Behind the Numbers

Does Israel matter in 2012?

Short answer: no.

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

President Obama and Republicans have repeatedly clashed over policy towards Israel, incited most recently by comments from the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, who argued that some anti-Semitism was rooted in territorial tensions between Israel and its neighbors. On Wednesday, Republican presidential hopefuls looked to court Jewish supporters at a forum held by the Republican Jewish Coalition.

The entire hubbub raises a critical question: How important is Israel as a voting issue?

In short, not very. Domestic concerns are reigning supreme in 2012 and Jewish voters -- who may be naturally more concerned about the state of Israel -- make up a very small portion of the electorate, even in key swing states. But the low-interest issue could help clarify choices for Republicans, who see Israel relations as a higher national priority.

More than eight in 10 Americans cited domestic issues as their top voting issue in 2012 in a November Washington Post-ABC News poll, while less than two percent volunteered international issues. Even among international issues, Israel takes a back seat. None of the 1,004 adults interviewed for the survey mentioned Israel as the most important issue in their vote.

Jewish voters

Jewish voters made up 2 percent of voters in 2008, similar to their representation in the public overall, with their numbers peaking at 4 percent in Florida, a perennial swing state often decided by a few percentage points. Nationally, Obama won Jewish voters by a nearly 4 to 1 margin over Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), according to exit polls.

But Obama currently faces the lowest ratings of his presidency among Jews. In the latest Gallup data provided to the Washington Post, 51 percent of Jews approved of the way the president is handling his job and 42 percent disapproved. While Obama continues to score higher among Jews than the public overall, the sizable well of disapproval among a core Democratic group provides an opportunity for Republicans in 2012.

Republicans and evangelicals

Despite the absence of people mentioning Israel relations as a deciding factor in their vote, the issue may play a more important role in the Republican primary than the general election. Two key groups -- conservative Republicans and white evangelical Protestants -- see Israel as especially important.

More than six in 10 white evangelical Protestants and conservative Republicans said protecting Israel is a very important goal for the U.S. in an April Pew Research Center poll, compared with fewer than four in 10 of Americans overall. Sympathy for Israel over Palestine also peaks among these two groups.

Heightened interest among evangelical Christians may reflect findings from a 2006 Pew survey, which found a majority of evangelicals believe Israel was given to the Jewish people by God and that Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has earned accolades for his views on limited government, but his foreign policy stances have drawn criticism from his opponents in recent debates, including his position on Israel. In a November debate, Paul argued for reducing the U.S. role in Israel's affairs, saying that "Israel should take care of themselves." The Republican Jewish Forum barred Paul from Wednesday's gathering, citing his "misguided and extreme views" on Israel."

Why the strong calls of support?

Repeated declarations of support for Israel from Obama and his potential Republican challengers may reflect the lopsided nature in American views of the Israel-Palestinian dispute. Americans sided with Israel over Palestine by a 4 to 1 margin in a September Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll.

In addition, Obama came under fire from a prominent Jewish donor this spring after his speech on resolving the border dispute with Palestinians. In November, the president worked to reassure Jewish campaign contributors, saying "we don't compromise when it comes to Israel's security."

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Behind the Numbers

Newt's Numbers, Cain's Cuts

Is Gingrich trusted with the '3 a.m. phone call'? What the polls tell us about the Republican candidates on foreign policy.

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Gingrich trusted with "3 a.m. phone call?": Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has become a frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination by consolidating support among key GOP groups, and while some have dismissed him as another Republican "flavor of the month," his longtime Washington ties may give him a key edge over other contenders: experience. Fully 36 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said Gingrich is the most qualified candidate to be commander in chief in a November CNN/ORC poll, topping the 20 percent who named Mitt Romney.

The results echo a November Fox News poll that found likely primary voters trusting Gingrich with nuclear weapons more than any other candidate. About half as many trusted his top rival Romney. Indeed, almost eight in 10 Republicans said Gingrich has the experience to serve effectively as president, along with a similar number who said this about Romney. Fewer than half of Republicans thought Cain possessed the necessary experience to serve as president (the poll was conducted before accusations that Cain was involved in a 13-year extramarital affair).

Military spending cuts divide public: Embattled Republican presidential contender Herman Cain argued forcefully against military spending cuts in a speech on Tuesday, criticizing what he called a "cut, cut, cut" approach to national security. Cain's position echoes those other Republicans aimed at protecting military spending following the failure of Congress' supercommittee to produce a $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts.

Americans overwhelmingly see the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan causing financial problems for the country. Six in 10 adults said the wars deserved "a great deal" of responsibility for size of the national debt in a Pew Research Center poll this spring, compared with about four in 10 who blamed the national economy and a quarter who cited increased domestic spending.

Possibly reflecting war-weary attitudes of a public after 10 years of wars in Afghanistan and about as many in Iraq, nearly two-thirds of Americans approved of reducing military commitments overseas to help reduce the debt in a September Pew Research Center poll. But fewer support reducing military spending in general -- half of adults in an October Washington Post-Bloomberg News poll -- and just four in 10 backed "major cuts in military spending" in a November CNN/ORC poll.  

Part of the reluctance to institute sharp cuts may be the overwhelmingly positive image of the military among the general public. Fully 78 percent of adults expressed "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military in a June Gallup poll, higher than any of the 15 other institutions tested and at least twice the number who had confidence in the Supreme Court, the presidency or Congress. Even though less than 1 percent of adults served in the armed forces in the past decade, a September Pew poll found that most report having family members who once served or are currently serving in the military.

Pakistan controversy highlights popular anti-terrorism program: The ongoing snafu over a NATO air strike killing 24 Pakistani soldiers renewed the focus on U.S. drone strikes, which are overwhelmingly unpopular among Pakistanis but seen by Americans as one of the most effective measures for reducing the threat of terrorism. The situation may fuel distrust between the two nations, who already hold staunchly negative views of each other.

More than seven in 10 Americans in a September Washington Post-ABC News poll said missile strikes against suspected terrorists were effective at reducing the terrorist threat since the Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks. In addition to spanning partisan lines, many more said such attacks were effective than said so about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose popularity has soured after initially strong support.

The current controversy does little to help already strained relations between the Americans and Pakistanis. Nearly three-quarters of Pakistani adults expressed an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. in a 2011 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project; just over one in 10 offered positive ratings. And while ratings did not go down further in the immediate aftermath of Osama Bin Laden's killing, over six in 10 Pakistanis disapproved of that U.S. operation.

Even more Americans hold negative views of Pakistan. Fully 81 percent rated the nation unfavorably in a May CNN/ORC poll (pdf), ranking almost as unpopular as Iran and North Korea.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images