WASHINGTON Aug. 17 (JTA) — Three years of extraordinarily close relations with Israel, tough talk toward the Palestinians and historic decisions favoring the Jewish state have done virtually nothing to build support for President Bush among U.S. Jewish voters, according to new data from a Democratic pollster. Likely U.S. Jewish voters favor Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) over Bush by 75 percent to 22 percent in the coming presidential election, according to a poll published Monday by the National Jewish Democratic Council. With a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points, that’s a statistical tie with the 19 percent Bush scored among Jewish voters in the 2000 elections, according to exit polls at the time — and bad news for Republicans scrambling for Jewish voters in key swing states like Florida. “There’s been literally no progress in outreach to the Jewish community on the part of the Bush administration and the Bush campaign,” said Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a firm with ties to the Democratic Party. The firm carried out the poll of 817 respondents from July 26-28. Republicans immediately blasted the results. “Something smells here,” said Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “It’s right in the middle of the Democratic convention, that taints it right off the bat. That environment would make it extremely skewed.” Republican spokesmen also said they would not read too much into the poll, considering the source. “This is a partisan poll put out by a partisan organization,” said Michael Lebovitz, the Bush-Cheney campaign’s Jewish outreach official. Kerry predictably scored much better on domestic issues such as health care, abortion and church and state relations — areas Republicans have all but foregone in their outreach to the Jewish community. More significantly, Kerry scored higher than Bush on how close respondents felt to each candidate’s positions on Israel, the key thrust of the Bush campaign’s outreach to Jews. Kerry out-polled Bush 51 to 24 percent in that respect. “The Israel issue itself, there was very little traction for Bush on it,” Greenberg said. Greenberg said the polling ended a day before Kerry’s acceptance speech at the convention and that media coverage until that point would not have affected voters. The poll departed from previous methodology by sending e-mail invitations to tens of thousands of respondents selected from a sample of two million Americans purchased from a third-party vendor. The only skewing in the selection was geographic, according to areas where Jews are more likely to live. Those who responded as being Jewish were invited to continue the poll on the Web. Previous polls have been launched by searching for Jews on a last-name basis, but Greenberg worried that method would leave out Jews with last names that aren’t identifiably Jewish. Other polls also scanned Jewish membership lists, she said, which could leave out the unaffiliated. Her initial broad invitation culled a more reliably random sample, Greenberg suggested. Traditionalists have shied away from Web polling, noting that by definition it excludes respondents who do not have computers or who do not regularly use the Internet. Greenberg said such concerns were less relevant as Internet penetration of American homes gradually approaches telephone penetration — especially among Americans with higher incomes and education, a segment generally reflective of Jewish voters. Pollsters who in the past have used phone polls to survey the Jewish community said the methodology appeared sound. They also noted the reliable reputation of the firm, founded by Greenberg’s father, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. “I’m okay with it. I would be among those who defend it,” said John Zogby, a top pollster. Earlier polling had suggested shifts toward Bush. David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said Greenberg’s poll showed signs of a slide in the other direction. “This poll suggests that a Kerry tide has emerged,” said Harris, “that he’s been able to capture the uncertain, undecided voters who didn’t know him well.” Harris, who interprets the AJCommittee’s polling, said his organization would come out with its own poll next month. Bush’s low ratings in 2000 were attributed at the time to President Clinton’s popularity among Jewish voters and to distrust of a candidate whose father was seen as the coolest president toward Israel since the Eisenhower era. Republicans hoped Bush’s record in office would change those perceptions, and indeed for a time it did. Bush scored high in AJCommittee approval polls after the Sept. 11 attacks and — in the first poll matching him against prospective Democrats, late last year — he scored 31 percent against Kerry, approaching Reagan-era numbers. Bush earned points especially for isolating Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as terrorism against Israelis intensified during the intifada. The results left Republicans elated, and they intensified efforts to win over the Jewish vote. They were helped when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke highly of Bush in April after the president recognized some Israeli claims to the West Bank and rejected any “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees. This month, the White House published a glossy, 23-page booklet touting Bush’s closeness to the Jewish community. Ira Forman, the NJDC’s executive director, suggested the administration was banking too hard on the support it culled from Jewish elites, as opposed to rank-and-file voters. That was because the elite get the most media attention, Forman said. “You have to think of the Jewish community in concentric circles. In the inner circle, there are some of the folks who are most active in the Jewish community,” Forman said. “We hear more of the time from the bull’s-eye.” Bush’s failure to make an impact also could be attributed in part to Kerry’s pro-Israel outreach in recent months: The Democratic Party platform, for instance, repeats Bush’s assurances to Israel on the West Bank and refugees. “The Kerry campaign has been vigorously pursuing Jewish voters and emphasizing Kerry’s pro-Israel record,” Harris said. However, the 51-24 gap favoring Kerry on his Israel policies suggests that a majority of American Jews don’t favor Bush’s backing for Sharon’s tough policies, and appreciates Kerry’s commitment to multilateralism in international affairs. Another indicator was that U.S. Jews reflect the growing trend among Americans to perceive the Iraq war as a danger to U.S. interests in the Middle East. For U.S. Jews, that could translate into the belief that Bush means danger to Israel. In the Greenberg poll, Kerry consistently trounces Bush on security issues and on Israel — by 66 percent to 34 percent on both Israel and the war on terrorism; and by 71 percent to 29 percent on the Iraq war and on making America stronger. That marks a striking contrast to Israelis, who overwhelmingly favor Bush over Kerry, according to two recent polls. That gap may be partly attributed to the fact that U.S. Jews — like other Americans — tend to “vote local.” While Israel is indeed a concern for American Jews, they consistently rank it as a “second-tier” issue, Greenberg said. Jobs and the economy, terrorism, Iraq, health care, education and Medicare and Social Security all outranked Israel as a matter of concern, according to the poll. Harris of the AJCommittee cautioned that the poll — while good news for Kerry — was just a snapshot. “There are nearly three months to go, there’s a Republican Party convention, a lot can happen between now and November to shift voters,” Harris said. “The Republican Party is not rolling over and playing dead. We’re seeing a lot of material from the Republican Party making its case to Jewish voters.” The real winner, Harris suggested, was the Jewish community, assiduously courted by both sides. “The key for me is that the Jewish votes is still very much in play,” he said. “Both parties are making a concerted effort to go after the Jewish vote.”
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Ron Kampeas is JTA's Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.
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