Fighting over every percentage point: Arguing about the Jewish vote and exit polls

President Obama hugging his campaign manager, Jim Messina, during a stop at his campaign headquarters in Chicago, Nov. 7, 2012.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama hugging his campaign manager, Jim Messina, during a stop at his campaign headquarters in Chicago, Nov. 7, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – President Obama’s Jewish numbers are down, but by how much and why?

Expect four more years of tussling between Jewish 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 Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the $6.5 million spent by his group and the $1.5 million doled out by an affiliated political action committee to woo 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, the 2008 Republican nominee, won 22 percent in exit polls to Romney’s 30 percent.

Brooks said his group’s hard-hitting ads, which attacked Obama 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 share of the Jewish vote was 74 percent — a figure that was based on a subsequent review of data by The Solomon Project, a nonprofit group affiliated in the past 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 — 400 to 500 Jews among more than 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 nearly 1,000 Jewish voters, which reduces the margin of error from approximately 6 points to 3 points.

Whether the 2008 percentage was 74 or 78 — or some other number given the margins of errror — 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, may 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 such as 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, while his separate polls canvassing 600 Jewish voters each in Ohio and Florida had a margin of error of 4 percent.

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 subgroups, including whites, independents, Catholics, those with no religion and those under 30. The only uptick for the president in the media consortium’s exit polls was seen among Hispanic voters, who likely were 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 Republicans continued to err in presuming 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 news 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 the ad made them more determined to vote for Obama and only 16 percent said it 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 said health care. Israel tied for third with abortion and terrorism at 10 percent.

His national poll showed Obama winning a strong overall approval rating of 67 percent and a similarly solid showing on domestic issues, such as entitlements, at 65 percent. The president gained 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 that 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 received 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.”

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