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Polls show Obama won big among Jews. What next?

by Jonah Lowenfeld

November 7, 2012 | 1:10 pm

Photo by REUTERS/Jim Bourg

On Election Day, President Barack Obama won reelection with 50 percent of the national popular vote. In the Jewish community, support for the President was much greater – about 69 or 70 percent of American Jews, according to two exit polls of Jewish voters released on Nov. 7.

The two polls – one conducted for the Republican Jewish Coalition, the other for the progressive “pro-Israel pro-Peace” organization J Street – may have found similar levels of Jewish support for Obama this year, but the conclusions each sponsoring organization drew from the results could scarcely have been more different.

“There was essentially no net movement in the Jewish-American voting bloc above and beyond the movement that took place among other voters,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said on a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.

RJC Executive Director Matthew Brooks, meanwhile, said he saw in the election results evidence of the Republican party’s making “unambiguous inroads” in the Jewish community.

“The bottom-line takeaway from these results is that these are very significant,” Brooks said on a separate conference call on Wednesday. “In terms of moving the needle in the Jewish community, it’s consistent with what the Republican Jewish Coalition has been saying.”

What explains the difference between these two conclusions? It’s all about context.

For the RJC, whose pollster found Obama had gotten 69 percent of Jewish votes, putting this year’s election results in the context of Jewish votes for Republicans in past Presidential contests reveals a trend of Republicans steadily gaining market share among American Jews.

Since 1992, when then-incumbent President George H. W. Bush took 11 percent of Jewish votes, the percentage of Jews voting for Republican presidential candidates has risen in all but one cycle – 2008. That year, Obama took 78 percent of the Jewish vote, according to national exit polls, and Brooks boasted that Jewish support for Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 was “almost 50 percent” higher than what the 2008 Republican nominee John McCain had.

J Street’s national poll found Obama had the support of 70 percent of Jewish voters, and pollster Jim Gerstein compared that number to a closer analysis of the 2008 result that showed Obama was elected the first time with slightly less Jewish support than initially believed -- 74 percent, rather than 78 percent. A four-point drop among Jews this year – from 74 percent to 70 percent – was consistent with the drop in support for the President seen among many other groups of voters, Gerstein said.

Both polls also attempted to determine the degree to which a candidate’s position on Israel swayed Jewish votes, and by asking different questions, came up with very divergent conclusions about which direction their groups needed to move.

J Street’s pollster offered Jewish voters a choice of issues that concern them, and found that Jews across the country cast their ballots based primarily on concerns about the economy and health care, and that Israel only cracked the top-two in 10 percent of cases. Other poll results led the group to conclude that the President has a mandate to pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The RJC’s pollster, Arthur Finkelstein, asked all respondents “how important issues concerning Israel” were in making their decision, and found that 77 percent of Jews considered Israel to be either important or very important. Brooks said that finding showed that, “The Israel issue is important and it does cut in the Jewish community.”

By one measure – the number of candidates who won and lost – the election last night was discouraging for the RJC. Candidates across the country backed by the RJC – Florida Congressional candidate Adam Hasner, Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel and Hawaii Senate candidate Linda Lingle – were all unsuccessful in their campaigns, as were Congressional candidates Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in New Jersey and Randy Altschuler in New York.

J Street’s Ben-Ami, meanwhile, said that of the 71 candidates backed by his group’s affiliated PAC that supports candidates who are in favor of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 70 had either won election or were leading in races where the final results weren’t yet known. Ben-Ami called that record “an incredibly important demonstration of political support for candidates who espouse a ‘pro-Israel, pro-Peace’ set of positions.”

In terms of the Presidential race, the RJC argued that the $8 million it spent on ad campaigns and other forms of messaging targeting Jewish voters had an impact, and that the rest of the party needed to adopt some of its methods.

“What’s important now is that other Republicans learn from what the RJC did and grow their vote with other key groups,” said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary who worked closely with the RJC in its efforts to move Jewish voters into the GOP’s column leading up to yesterday’s election. “You have to go into their communities, ask for their votes, take people seriously and respect them.”

And the voters who need to be taken most seriously aren’t American Jews, who make up just two percent of the population. Latinos, whose support for Obama this year helped propel him to a second term, are the votes Republicans need to win.

To do that, Gerstein, the J Street pollster, said that Republicans will need to rethink some of the policy positions adopted by Romney this year – particularly his promoting a policy of “self-deportation” for Latinos. That – combined with a perception that the GOP is hostile to Latinos – drove that group into Obama’s camp.

As for whether any shift among Jews to the Republican party could sway future elections, Gerstein was skeptical.

“We’re talking about a population that’s two percent of the country,” he said.

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