Jewish Vote Polls Miss Big Picture

A new poll claims 75 percent of Jews favor John Kerry.

Anna Greenberg said her findings prove President Bush has made “literally no progress” among Jewish voters.

“Something smells here,” responded Matt Brooks.

Democrat Greenberg’s poll was funded by the pro-Kerry National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), and the NJDC published her poll. It predictably shows that Jews overwhelmingly back Kerry.

Republican Brooks heads the pro-Bush Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC). Nearly two years ago, the RJC did its own poll by a Republican-for-hire operative. The RJC poll showed Bush making dramatic gains among Jewish voters.

What’s behind the spin?

Backers of these sponsored polls want a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If Jewish voters believe there is a surge among their peers for Bush, that makes it socially acceptable for them to vote Republican. And if they believe their fellow Jewish voters are sold on Kerry, that validates their historic propensity to vote Democrat.

Polls, we strategists know, measure not reality but how voters perceive reality. For a poll, reality is the instant the picture is taken. Before and after the proverbial photograph, it can be a different story.

That’s why serious studies of Jewish voters require much more than a quickie snapshot. More likely, a high-definition videotape. You can stop the tape at any point but then rewind or fast forward.

In other words, is Jewish opinion changing?

Polls showing Bush’s strength among Jews were taken during the year or two following Sept. 11. Meanwhile, the Greenberg poll was taken in the days leading up to Kerry’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention.

As you read this, Republicans might or might not get a bounce from their convention. If it’s enough of a bounce, then Bush will improve among Jewish voters.

Regardless, the bottom line is that Greenberg’s poll of Jews occurred while Kerry was leading nationally. Her Jewish numbers would reflect that political environment.

But there’s more to the story. Polling of Jews is difficult. That’s because in any national sample, Jews might comprise perhaps 3 percent of the vote. Thus, a 1,200 sample might produce 30 or 40 Jews. That’s hardly a reliable number to draw an inference. Therefore, polling Jews with any statistical reliability requires that rare poll of only Jews, qua Jews.

There are various methods. The most common is a Jewish-surname approach. Obviously, this is imperfect.

Greenberg rejected this Jewish-surname approach by sending e-mail invitations to a list she purchased from a vendor. But it’s unclear if her methodology is superior or not without its own faults. In effect, she asked for Jews willing to be polled. But what is the nature of the vendor list? Are Jews who self-identify different than those who do not?

More importantly, Greenberg’s sample is biased in favor of Jews who are computer literate. I believe Israel is a more important issue among some older Jews who don’t know from computers. Therefore, my own guess, and it’s just that, is that Greenberg’s sampling, in effect, systematically excluded the more conservative Jews whose support for Israel undergirds their support for Bush.

All of which brings me full circle to Jews, Israel and politics, because Bush’s close relations with Israel are central to this polling debate.

Personally, I believe Bush deserves Jewish support. Professionally, he will show improvement among Jewish voters over his results four years ago. But his results will not be transformational.

The reasons why are not found in a snapshot poll, but in looking at this big picture.

First, many Jewish voters are soft on Israel. Simply put, when it comes to his support of Ariel Sharon and Likud, Bush is to the right of many American Jews. For awhile, Sept. 11 was a wakeup to some Jews, but now they have regressed to the nonjudgmental mean — the problem is “extremists on both sides who don’t want peace.”

Second, many Jewish voters do not believe Israel’s existence is precarious, so they regress to the nonjudgmental mean — “Kerry and Bush are both good for Israel.”

Consider that in 1973, a besieged and weakened Richard Nixon was fighting for his post-Watergate political survival. Yet, he overruled the State Department and Pentagon to order an immediate airlift that saved Israel. Nixon then admired Golda Meir as much as Bush now admires Sharon.

But Jews don’t celebrate Nixon for saving Israel. They remember him for his dark moods revealed in audiotapes, where he complained about his Jewish media critics.

Third, many Jewish voters continue this double standard: Democrats are good; Republicans are bad.

Kerry initially said Jimmy Carter would be his point person on the Mideast. Carter is anti-Israel. Moreover, Carter’s failure to support the shah of Iran helped start the Islamist revolution that now threatens the world.

Similarly, after the first Persian Gulf War, Yasser Arafat was discredited and isolated. But President Bill Clinton resurrected him and even brought him to the White House. But the large majority of Jewish voters that favors Democrats looks the other way.

It’s the same inconsistency of those Jewish voters who have opposed high defense spending, although many of the weapons systems relate to defense of Israel.

Bush is not for Israel because it will get him Jewish votes, but because he believes it’s the right thing to do.

But I’m not sure his core beliefs on Israel and reshaping the Middle East count for much among many Jewish voters. Like many Americans, they oppose and I support the Bush doctrine of preemptive war.

The points we discuss here are not polemics. They help explain why Jewish voter behavior cannot change quickly.

It is much more socially acceptable than a generation ago for a Jew to be a Republican. But the reality remains that most Jewish voters are liberal. They don’t think Republican.

In summary, major factors that shape Jewish political opinion are more important than a snapshot provided by any poll. My personal opinion that Bush deserves Jewish support is scarcely relevant. My professional opinion is that Bush cannot be reelected without increased Jewish support.