the previous GOP nominee, John McCain. It does, however, track the AJC poll in September of 2008, which showed 57 percent support for Obama and 30 percent support for McCain.
The AJC's new findings are similar to those of the Public Religion Research Institute in March. That poll showed Obama scoring 62 percent of the Jewish vote, as opposed to 30 percent for a GOP candidate.
In the AJC poll, respondents identified the economy and health care as by far the two most important election issues. Among respondents who attend synagogue at least once a week, only 52 percent said they would vote for Obama, likely reflective of the more conservative leanings of Orthodox voters.
The 11 percent of respondents who were undecided in the AJC poll said they leaned toward Romney and Obama in roughly equal numbers.
Romney, for his part, struggles with high negative ratings from Jews, with 57 percent saying they have an unfavorable view of him. He is, however, far more popular with Jews than his previous top two GOP primary opponents; Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are each viewed unfavorably by approximately three-quarters of Jews.
AJC Executive Director David Harris says the results show that both Obama and Romney have their work cut out for them with Jewish voters.
For Obama, he said, “the concerning news is that you dropped about 17 points from where you were in 2008 and if it's going to be a close election, especially in key swing states.”
“You’re going to have to do more to recoup,” Harris said. “You will have to spend more time emphasizing the national security, pro-Israel aspects of your record.”
It’s a lesson the Obama campaign already seems to have taken to heart. Obama has spoken three times in the past six months to Jewish audiences and emphasized Israel’s security, whatever the forum — whether it was the Union for Reform Judaism in December, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in April.
Obama also has made his national security record a robust element of his campaign. Last week, his campaign released a web ad featuring the still popular President Bill Clinton dramatically narrating the account of Obama’s decision to kill Osama bin Laden.
The approach appears to be paying off among Jewish voters. The AJC poll showed Obama scoring 58 percent approval in how he managed the U.S.-Israel relationship and 69 percent in how he handled national security. Last September, just 40 percent of respondents to an AJC poll approved of his handling of the U.S. relationship with Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also saw a spike in approval for his handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship, to 70 percent from 54 percent in September.
Then and now, the economy seems to be the most important factor influencing voters. Just 37 percent of Jewish respondents approved of Obama’s handling of the economy in September. That climbed 20 points to 57 percent in this poll.
Harris says that Romney needs to understand the focus of Jewish voters on the economy in making his case to the community.
“If you are Governor Romney and you are making the economy the centerpiece of your campaign, understand that Jews care about the economy as much as others do,” he said, noting that much of the GOP pitch to Jews has been focused on Israel and national security.
Asked about the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, 89 percent of respondents said they were concerned, with 64 percent supporting a U.S. strike should diplomacy and sanctions fail.
Majorities of respondents said they preferred Democrats over Republicans on every issue on which they were queried. Democrats beat Republicans most decisively on social issues: 81 percent preferred how Democrats handled abortion, and 74 percent preferred how the party dealt with church-state issues.
Republicans won their highest marks on U.S.-Israel relations, where they were favored by 40 percent as opposed to 57 percent support for Democrats, and the Iranian nuclear issue, where they were preferred by 37 percent to 60 percent for Democrats.
The gender gap in the general electorate was reflected among Jews: Obama had the support of 67 percent of Jewish women as opposed to 55 percent of Jewish men; Romney had the support of 34 percent of Jewish men and 22 percent of women.
The online poll, administered March 14-27 by Knowledge Networks, surveyed 1,074 respondents who had previously identified themselves as Jewish. It had a margin of error of 4.8 percentage points.