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Dems Still Favored by Local Voters

November 4, 2010 By:
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Lindsey Pockers of Wynnewood brings her sons, Zach, 4, and Alex, 6, with her to vote at Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood. Photo by Peter Tobia
Soon after casting his ballot at Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood, Larry Rubin, 69, stood in the brisk autumn air and reflected on his vote.

"I'm very disappointed with the way our government is going," Rubin said, explaining why he'd voted a straight Republican ticket. "I'm very concerned about my grandchildren and the future they are going to face.

"I would just like for them to be in a position to enjoy what I have had in my life," stated the Wynnewood resident.

Rubin was far from alone in expressing fear about the nation's current direction and the possible outcome of the state's top races. But among Jews, his Republican vote was clearly in the minority.

According to exit interviews, as well as formal surveys, most Jewish Pennsylvanians voted the Democratic line and expressed fears about the direction of the Republican Party.

"I think the Republicans are crazy, and the Tea Party people are even crazier," said 85-year-old Sheldon Kapustin, of Melrose Park, after voting at Gratz College.

In the end, despite an intensive Republican advertising blitz and renewed speculation that Jews might desert the Democratic Party, they overwhelmingly backed Democrats in key state races, even as the nation's political tide turned to the GOP.

Two separate telephone surveys of Jewish voters on Election Day found that Jews heavily favored Democrat Joe Sestak over the winner, Republican Pat Toomey.

One of the surveys, conducted by Gerstein-Agne Strategic Communication polled 600 Jewish voters, and found that 71 percent of Jews backed Sestak, while 23 percent opted for Toomey.

Participants were called at random from a list of about 150,000 individuals culled from voter data. The survey took an average of 15 minutes and delved into how voters were affected by a series of ads depicting Sestak as anti-Israel. For full results of the survey, click here.

According to pollster Jim Gerstein, the survey has a 4 percent margin of error. The poll's sponsors not only wanted to know who Jews had opted for in the Senate and gubernatorial races, but to what extent the Israel issue -- and a back-and-forth advertising campaign -- had influenced how Jews vote.

It's hard to compare this telephone survey with exit polls of Jewish voters from the last U.S. Senate race in 2006. However, in that race, 78 percent of Jewish voters backed the Democrat, Sen. Bob Casey, compared with 22 percent who voted for Rick Santorum.

In the governor's race, Democrat Dan Onorato captured 68 percent of the Jewish vote, while Republican Tom Corbett, the state's next governor, got 27 percent.

Support for Democrats in local and state races mirrored continuing Jewish support for the president. President Barack Obama enjoyed a 63 percent approval rating among Jews surveyed; he captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008.

The Republican Jewish Coalition sponsored its own poll, also of 600 Jewish voters, with somewhat different results. The survey, conducted by Arthur Finkelstein, found 62 percent of Jewish voters backed Sestak and 31 percent voted for Toomey. Matthew Brooks, the RJC's executive director, said the numbers suggested that the Republicans had made inroads among Jews. He said Toomey did much better than the average of 24 percent of Jewish voters that Republicans have garnered nationally over the last three decades.

The RJC poll also had a margin of error of 4 percent.

For years, the RJC and its backers have asserted that the GOP is the better party on Israel, and that the Democrats have come to embrace a kind of moral relativism that is less sympathetic to the Jewish state. Democrats have long disputed this, contending that both parties are pro-Israel, and that Republican attempts to politicize the issue undermine the U.S.-Israel relationship.

What was different this year was the frequency that ads focusing on Israel appeared on television. In part because of the ruling in a Supreme Court decision earlier this year that allowed for corporate and anonymous donations, groups like the RJC and the newly formed Emergency Committee for Israel were free to raise and spend more than ever before. Sestak became one of the prime targets of those groups.

The RJC and Emergency Committee ran television spots that criticized Sestak for signing a congressional letter calling for the easing of Israel's Gaza blockade. This summer, J Street responded with an ad highlighting Sestak's pro-Israel voting record, as well as his commitment to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a two-state solution.

In its final push, the RJC, which spent $1.2 million on this race, aired an ad attacking Sestak for his support for trying alleged terrorists in civilian courts.

Brooks attributed his group's statistic that Toomey got 31 percent to Jewish concern about Sestak's worldview and cited the data as proof that its ad campaign had worked. It's poll, however, did not specifically ask

whether the ad campaign had influenced voters.

For his part, Gerstein, whose poll did address that question, said the results showed that the ad campaigns had little impact. "The efforts to make Israel a key issue in the campaign with less than 3 percent of the statewide population did nothing to move voters in that population; the only people who were affected were Republicans who weren't leaving Toomey anyway," he said.

Thirty percent of the survey respondents said they had heard about criticism of Sestak's position on Israel, while 60 percent said they hadn't.

Of all the respondents, 5 percent said the criticism made them more likely to vote for Sestak; 8 percent said it made them more likely to vote for Toomey; and 16 percent said it made no difference.

Asked about the RJC's ad focusing on Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, 39 percent of respondents said they had seen it, and 55 percent did not. Of those, 11 percent said that the ad made them more likely to back Sestak, 4 percent said it made them more likely to vote for Toomey, and 24 percent said it made no difference.

When asked about their top concerns in this election, 55 percent of respondents cited the economy as their top concern, 35 percent chose health care, and 8 percent named Israel. 

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