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Dissecting the Jewish Vote

November 7, 2012 By:
Ron Kampeas, JTA
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President Obama addresses the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism on Dec. 16, 2011. (URJ Photo)

WASHINGTON  – President Barack Obama’s Jewish numbers are down, but by how much and why?

Get ready for four more years of tussling between the Jewish community’s Republicans and Democrats over whether Obama’s dip from 78 percent Jewish support cited in 2008 exit polls to 69 to 70 percent in national exit polls  on Election Day represents a significant shift arising in part out of Obama’s fractious relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or is the natural fall-off in an election that was closer across the board than it was four years ago.

The first poll, reported by CNN as part of a national media consortium, found 69 percent of Jewish voters supported Obama.

A separate national exit poll by Jim Gerstein, a pollster affiliated with the liberal pro-Israel J Street group, had commensurate numbers: 70 percent of respondents said they voted for Obama, while 30 percent – the same figure as in the media consortium's Jewish sample – said they voted for Romney.

Also showing similar numbers was a poll released by the Republican Jewish Coalition, showing 69 percent of Jewish voters selected Obama and 31 percent Romney. Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush, said the flux in the Jewish vote, kept the race close. "Were it not for the inroads the Republicans made this cycle, Florida and Ohio would not have been close," Fleischer, who is an RJC board member, said on a conference call unveiling the RJC results. "The Jewish community is one of the areas that keep Republicans competitive."

Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the $6.5 million his group spent and the $1.5 million an affiliated political action committee spent, were “well worth it.”

“We’ve increased our share of the Jewish vote by almost 50 percent,” he said, noting that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 candidate, got 22 percent in that year’s exit polls to Romney’s 30 percent this year.

Brooks said his group’s hard-hitting ads, which focused both on Obama-Netanyahu tensions and on the difficult economy, helped move the needle. “There’s no question we got significant return on our investment,” he said.

Democrats insisted that the needle didn’t wiggle so much, saying the more reliable 2008 number was 74 percent of the Jewish vote, based on a subsequent review of data by The Solomon Project, a non-profit group affiliated with the national Jewish Democratic Council.

“Right now 69 or 70 is the best number we have for this cycle and 74 percent is the best number we have for four years ago,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a consultant to Jewish and Democratic groups, including the NJDC. “You can intentionally use a number you know has been corrected just for the purposes of comparison, or you can use the data.”

The 2008 numbers, like this year’s, are based on the 2 percent of respondents identifying as Jewish in the major exit poll run by a consortium of news agencies – altogether, between 400-500 Jews, out of a total of over 25,000 respondents.  The Solomon Project review, by examining a range of exit polls taken in different states as well as the national consortium,  used data garnered from close to a thousand Jewish voters, a number that reduces the margin of error from about 6 points to 3 points..

Whether the 2008 percentage was 74 or 78, both Republicans and Democrats agreed that Obama’s share of the Jewish vote had diminished – and Rabinowitz conceded that the Republican expenditure, which dwarfed spending on the Democratic side, might have had an impact.

“What yichus is there in the possibility of having picked up a handful of Jewish votes having spent so many millions of dollars?” Rabinowitz said, using the Yiddish word for influence.

Gerstein said his findings suggested that the Republican blitz of Jewish communities in swing states like Ohio and Florida had little effect; separate polls he ran in those states showed virtually the same results as his national poll of Jewish voters. Gerstein’s national poll of 800 Jewish voters has a margin of error of 3.5 percent, his separate polls of Jewish voters in Ohio and Florida canvassed 600 in each state, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points. 

He also noted that there were similar drop-offs in Obama’s overall take – from 53 percent of the popular vote in 2008 to 49 percent this year – as well as among an array of sub groups, including whites, independents, Roman Catholics, those with no religion, those under 30. The only hike in the media consortium’s exit polls was seen among Hispanic voters, likely turned off by Romney’s tough rhetoric on stopping illegal immigration.

“You see a lot of things that are tracking between the Jewish constituency and other constituencies when you look at the shift in Obama’s vote between 2008 and now, “ he said.

David Harris, the NJDC president, attributed what shift there was to the economy.

“American Jews are first and foremost Americans, and like all Americans it’s a difficult time for them,” he said. “The Democratic vote performance has decreased somewhat.

Gerstein said that the mistake Republicans continued to make was to presume that Israel was an issue that could move the Jewish vote.

“They’ve got to do something very different if they’re going to appeal to Jews,” he said. “The hard-line hawkish appeal to Israel isn’t working.”

He cited an ad run in September in Florida by a group called “Secure America Now” that featured clips from a press conference in which Netanyahu excoriated the Obama administration for failing to set red lines for Iran. Gerstein said that of the 45 percent of his Florida respondents who saw the ad, 56 percent said they were not moved by it, 27 percent said it made them more determined to vote for Obama – and only 16 percent said i made them more determined to vote for Romney.

Israel did not feature high among priorities in Gerstein’s polling, commensurate with polling over the years by the American Jewish Committee. Asked their top issue in voting, 53 percent of Gerstein’s respondents in his national poll cited the economy and 32 percent health care. Israel tied for third with abortion and terrorism at 10 percent.

Gerstein’s national poll showed Obama getting strong overall approval ratings of 67 percent of his respondents, with strong showings on domestic issues like entitlements – where he scored 65 percent – and respectable showings on handling relations with Israel (53 percent) and Iran (58 percent.).

Brooks said he was confident Republicans would continue to accrue gains, saying that with the exception of Obama’s strong showing in 2008, his party has steadily increased its proportion of the Jewish vote since George H. W. Bush got 11 percent in 1992.

“Our investment is not in the outcome of a single election.” He said. “It’s ultimately about broadening the base of the Republican Party in the Jewish community.”

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