The Republican road to the White House runs through Israel
As Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) announced on Monday that he is running for president, his Virginia audience cheered. He dropped applause line after applause line on some 10,000 students at Liberty University, which bills itself as the largest Christian university in the world.
Cruz riffed, unimaginatively, on an “imagine” theme, asking the young audience to “imagine a president” who would repeal Obamacare and perform other feats. There was applause throughout. But one line prompted the students to erupt into a roaring, 30-second, standing ovation:
Instead of a president who boycotts Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, imagine a president who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel.
There can be little doubt. Evangelical Christian voters, a key component of the Republican Party base, are wild about Israel. They are also furious about what they see as President Barack Obama’s rough treatment of the current custodian of the Holy Land, Netanyahu. This fervent evangelical support for Israel could help a GOP candidate seize the Republican Party’s presidential nomination — and then capture the White House.
Among conservative Republicans, according to a July 2014 Pew Research poll, 77 percent back Israel, while only 4 percent favor the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Among all Republicans and voters who lean Republican, 78 percent of white evangelical Protestants sympathize with Israel, compared again to just 4 percent who side with the Palestinians.
Evangelicals have a clear passion for Israel — a passion that may even exceed that of American Jews.
Consider: Forty-six percent of white evangelicals believe that Washington is not supportive enough of Israel, according to an October 2013 Pew Research poll. Only 31 percent of America’s Jews feel the same way.
The animating force behind Christian passion for Israel can be found in the Bible. Eighty-two percent of white evangelicals believe Israel was given to the Jews by God. Among Jews, only 40 percent find a divine hand behind a Jewish Israel.
Many evangelicals firmly believe biblical prophecy that Israel’s existence is necessary to set the stage for the return of Jesus Christ.
Evangelicals might also view Israel as a reliable steward of the Holy Land. Israel has maintained many Christian sites and keeps the areas accessible to visitors. Should Islamic extremists — such as Islamic State, which is busy destroying historical artifacts — ever seize control of a Palestinian state, results for sacred Christian sites could be catastrophic.
But support on the American right for Israel may also have to do with an attitude toward Islam informed by national security concerns. Pew found in a June 2014 survey that 72 percent of those describing themselves as “steadfast conservatives” believe the Islamic religion is “more likely than others to encourage violence,” compared to just 13 percent of liberals.
Traditionally, backing for Israel has been viewed as a lure for Jewish votes. That will still be true during the 2016 presidential cycle, particularly in the general election. This has long bolstered the Democratic Party, however. With Republican candidates advocating strong support for Israel, they could cause many Jewish voters to defect to the GOP, and undermine the Democratic nominee.
Jewish voters in Florida, which Obama won in 2012, counted for 5 percent of the state’s vote. Given the extreme tightness of the presidential contests there, a shift of Jewish voters to the Republican camp could turn the state from blue to red — and possibly deliver its Electoral College votes, too.
Jewish voters in swing states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, and to a lesser extent, Ohio could also have an impact. But more than half of all Jews in the United States live in New York, California and New Jersey, states that are solidly in the Democratic camp. The importance of the Jewish vote is lower than it used to be when those states were in play for Republicans.
Jewish donors are another matter. In a 2009 survey, the Pew Research Center found that 46 percent of Jews earn more than $100,000 a year, the highest of any religious group. When you see Republicans embracing Israel with both arms, it could in part be a form of outreach for contributions. Prospective Republican candidates are already vying for the support of one particularly wealthy and generous Jewish donor in what has become known as “The Sheldon Adelson Primary.”
But money is only important in politics if it helps turn out voters. And with nearly half of Republicans describing themselves as “highly religious” — compared to only 19 percent of Democrats — GOP presidential primary candidates must pass the hat for votes in the pews.
Turning out the base remains critical to the general election. As Obama proved in both his presidential races.
Obama confounded the conventional wisdom, particularly in 2012, by running an unabashedly liberal campaign instead of making the supposedly mandatory tack to the middle. He did this by “community organizing” on a massive scale, running a relentless political machine that identified Democratic base voters and drew them in flocks to the polls.
To replicate this in the 2016 general election, Republicans will need to motivate their conservative Christian base. And an extremely effective way to do this will be to talk up support for Israel.
If relations with Israel continue to deteriorate and Obama moves to “re-assess” Washington’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian question, the importance of Israel as an election issue to those with an emotional attachment to the nation will only grow.
And a Republican could ride that wave of emotion straight to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.