WASHINGTON (JTA) – Democratic and GOP pollsters say that in at least one respect the Republican Jewish Coalition has received a bum wrap: Despite initial suggestions to the contrary, the RJC’s recent survey testing negative messages about Barack Obama was not a “push poll.”
The term describes the practice of passing along negative messages about opponents in the guise of a survey with no real intention of gauging callers’ views.
In recent days the RJC’s executive director, Matt Brooks, was forced to fend off claims that his organization conducted such a poll after several Jewish residents in swing states said they had received negative and misleading calls about Obama, the Democrats’ presidential nominee.
Democrats now concede that the RJC did not conduct a push poll, though they continue to insist that the messages the organization was testing were filled with distortions and untruths. They have called on Brooks to release the full list of questions.
Brooks says the RJC did nothing wrong by sponsoring a poll that tested negative messages about Obama and will not provide the survey questions to the media unless Democrats do the same. The National Jewish Democratic Council declined to do so.
“I’ll be happy to release the questions when the Obama people release their polls,” Brooks said. “I don’t want a double standard.”
The RJC leader said his organization had “nothing to apologize for” and was simply testing messages like “every single campaign” does. Many of the messages that Brooks confirmed were tested in the poll are statements that have been appearing in RJC advertisements and other literature for months.
Brooks added that characterizations of the survey as a “negative Obama poll” were unfair. He said of the 82 questions asked, “less than 10 percent” tested “messages” dealing with Obama, the junior Illinois senator. Other questions dealt with the economy, energy independence and a “wide range of issues.”
The poll queried 750 voters in Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who was John Kerry’s pollster during the 2004 presidential campaign, said the lengthy list of questions appears to indicate that the survey was designed to test messages and “did not meet the definition of a push poll,” which usually lasts for a much shorter time than a regular survey, since the point is to spread the negative message to as many people as possible.
While clearing the RJC of the push poll claim, Mellman said it appears the organization was testing messages that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny – and that he wouldn’t test as a pollster.
“There’s a line between basically accurate and basically deceptive,” Mellman said, “and they crossed that line.”
“I test messages, he’s testing lies,” said the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman.
He said that many of the questions that those polled say they were asked started with a “grain of truth” but omitted important context or twisted the meaning of certain facts. Forman said he would not detail the types of messages he tests.
Mik Moore, who as the founder of the pro-Obama organization Jewsvote.org first publicized reports of the negative questioning about Obama, said that based on the definition put forth by experts, the RJC survey was probably not a “push poll.” But he said the “effect of it was a push poll” because it ended up upsetting people and spreading negative information about Obama within the community.
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said he found the RJC questions “pretty standard in message testing surveys” because pollsters “tend not to give both sides of the story” in such cases. He said both parties conduct similar types of polls, and that as long as a statement can be defended as true if it shows up on the front page of the newspaper, it will be tested.
Newhouse added that the size of the RJC’s poll was clear evidence that the RJC was not conducting a push poll, which usually goes to tens of thousands of voters.
Brooks denied “absolutely” and “categorically” that the poll asked any questions that described Obama as a Muslim or brought up the Islamic background of his family. He also denied the claims, made by some who said they were called, that there were any questions claiming that Obama had been endorsed by the president of Iran or donated to the PLO.
The RJC head also disputed similar reports that callers were told that Obama supported a “divided Jerusalem.” He said the actual question was: “Barack Obama once supported a united, undivided Jerusalem, but now says it’s ‘up to the parties,’ which could mean a divided Jerusalem.”
Brooks confirmed that the survey included questions about Hamas leader Ahmed Yousef’s stated support of Obama, “Jimmy Carter’s anti-Israel national security adviser” being a foreign policy adviser to Obama and the Democratic candidate’s stint as a member of the board of an organization that donated to a pro-Palestinian organization. He defended all those statements as accurate.
“The questions were designed to understand why the Jewish community continues to have a problem” with Obama, Brooks said. A series of polls have found that Obama currently commands about 60 percent of the Jewish vote, a sizable majority but 15 to 20 percentage points less than the totals recorded by other recent Democratic presidential candidates.
Forman said the questions in the RJC survey leave out important information, such as Hamas’ renouncement of the endorsement after Obama’s speech in June to thousands of pro-Israel activists and that the organization described as “pro-Palestinian” in the RJC survey is primarily devoted to social service work in Chicago.
Forman also said he didn’t believe Brooks’ denials about the content of the questions after speaking to those surveyed who claimed they heard such queries.