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Dueling Polls Tell Different Stories

November 11, 2010 By:
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Senator-elect Pat Toomey addressed Jewish supporters in Philadelphia days before the election. Photo by Greg Bezanis

By midnight on Nov. 2, the close Pennsylvania Senate race had a clear winner. And yet, a full week after Republican Pat Toomey delivered his victory speech, the battle to claim the Jewish vote goes on.

More specifically, the spin has centered around two competing Election Day polls of Jewish voters. One was paid for by the Republican Jewish Coalition, which, not surprisingly, had backed Toomey. The other was sponsored by J Street, which supported Joe Sestak.

While both surveys showed the majority of Jews siding with Sestak, the numbers contrasted somewhat. The Republican-backed poll showed more Jews voting for the GOP candidate.

On the face of it, the difference of a couple percentage points in a race that's already been decided doesn't seem to carry much weight. But to J Street and the RJC, the numbers matter a great deal, and provide some basis for finding answers to questions pondered by political insiders:

For example, how effective was the RJC's $1 million ad campaign that targeted Sestak? And to what extent did Jews behave like other voters on Election Day?

Over the past week, both sides have been pressing their case in a series of news releases, conference calls and briefings with supporters.

The RJC telephone survey of 600 voters -- conducted by Republican pollster and strategist Arthur Finkelstein -- found that, statewide, Sestak captured 62 percent of the vote, while Toomey garnered 30.7 percent. Finkelstein's figures for Philadelphia were virtually identical.

The J Street survey, conducted by Gerstein-Agne Strategic Communication, a Democratic polling firm, found 71 percent of statewide respondents supported Sestak, while 23 supported Toomey. In the Philadelphia region, Sestak got 76 percent, and Toomey got 19 percent.

The margin of error for both polls was plus or minus four percentage points.

How They Spun It
Almost immediately, lead pollster Jim Gerstein said his survey showed that the RJC's efforts to paint Sestak as anti-Israel had minimal impact. And despite a historic GOP victory nationwide, he said, Jews, by and large, stuck with the Democrats.

"In Pennsylvania," said Gerstein, "the Senate vote remained very Democratic and, in fact, went against the national trend toward Republicans among the broader American electorate."

The RJC has a different spin, claiming that Toomey's 31 percent represented a significant increase from 24 percent, which is the average that GOP candidates have scored with Jewish voters over the last three decades in congressional races.

"That's a sign that our efforts have borne fruit, particularly in this election cycle," said RJC regional director Scott Feigelstein.

Some critics questioned the methodology of the RJC poll, claiming that the results were skewed. On that poll, respondents could only identify themselves as Reform, Conservative or Orthodox; Reconstructionist or unaffiliated weren't options. By comparison, unaffiliated voters comprised 21 percent of the respondents for the J Street survey.

Some observers have said that polls of Jews and non-Jews historically have shown that the unaffiliated tend to vote Democrat, and that affiliated Jews may be more likely to go Republican.

Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, said that the self-identifying questions contained in the poll didn't affect who was selected to participate.

The questions in the RJC poll "do point to the possibility that the researchers were insufficiently sensitive to techniques designed to reach marginally attached Jews," he e-mailed. "The discrepancy is small, though."

Gilbert N. Kahn, a political scientist at Kean University in Union, N.J., who closely follows Jewish politics, said that the nine-point differential between the two polls is statically irrelevant.

Kahn said that both surveys reinforce the national poll taken last month by the American Jewish Committee showing that the economy was the most important issue for Jewish voters, and that Israel, while still on the list, was much farther down on the order of priorities.

Kahn said that Republicans do seem to be making a dent in the Jewish vote. "What it does suggest is an increased vulnerability for Democrats," though he added that "it is not critical at this point."  

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