Jewish Journal

Obama’s support lags previous Dems, poll finds

By Ami Eden

Posted on Jul. 23, 2008 at 3:16 am

As he headed to Israel and the Palestinian Authority earlier this week, Sen. Barack Obama told reporters that as president, he would begin working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal from his first day in office. The presumptive Democratic candidate said, however, that both sides must work to make peace happen.

"There's a tendency for each side to focus on the faults of the other, rather than look in the mirror."

The Illinois senator is on a tour of Europe and the Middle East on what his advisers insist is a senatorial fact-finding tour. However, his campaign is also eager to build up his foreign policy credentials.

"The Israeli government is unsettled, the Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas, and so it's difficult for either side to make the bold move that would bring about peace," Obama said. "My goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I'm sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs."

Obama was careful to point out that peace would not come about overnight and that a U.S. president could not "suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace."

The good news for Obama is that U.S. Jews are still a pretty liberal group, especially when it comes to judging the Bush administration, according to a recent survey of 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 Bush's job performance.

Commissioned by the fledgling left-wing Middle East advocacy group, J Street, and conducted by Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications, the poll also found that nearly 80 percent said they disapproved of the president's handling of the Iraq War.

But the surveys had 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 U.S. 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 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. Since then, the Obama campaign has been organizing Jewish Community Leadership committees, often with the help of lawmakers who either had backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or decided to remain neutral during the primary.

Several observers predicted that if Obama's Jewish numbers remain stagnant, it could have an impact on a few key swing states with relatively large Jewish populations.

"In places like Florida and Ohio, it could make a difference," said Ira Forman, 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 -- seven 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 3.5 percent margin of error.

"The 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," said Suzanne Kurtz, press secretary of the Republican Jewish Coalition. "And 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," Kurtz said, "the Jewish community is reluctant to gamble on Sen. Obama's thin record and lack of experience."

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 Obama'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 -- only five points better than Obama and about 10 points worse than Kerry's 2004 performance.

"My 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," Forman said during an interview Tuesday. "There has to be another issue."

Forman essentially echoed Kurtz in speculating that the "other issue" is McCain's reputation as a maverick and a moderate.

"It is probably helping him among some Jewish voters," he said.

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 McCain'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 McCain's favorable-unfavorable rating as a "terrible" number.

"It's only positive when compared to an extraordinarily unpopular president," 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.

On the question of Iraq, the J Street poll found that 64 percent of American Jews line up with the Obama-sounding view that "we have done everything we can in Iraq and must start to bring home U.S. troops in a responsible way." Only 28 percent said that "we must achieve stability and finish the job in Iraq before we begin withdrawing U.S. troops."

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 Obama's floor and 32 percent is McCain's ceiling.

"As people get to know Obama better, his support is going to rise," Gerstein said. "We see that all the time with base constituencies."

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