WASHINGTON (JTA) – In keeping with Barack Obama’s comeback narrative this week, a new poll shows that the U.S. senator from Illinois would do almost as well as Hillary Rodham Clinton among Jewish voters in November.
The survey also shows the presumed Republican candidate, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), poised to make gain in the Jewish community.
Just a few weeks after clear defeat in Pennsylvania, Obama recaptured momentum this week with a strong win in North Carolina and a near-upset victory over Clinton in Indiana, where the U.S. senator from New York had pulled ahead in polls in recent weeks.
It was the April 22 primary in Pennsylvania that suggested Obama was no longer competitive with Clinton among Jewish voters: Exit polls showed her winning 62 percent of the Jewish vote to Obama’s 38 percent.
Pundits ascribed the gap to comfort with Clinton coupled with revelations of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.’s inflammatory black nationalist rhetoric, including the occasional broadside against Israel and it’s American Jewish supporters.
But a Gallup poll published Wednesday shows Obama once again competitive with Clinton among Jewish voters. She still leads, scoring 50 percent against his 43 percent. These findings were based on aggregate tracking from April 1-30, including interviews with close to 800 Jewish voters and nearly 600 Jewish Democratic voters.
The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent.
In a general-election matchup, according to the poll, Clinton would win 66 percent of the Jewish vote versus 27 percent for McCain. Obama would pull 61 percent to McCain’s 32 percent.
That’s not great news for the Clinton campaign, which had sent an e-mail blast touting her strong support among Pennsylvania Jews as evidence of her being the better candidate for the Jewish community following the Pennsylvania primary.
This news also comes as pressure mounts for Clinton to bow out of the race in coming weeks so that the Democratic Party can launch a more unified campaign against McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee.
The hypothetical match-ups between McCain and the respective Democrats point to a potentially substantial shift among Jewish voters. In the 2006 mid-term congressional elections, exit polls showed Jews – deeply unhappy with the economy and the Iraq war – voting for Democrats at an 87 percent clip.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) managed to win about 75 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004, and Bill Clinton and Al Gore did even better before him.
But the new Gallup poll has McCain exceeding those GOP numbers, regardless of which candidates he faces.
Some observers say that in appealing to Jewish voters, McCain benefits from a pro-Israel record and a strategy of distancing himself from the Bush administration, which he criticizes as incompetent and lacking in compassion. Furthermore, despite Democrats’ best efforts to expose what they see as McCain’s conservative turn in recent years, he continues to benefit from his reputation as a moderate willing to work with Democrats.
Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said the recent poll numbers do not surprise him – but they underscore the challenge he now faces in deconstructing McCain for Jews and exposing his recent, adamant rhetoric rejecting abortion rights and supporting conservative judges.
“These numbers are not shocking,” Forman said. “Once Sen. McCain’s record on church-state separation, choice and healthcare are known to the Jewish community, his numbers can go only one way – downward.”
Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the recent polling numbers demonstrate Obama’s particular weakness among Jewish voters.
“These results show that the American Jewish community is troubled by what they know of Barack Obama, his views and his positions. The RJC remains confident that John McCain will continue the trend of the GOP making inroads among Jewish voters.”
Looking at McCain’s 32 points against Obama, U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the only Jewish Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives and a key Jewish liaison for the McCain campaign noted that the candidate was outpacing President Bush’s 25 percent scored in the 2004 elections.
“You’ve got McCain seven points ahead of the president’s high point, even before the general campaign,” he said. “It is an extremely promising sign that could amount to hundreds of thousands votes for McCain in key battleground states, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, all with heavy Jewish populations.”
Some Democrats, even onetime Clinton supporters, are eager for her to get out of the way so the case can be made in time for the November general election. However, several of her prominent Jewish backers are defending her right to continue at least through the primary season.
Clinton lags in pledged delegates, but still leads among “superdelegates,” elected officials and party leaders who will ultimately decide the contest. Both candidates headed to Washington after the primary to make their case to the superdelegates: Clinton on Wednesday, Obama on Thursday. Many superdelegates have suggested that they will heed the pledged delegate count, making Clinton’s case the harder.
One of her major Jewish backers, Massachusetts businessman Steve Grossman, conceded that for Clinton, “the math continues to be difficult.”
Grossman, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said it was critical to account somehow for Florida and Michigan–states Clinton won but which were counted out of the pledged delegate contest because they defied party rules by holding their primaries too early.
“I think it’s essential that when this contest is over that we come together and unify around our nominee and I think that an appropriate resolution of Florida and Michigan, in which those voters and their wishes is empowered, is going to be an essential ingredient in creating that kind of unified effort,” said Grossman, a superdelegate and one of Clinton’s principle fundraisers
To include the results of these states could give Clinton a popular vote lead, even as she lags in pledged delegates – a tack that might persuade superdelegates ultimately to back her.
“What I think is most important to superdelegates and voters is who can beat John McCain,” Grossman said. “That’s the ultimate goal, to change the occupant of the White House and not elect a successor to George Bush and continue many of those policies.”
Philadelphia attorney Mark Aronchick, another major Clinton supporter, emphasized that Clinton is still in the race. “Why in the world would we get out now?” he said, as he headed to Washington Wednesday for a meeting of the Clinton campaign’s leadership.
Aronchick, who is on the Clinton campaign finance committee, said a big focus of the meeting would be fundraising for the remaining primaries. Aronchick said he also would be attending a meeting with the current DNC chairman, Howard Dean, who is bringing together a small group from both campaigns.
“It’s plain that she’s been an incredible candidate with a lot of momentum” in the last few months, Aronchick said. If you look forward to the electoral college, which will decide the race in November, “she’d be the one to win.”
A general Gallup poll also released Wednesday backs up the assertion that she would be the stronger candidate, albeit marginally: Clinton bests McCain 47 to 43 percent, while Obama does so 45 to 43 percent.
But there may be some Jewish defections in the offing, according to one Clinton supporter with deep communal ties.
“I think she’s going to do very well in Kentucky and exceptionally well in West Virginia, and winning those states might offer her a very positive opportunity to move on with her life,” said a supporter, who asked not to be identified, regarding the upcoming primaries. “The day after winning both of them would be a very nice time to get out as opposed to waiting for another defeat, as opposed to dragging on forever. I want it for her, if I could be persuaded it’s going to happen I’d stick with it that much longer. But it’s not.”
Whatever the outcome, another Jewish Clinton backer said the race – however bruising – was good for the party.
“You have incredible turnout, and a very significant increase in Democratic voter registration and participation in primaries and caucuses around the country,” said Matthew Hilzik, a New York communications consultant who worked for Clinton’s 2000 Senate bid. “There has been real enthusiasm and excitement that has also translated into dollars for state parties.”
(Lisa Hostein, Ben Harris and Jacob Berkman contributed to this report from New York.)