November 8, 2012
9 notes on the American Jewish vote
A short prologue and a note of caution:
I started writing this post on Wednesday afternoon on the airplane from Chicago to Washington, following a very long, almost sleepless night. I should have been on the phone that day, listening in to the presentations of the two competing polls of Jewish voters – the poll by the Republican Jewish Coalition and the one sponsored by J Street. Should have – but couldn’t quite make it, because of flights, delays, car rental hindrances and all other things associated with travel. What I did do is read the two polls carefully. Both have a lot to offer, and in both I found some things that needed further investigation. In the coming days I will revisit both polls, and will offer more analysis (some of it with the assistance of Rosner’s Domain statistician-in-residence Prof. Camil Fuchs). In the meantime, though, an introduction to some of the numbers and the conclusions is appropriate, along with some cautionary comments. So here it is, the Jewish vote of 2012 and its aftermath.
The most important conclusion I can offer after reading the two polls and thinking about them is the following: It is time for the Jewish community as a whole to come up with a poll that isn’t owned by one political side. In other words: In 2014 I’d be much happier reading a poll that was jointly done by Arthur Finkelstein (on the Republican side) and Jim Gerstein (on the Democratic side), than reading - yet again - two separate polls. A joint poll would be more serious, less partisan, more reliable, better received by the community – it would be a study from which we could learn more and of which we would be less suspicious.
As things stand now, the polls are seen by many observers as propaganda tools: They are aimed at convincing us that the party in question did better than it really did, that the other party did worse than it really did, and most importantly that the organization in question is more instrumental than it really is (I include in this reference that interesting analysis of Florida polls released by the National Jewish Democratic Council, from which one can presumably learn how dramatic was the impact of NJDC in getting the Jews back into the Democratic fold).
So - give us a bipartisan study. The Jewish people have accomplished more complicated tasks than coming together for a poll.
Let's now focus on what we know:
About 30% of Jews voted for Mitt Romney. Between 60% and 70% of Jewish voters voted for Barack Obama – according to exit polls it was 69%, according to Gerstein (70%) that’s basically the right number, according to Finkelstein it is 61%. However, the RJC poll had 6% of interviewees listed as “refused”. Maybe we should add these to Obama’s numbers and get closer to the magic 70%. I’ll soon revisit the 61% RJC number, as it presents the reader with a couple more challenges to overcome.
Also: All agree that the percentage of Jews who were voting for Romney in battleground Florida and Ohio was a little higher than the national number. But as one might expect, there’s no agreement between the polls on the exact definition of higher: the poll of the “right” would have you believe that 64% of Ohio Jews voted for Obama, while the poll of the “left” would have you believe that Obama got 69% of the Jewish vote in the state. Such differences between the two polls occur in almost every question, and can be easily explained by the way the two polls identified and defined Jewish voters. I’ll also remind readers that a 5% difference of the totals in Ohio in fact means 5% of the 2% of the state's voters who are Jewish. Namely, all this big debate is about an almost infinitesimal 0.1% of the state vote.
Now let’s say something about the RJC’s 61%: No one I talk to believes it. Not even Jewish operatives who seem overall sympathetic to the Republican cause. The 61% seems to suggest that something might be wrong with the sample. And there are other components of the RJC poll that might point in such a direction. For example: the distribution of respondents by age group. The RJC poll has just 14% of respondents who are under 40. This poll of Florida Jews has a higher percentage of young Jews – and we know that Florida isn’t exactly the fountain of youth. In the JStreet survey, 32% of respondents are under 40. Ukeles (in a the poll for the AJC) puts the percentage of Jews aged 18-39 at 29% of all American Jews. In my study on “distancing”, I point to the fact that Jews under 35 “comprise roughly a quarter of the adult Jewish population in America”. Clearly then, the age sample in the RJC study seems a bit odd. I’m sure the RJC has good answers to these concerns, and believe they should be laid out methodically for the readers to be able to feel more comfortable about it.
