Even as conservatives continue to paint Barack Obama as being surrounded by anti-Israel advisers, a new poll shows the Illinois senator and Hillary Rodham Clinton in a neck-and-neck battle for Jewish support.
A Gallup poll tracking views from March 1-22 found Jewish Democrats in a statistical dead heat in their support for U.S. Sens. Obama (D-Ill.) and Clinton (D-N.Y.). Clinton led 48 percent to 43 percent — a differential falling within the 6 percent margin of error for the 368 Jews who were interviewed.
The results reflect the dead heat found among voters in general in a separate national Gallup poll released on Monday.
At the same time, Obama did better among Jews than among white Protestants and white Catholics.
The poll comes after months of aggressive efforts by Obama and his campaign staff to repel ongoing e-mail attacks painting him as unsupportive of Israel, and amid speculation that he was in danger of losing Jewish support.
Over the past week, conservative Web sites revealed and played up the fact that Obama’s pastor reprinted a Los Angeles Times opinion piece challenging Israel’s right to exist, and pointed to a 2003 interview in which one of his top advisers appeared to blame the pro-Israel lobby for failures in the Middle East peace process.
Citing these sorts of attacks in its news release on the survey, Gallup seemed surprised by the close margin among Jewish voters. But some Democratic observers familiar with the Jewish community said that the tight battle should not come as a shock.
Mark Mellman, a top Democratic pollster, noted that the Jewish community is rich in two constituencies that are considered natural redoubts for each of the candidates.
“White women favor Clinton and college-educated, white men favor Obama,” said Mellman, who has not declared for either candidate.
Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, agreed, noting that Clinton also was likelier to draw older voters.
“We’ve got a Jewish electorate that’s professional and highly educated, and that’s good for Obama; we’ve got a Jewish electorate that’s also older, and that’s not good for Obama,” said Forman, who also has not endorsed a candidate.
The national Gallup poll, conducted March 21-22, and on March 24, found the two candidates were virtually tied, with 47 percent for Obama 45 for Clinton. For results based on this sample of 4,399 registered voters, the margin of error was plus or minus 2 percentage points.
They were virtually tied among Protestants in this poll. But among white Protestants, Clinton topped Obama 56 percent to 34 percent. She commanded a similar lead among white and non-white Catholics.
Obama leads among those with no religious affiliation and among those affiliating to non-Christian and non-Jewish religions. Gallup did not break down results according to region, age, income or college education, so it was unclear if the differences among white groups were a function of any of those characteristics.
A Gallup spokesman failed to return multiple calls for comment.
Given the broad timeline when the poll of Jewish voters was conducted, many of the respondents would have registered their views before the controversy over Obama’s former pastor reached a peak in mid-March with the broadcast of some of Jeremiah Wright’s more controversial sermons condemning U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Obama and his staffers have waged an aggressive campaign to roll back concerns over Wright; and they insisted that other critics of Israeli policy, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter administration’s national security adviser, and and Robert Malley, a Clinton administration Middle East negotiator, had been incorrectly identified in some media reports as the candidate’s main advisers.
Obama was also quick to denounce a Los Angeles Times op-ed by a Hamas leader, after it came to light that Wright had republished it last summer in his church bulletin. In an e-mail to JTA, Obama, who has consistently defended Israel and condemned Hamas terrorists, called the op-ed “outrageously wrong.”
In a broader speech last week on Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric, Obama singled out Israel as an area where he disagreed with Wright, saying his former pastors’ views on the U.S.-Israel relationship were “profoundly distorted.”
The freshest controversy, however, may be tougher to douse. The American Spectator, a conservative magazine, uncovered a 2003 interview with U.S. Army Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak, currently a co-chairman of the Obama campaign and — like Obama — an early and consistent critic of the Iraq war.
In the interview with The Oregonian, McPeak faulted the Bush administration’s Iraq policy in part for not being part of a broader Middle East strategy. Asked who is at fault — the White House or the State Department — he answered: “New York City. Miami. We have a large vote — vote, here in favor of Israel. And no politician wants to run against it.”
The reporters pressed McPeak to assign responsibility to a faction within the Bush administration, but he insisted on returning to Israel and its U.S. supporters: “I think that everybody understands that a settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem would require the Israelis to stop settling the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and maybe even withdraw some of the settlements that’ve already been put there.
“And nobody wants to take on that problem,” McPeak was quoted as saying. “It’s just too tough politically. So that means we can’t . . . you can’t develop a Middle East strategy. It’s impossible.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition called on Obama to sack McPeak, who has proven an important asset to the campaign in terms of furnishing military credibility, and recently sparked controversy by comparing a comment by President Clinton to McCarthyite tactics.
“Rather than putting the blame where it belongs — on the Palestinian leadership and their continued reliance on terror, General McPeak finds it more convenient to blame American Jewry and their perceived influence,” it said in a statement.
In an e-mail to JTA, Obama’s campaign distanced the candidate from the comments but not from McPeak himself..
“Senator Obama’s longstanding commitment to Israel is clear to anyone who has reviewed his voting record, read his speeches or looked at his policy papers,” the statement said.
“As he has said, his support for our democratic ally Israel is based on America’s national interests and our shared values. Neither Sen. Clinton nor Sen. Obama agrees with every position their advisers take, and in this case Senator Obama disagrees with General McPeak’s comments.”
Forman, of the Jewish Democratic council, accused Jewish Republicans of playing politics with Israel.
“This type of gotcha politics is destructive to the bipartisan support for Israel,” Forman said. “If these conservatives were serious about highlighting a candidate’s weakness on Israel, they’d be attacking their own candidate, John McCain, for his choice of advisers: Jim Baker and Brent Scowcroft.”
McCain said as recently as a year ago that he would take Middle East advice from the first President Bush’s top foreign policy team, who were perceived as cool on Israel. Baker and McCain recently held a joint news conference, during which McCain accepted the former secretary of state’s endorsement.
The fact that Gallup played up the Jewish findings when releasing its surveys this week reflects a common misunderstanding among many political analysts unfamiliar with the Jewish community. Many of these analysts tend to overemphasize the importance of Israel policy.
“Obama’s ability to win votes in the U.S. Jewish community has been questioned, given suggestions that he does not support Israel as strongly as other candidates,” the release said. “Some of Obama’s supporters (including the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Obama’s church) and foreign policy advisers are regarded as anti-Israel. Obama has met with Jewish leaders to reassure them of his commitment to Israel.”
Unless Israel is perceived as being imperiled by a candidate’s views, it historically has not figured as a make-or-break issue with Jewish voters.