Fighting over every percentile: Arguing about the Jewish vote and exit polls
President 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 about the meaning of Obama’s dip from 78 percent Jewish support cited in 2008 exit polls to 69 percent this year in the national exit polls run by a media consortium.
Is it a result of Obama’s fractious relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Or is it a natural fall-off in an election that was closer across the board than it was four years ago? Does it reflect a significant shift in Jewish voting patterns toward the Republicans?
A separate national exit poll released Wednesday by Jim Gerstein, a pollster affiliated with the dovish Israel policy group J Street, had similar 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 Mitt Romney.
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 wooing Jewish voters was “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 Republican nominee, got 22 percent in that year’s exit polls to Romney’s 30 percent this year.
Brooks said that his group’s hard-hitting ads, which attacked Obam on his handling of both Israel and the 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 for Obama's shae of the Jewish vote was 74 percent, a figure that is based on a subsequent review of data by The Solomon Project, a nonprofit 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 — or some other number entirely given the margins of errror — both Republicans and Democrats agreed that Obama’s share of the Jewish vote had declined. 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 asked, using the Yiddish word connoting status.
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, Catholics, those with no religion, those under 30. The only uptick for the president in the media consortium’s exit polls was seen among Hispanic voters, likely turned off by Romney’s tough line on 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.
The NJDC president, David Harris, 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 an anti-Obama group called Secure America Now that featured footage from a press conference in which Netanyahu excoriated those who he said had failed to set red lines for Iran, which was seen as a jab at Obama. 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, a finding that conformed with polling done 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 majority approval of his handling of relations with Israel (53 percent) and the Iranian nuclear issue (58 percent.).
But the RJC's 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.”