As college students prepare to hit the polls on November 6 – many for the first time – they will be considering a broad array of policy issues and party platforms. What drives young people to vote? How do they consider various issues? Does Israel play a role in the choices they make on election day?
Israel Campus Beat interviewed pro-Israel students on campuses across the country to gauge the impact their support for Israel has on how they are preparing for Election Day.
In RockTheVote’s latest poll of 18-29 year olds, jobs and the economy were the primary issues young people wanted politicians to address, with education and the cost of college taking second place on the priority list. The first issue of foreign policy, the war in Afghanistan, came in fifth. Based on ICB’s interviews with multiple campuses, it seems that these patterns hold true among pro-Israel young adults.
George Washington University senior John Bennet, who interns for the Romney campaign, said he believes that Gov. Mitt Romney understands the vital importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship. In light of continued unrest in Libya and Egypt, Bennet said this understanding will be crucial in the next four years.
“But regardless of who is elected, United States foreign policy really hasn’t changed drastically in the immediate past and I don’t anticipate that it will,” Bennet said.
Many students echoed Bennet’s confidence that America will remain committed to Israel’s security regardless of who is elected.
Professor Gil Troy, who teaches American history at McGill University, stated that although some people may feel that President Barack Obama’s stance on Israel seems less enthusiastic than some of his predecessors, it would be wrong to call him anti–Israel.
Troy noted that each time the President has said or done something that caused some Israel supporters to question his commitment to the Jewish state, he has responded with a reassuring move to strengthen the US-Israel bond.
For example, Troy noted, “When there is a power struggle between Obama and Netanyahu, Obama ensures stronger military cooperation soon afterward.” But Troy had a different rationale for college students prioritizing domestic issues over foreign policy related to Israel.
“In general, college students tend to be a mix of interventionist and isolationist,” he said. “They are anti-war, anti entanglements in foreign lands and interventionist in humanitarian causes like Darfur.”
With so many Americans deeming Israel a peripheral issue, should supporters of the Jewish state be concerned that the pro-Israel base is becoming less passionate about Israel?
Professor Jonathan Sarna, who teaches American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said that this is not the case.
“Were the President to come out against Israel, then American Jews might in significant numbers vote for the opposing candidate,” he said. However, he continued, because pro-Israel voters do not feel that there is a significant threat to Israel when choosing between Romney and Obama, they do not feel they need to consider Israel’s security more than other policy issues that concern them.
Among Jewish voters, a key bastion of support for Israel, the candidates’ policies on Israel may not have as large a role in determining voting preferences as some people think.
According to David Harris, the president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), support for Israel comes 6th, 7th, and 8th on Jewish voters’ priority lists. He termed this statistic a success story, noting that both candidates value Israel as an important ally and view protecting Israel against Iran’s nuclear threat as a priority. For this reason, he posited, American Jews do not feel they need to prioritize Israel as they decide which candidate to support.
“Only a handful [of American Jews] vote on Israel alone,” Harris said, adding that other issues that figure in Jews’ voting choices include social issues and the economy.
Harris noted that many American Jews put their concerns about social policies and the economy ahead of their concerns about Israel.
Harris called this a “litmus test issue: It would be a top priority if the presidential candidate came out against Israel poll after poll.”
Representatives of the Republican Jewish Council declined to be interviewed.
Sarna noted that some pro-Israel Americans vote based on their views about Israeli security alone. Many of these voters, he added, will cast their ballots for Romney.
“It will be a vote that is more antagonistic to [Obama] than enthusiastic to the man challenging him,” he said.
Historically, American Jews have favored Democratic Presidential candidates by a 3-1 margin, and among all college students the ratio is 2-1.
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