WASHINGTON (JTA)—Barack Obama is making significant gains among Jewish voters, according to two new polls.
The polls suggest that after months of hovering around 60 percent, Obama appears to be within striking distance of the 75-80 percent of the Jewish vote won by the three previous Democratic nominees for president.
A Gallup tracking poll of 564 Jewish registered voters, taken over the first three weeks of October, found Obama leading Republican John McCain by a 74-22 percent margin. That was a 13-point increase in support for the Democratic nominee since Gallup’s July poll, which had Obama leading 61-34 percent. Gallup also released Jewish data from tracking polls in the two previous months showing a steady rise for Obama, with him garnering 66 percent in August and 69 percent in September; in both surveys McCain registered 25 percent. The margin of error for the October results is plus or minus 5 percent.
Meanwhile, a Qunnipiac University poll taken Oct. 16-21 in Florida found Obama winning 77 percent of Jewish voters in that state, compared to just 20 percent for McCain. While the Jewish statistic was based on a relatively small sample size (87) and has a margin of error of plus or minus 10.5 percent , the finding is notable because some leading Jewish Democrats in the state had publicly worried this summer about resistance to Obama among South Florida Jews.
Obama’s progress comes despite the Republican Jewish Coalition’s barrage of negative ads painting him as a dangerously inexperienced candidate who has surrounded himself with anti-Israel advisers.
But, some Democratic operatives say, any such concerns over Obama’s experience seem to have been overtaken in some Jewish voters’ minds by worries over the inexperience of Sarah Palin, as well as her conservative political views on hot-button social issues like abortion.
The executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, said that while he saw a few reasons for Obama’s rise among Jewish voters, he felt “the single biggest factor” was Palin.
An American Jewish Committee survey in early September found that just 34 percent of the Jewish community approved of McCain’s vice presidential pick, with 57 percent disapproving. And Forman cited what he said were numerous anecdotal and media reports of Jewish voters in swing states who were unhappy with McCain’s vice-presidential choice.
Jewish feelings appear to match those in the overall electorate toward Palin. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this week found 55 percent of voters feel Palin is not qualified to serve as president, and Palin’s qualifications were seen in the poll as the biggest concern about a McCain presidency.
The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks, rejected the idea that Palin—who has voiced staunch support for Israel and a hard line on Iran—was a factor in the recent swing toward Obama among Jewish voters. “I don’t believe this has anything to do with Sarah Palin whatsoever,” he said. “Nobody I know is voting for vice president.”
Brooks attributed McCain’s decline in the Jewish community to the “volatility” in the electorate during the recent economic crisis. He aruged that as Obama gained ground in the country as a whole in recent weeks, he also, naturally, gained ground among Jews. Saying he expected the race to tighten nationally, Brooks predicted that McCain’s numbers in the Jewish community would bounce back as well.
The Palin pick may have nullified McCain’s greatest strength in the Jewish community, Democratic observers said. Some suggested that earlier in the campaign McCain was more appealing to Jews than other Republican presidential candidates because of his strained relations with the religious right over the years and his moderate record on a variety of issues, from embryonic stem-cell research to immigration. Palin, on the other hand, is more line with, and has been embraced by, religious conservatives.
In addition to citing the Palin selection, both Forman and Democratic pollster Mark Mellman emphasized the extensive efforts of Obama and his campaign to introduce the Democratic nominee to the Jewish community. The campaign has sent dozens of Jewish surrogates—including Jewish members of Congress and well known figures in the community such as Ed Koch and Dennis Ross—to key states to talk about Obama’s background and his views on Israel and the Middle East.
“As people got to know him better, they felt a lot more comfortable” with him, Mellman said.
Mellman added that the Gallup poll was the most reliable measure of Jewish opinion before the election. Unlike other recently released surveys of the community, Gallup used random sampling—the most expensive, and also seen as the most accurate, method of polling.