The Republican Jewish Coalition held its forum for presidential candidates on Thursday. With the exception of Rand Paul, all of the 14 remaining candidates made appearances. The speeches were mostly predictable expressions of opposition to Islamism and support for Israel. But they also included amusing gaffes, such as Jim Gilmore explaining that he prepared for the event by watching Schindler’s List.
What was the point of this venture into the absurd? Not to attract Jewish voters. Fewer than one in three American Jews identifies as a Republican. While that number has increased slightly over the last decade, Jews overall are declining as a portion of the electorate. Politicians don’t usually risk making fools of themselves to win over a small portion of a shrinking demographic. There had to be other targets.
One of those targets can be found on the RJC’s masthead. The casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has donated millions of dollars to Republican candidates in previous elections, and is likely to do so again. Adelson himself was not present. But the forum is widely considered a kind of public audition for his support.
The other target audience was evangelical conservatives, who will make a real difference in the general election as well as the primaries. For many of these voters, “love” for Jews is an article of faith, as well as a litmus test for candidates.
Successful appeals to these audiences are more likely to reduce Republicans’ share of the Jewish vote than to increase it. Israel is less important to most American Jews than it is to Adelson and his allies. And polls suggest they actually support the administration’s Middle East policies, including the Iran deal. So Ted Cruz’s argument that Jews should ignore their disagreements with his social views in favor of his foreign policy probably won’t work.
Jews are concerned about the resurgence anti-Semitism around the world, so they might be expected to welcome Christians’ sincere opposition to Jew hatred. The problem is that they find effusions of eternal love creepy rather than reassuring. Marco Rubio’s invocation of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” was more measured, but is unlikely to be more effective. Although it was evidently well-intentioned, this rhetoric reminds many of Jews of a long history of religious cooptation.
Republicans have been expecting a breakthrough in Jewish support for decades. Despite or because of the RJC’s efforts, it probably won’t happen any time soon.
Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.