The good news for Barack Obama as he arrived in Israel this week is that American Jews are still a pretty liberal bunch, especially when it comes to judging the Bush administration, according to a recent survey on Jewish attitudes on foreign policy.
The poll found that 90 percent of American Jews believe the country is on the wrong track and 83 percent disapprove of Bushâ€™s job performance.
Commissioned by the fledgling left-wing Middle East advocacy group J Street and conducted by the firm Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications, the poll also found that nearly 80 percent said they disapproved of the president’s handling of the Iraq war.
Now the survey’s bad news for Obama: If the U.S. presidential election were held today, American Jews would support the Illinois senator at a significantly lower level than they did his most recent Democratic predecessors.
The poll found that 58 percent of American Jews said they would definitely vote for Obama, with another 4 percent saying they were leaning toward the presumptive Democratic nominee. In contrast, Al Gore and Bill Clinton both drew nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote in their respective runs for the presidency, while John Kerry garnered more than 75 percent in 2004.
Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they would vote for U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), with 3 percent saying they were leaning toward the presumptive GOP nominee. That would top the 24 percent of the Jewish vote President Bush drew in 2004.
Combined with similar results of polling done by Gallup, the J Street survey suggests that Obama has failed to increase his base of Jewish support since May, despite several significant outreach efforts.
In early June, Obama delivered a high-profile address to a crowd of more than 5,000 at the policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. Since then, the Obama campaign has been organizing Jewish Community Leadership Committees, often with the help of lawmakers who either had backed U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or decided to remain neutral during the primary.
Several observers predicted that if Obamaâ€™s Jewish numbers remain stagnant, it could have an impact on a few key swing states with relatively large Jewish populations.
â€œIn places like Florida and Ohio it could make a difference,â€ said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, during a conference call Monday with reporters.
Forman, however, was quick to note that a poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee in the late summer of 2004 had Kerry taking 69 percent of the Jewish vote — 7 points lower than he ended up winning in November.
The general rule to keep in mind, Forman added, was that undecideds tend to break in equal proportion to the way the rest of the group voted — in the case of Jewish voters, the overwhelming majority will usually go Democratic.
But at least according to the J Street poll, very few voters are undecided, though about 6 percent said they are considering a candidate other than Obama or McCain.
The poll, based on interviews with 800 respondents, has a margin of error of 3.5 percent.
â€œThe Jewish community is responding to John McCain’s proven ability to reach across the aisle to try and solve America’s difficult problems in a bipartisan way,â€ said Suzanne Kurtz, the press secretary of the Republican Jewish Coalition. â€œAnd most importantly, McCain has been a reliable friend and supporter of Israel and the Jewish community throughout his 25-year career in Congress.
“On the other hand, the Jewish community is reluctant to gamble on Senator Obama’s thin record and lack of experience.â€
Kurtz also cited several lawmakers and policy experts who have been linked in varying degrees to Obama and criticized in some hawkish Jewish circles. She also mentioned Obamaâ€™s statement last year that he would be willing to meet with the president of Iran without preconditions.
Even while rejecting them as unjustified, Forman acknowledged that such lines of attack have probably had an impact on some Jewish voters. But he also noted that in the Gallup polling from May, Clinton registered 66 percent in a head-to-head matchup with McCain â€“ only 5 points better than Obama and about 10 points worse than Kerryâ€™s 2004 performance.
â€œMy sense is that there are few Jewish Kerry voters if any who would not vote for Hillary because of Israel or foreign policy in general,â€ Forman said during an interview Tuesday with JTA. â€œThere has to be another issue.â€
Forman essentially echoed Kurtz in speculating that the â€œother issueâ€ is McCainâ€™s reputation as a maverick and a moderate.
â€œIt is probably helping him among some Jewish voters,â€ he said.
Indeed, in the J Street poll, McCain finished with a significantly higher favorable rating and lower unfavorable rating than Bush or the Republican Party.
McCain finished with a 34-point favorable rating, compared to 22 percent for Bush and 29.4 percent for the party. His unfavorable rating was 57 percent, compared to 74 percent for Bush and 63 percent for the GOP.
Forman said he expected some of McCainâ€™s Jewish support to fall when more voters realize that he opposes abortion rights and is a hard-core conservative on other domestic issues.
Jim Gerstein, whose firm conducted the poll, described McCainâ€™s favorable-unfavorable rating as a â€œterribleâ€ number.
â€œItâ€™s only positive when compared to an extraordinarily unpopular president,â€ he said.
Gerstein noted that respondents by far ranked the economy and then the Iraq war as the two issues that would play the most important role in deciding their vote.
While the poll dealt exclusively with foreign policy issues, he pointed to various indicators and data from other surveys that suggest Jewish voters overwhelmingly side with Obama on economic issues.
And on the question of Iraq, the J Street poll found that 64 percent of American Jews line up with the Obama-sounding view that â€œwe have done everything we can in Iraq and must start to bring home U.S. troops in a responsible way.â€ Only 28 percent said that â€œwe must achieve stability and finish the job in Iraq before we begin withdrawing U.S. troops.â€
The breakdown on the Iraq question actually lines up with the Obama-McCain figures.
But Gertsein said the most plausible reading of the data is that 62 percent is Obamaâ€™s floor and 32 percent is McCainâ€™s ceiling.
â€œAs people get to know Obama better, his support is going to rise,â€ Gerstein said. â€œWe see that all the time with base constituencies.â€