The problem with the 61% is that it casts doubt on all other questions in the poll as well. If such is the sample, and if one believes it to be skewed, one has to assume that answers to all questions suffer from similar bias and might not portray a worthy picture of the Jewish group of voters.
One last comment about this 61%: Before we move on, I have to say that I don’t quite understand why the RJC people argue that their national “number for Jewish support of Romney is in keeping with national media exit polls, which showed Romney getting about 31% of the Jewish vote and Obama getting 69%”. The “media exit polls” had Obama at 69%-70%, the RJC had him at 61%. That is an eight or nine-point difference – a big difference. How do I know nine points is a big difference? The good people of the RJC convinced me. Weren’t they the ones talking yesterday about the significance of the 9% drop in Jewish support for Obama?
Interpretations of the numbers are also not very surprising. Where Democrats see vast support for the president, Republicans see significant decline in support for the president. But as I already explained in a previous post, this debate begins not with the 2012 numbers, but rather with the 2008 numbers. While Republicans are relying on the 2008 exit poll to argue that the president is 8-10% down among Jews from four years ago, Democratic interpretation of the trend relies on the more recent study of the Jewish vote - according to which only 74% of Jews voted for Obama in 2008.
I’d argue that both sides should be both convincing and consistent in the choice of numbers they adopt.
Being convincing is where the Republican side has a problem. It treats the recent study as pure spin, but doesn’t provide much by way of explaining why it would not accept the new numbers, or what’s wrong with the analysis.
Being consistent is where the Democratic side should be careful not to try to have it both ways. On one hand, in his current study Gerstein uses the 74% to show that there’s “only a four percent decrease” in the president’s numbers. On the other hand, in his February 2012 study of the Jewish vote – as he was mocking Republican claims that John McCain would get “unprecedented Jewish support” in 2008 – Gerstein used the more impressive 78%. (To be fair to Gerstein, the 74% study was not yet out back in February. He now says that he will not use the 78% in future studies.)
But here’s another problem I have with Gerstein’s interpretation. “Despite intense right-of-center efforts designed to sow doubt about the President’s pro-Israel credentials among American Jews”, Gerstein found “majorities” who “believe that President Obama would be better than Romney in supporting Israel”. Sounds good? Not to me, not as one looks at the actual numbers of this “majority” - 53%. Now, imagine such number being interpreted by the other side: Many Jewish Obama supporters believe that Romney would be better on Israel. I will post specifically on the issue of Obama and Israel in the coming days as it merits special attention.
The Finkelstein poll tends to find more Conservative Jews than the Gerstein poll. And it will be criticized, again, for not including a “Just Jewish” definition of Judaism and for forcing all respondents to choose between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Since this was an issue with previous RJC polls, for which they were criticized, I don’t quite follow the logic of not adding such a definition to the poll as a way of silencing the critics. True, there’s a reasonable case to be made that even the “Just Jews” can answer the question “who do you most associate yourself with” or can say “other” or “refuse” and still be included in the poll. But this is a strange decision on the part of the RJC – maybe a question for which they gave a proper answer at the conference call in which I did not participate (if that’s the case, I will make sure to include the explanation in my next post on the matter).
Interestingly, the RJC poll doesn’t prove the common theory that Republican Jews are mostly Orthodox Jews. The percentage of Orthodox among the group of Republican Jews is definitely higher in proportion, but it is hardly large enough to explain the increase in the Republican Jewish vote.
A little more on Israel: The polls asked different questions and hence got different answers that could be interpreted in ways that seem compatible with the agendas of the sponsors of the polls. Republicans asked: “How important were issues concerning Israel?” – and the easy answer is “important” (somewhat or very – 76.5%). Democrats asked to list the “two most important” issues for the voters, and also got the easy answer: Not Israel (the economy 53%; healthcare 32%). What do we learn from this? That an issue can be important without being the most important. But we already knew that, didn’t we?