J Street and Republican Jewish Coalition Clash Over Their Own Influence on the Elections

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 08, 2010, issue of November 19, 2010.
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Republicans and Democrats may be done with their electoral battle, but the fight between their Jewish surrogates is just beginning.

It is a struggle not only about the Jewish narrative of the 2010 Republican earthquake, but also a fight to prove each side’s raison d’être. The Republican Jewish Coalition, which has spent millions on campaign ads, argued that the Republican landslide shows that its efforts were fruitful, whereas J Street, strongly supportive of the Democratic side, has claimed that it has the numbers to prove that Jewish voters were not affected by the RJC’s ad campaign. This argument could validate J Street’s view that there is no political cost for breaking with the traditional pro-Israel line as defined by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Serving as the battleground are competing polls that each of the groups has conducted among Jewish voters who participated in the elections.

Both surveys seem to reach a similar bottom line: Roughly two-thirds of Jewish voters in the midterm elections chose Democratic candidates, and a third went Republican.

But this is the only thing on which the two sides agree.

According to the J Street poll, conducted by Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein, who is also a founding member of the group’s board of directors, 66% of Jewish voters nationally voted for Democrats. And in Pennsylvania, where the group conducted a separate poll, 71% of Jews voted for Democrat Joe Sestak, the losing candidate, who was a prime target for attacks by the RJC and the Emergency Committee for Israel, another Republican group. The two groups charged that Sestak was not a strong supporter of Israel.

According to the RJC poll, conducted by leading Jewish conservative pollster and political consultant Arthur Finkelstein, Sestak received only 62% of Jewish votes, while his Republican rival, Pat Toomey, got 30.7%.

Factoring in the margin of error of each poll, the difference between them is not huge. But it is practically impossible to compare the two. The RJC did not conduct a national survey, but rather chose five races in which Jewish voters were more prominent, Sestak’s race being one. J Street’s poll was national. The two groups also differed in the way their databases were compiled and in the definition of who is a Jewish voter. For J Street, it is whoever identifies as Jewish, whereas the RJC asked about communal affiliation.

And while groups disagree about the data, experts agree on one thing: Polls can be deceiving, especially those commissioned by interest groups.

“I wouldn’t put too much weight into these polls,” said political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins University, who is also a political polling expert.

Professor Jacques Berlinerblau, head of Georgetown University’s Program for Jewish Civilization, described what he sees as an “endemic problem with Jewish polling,” which is that groups commission surveys when they know what they want to hear.

But the main dispute surrounding the Jewish vote in the midterm elections has more to do with interpretation than with the raw data. Democrats see the numbers as a sign of success. “Jewish voters buck the national trend,” stated a J Street press release explaining that the figure of 66% support for Democrats is significant “in a particularly difficult electoral climate for incumbents.”

The RJC is looking at similar numbers, but has reached an opposite conclusion. “There should be no question that the GOP is making gains among Jewish voters,” said Matthew Brooks, RJC’s executive director. Brooks dismissed Democratic claims of relative success with Jewish voters in comparison with the overall national trend, since Republicans faced a strong Democratic tide in 2008.

RJC’s bottom line is that progress is being made, step by step. “We view it as an ongoing process,” Brooks said. “It is another set of data points on a trend line.”

Experts agree on the direction, but are skeptical about the pace.

“There is a very, very slow increase in Jewish support for Republicans,” Ginsberg said, although he stressed that Jews are still “firmly anchored” in the Democratic camp.

Berlinerblau said Republicans have “reasons for optimism,” since they have succeeded in making a dent in the Jewish alliance with the Democrats. He too, however, sees it as a long process that began after the Franklin Roosevelt’s era and is mainly influenced by generational change in the Jewish community.

With campaign donations and ad buying reaching six-digit figures on both sides, the debate over interpretation of the poll numbers is about more than just prestige.

The RJC expanded the breadth of its campaign ads on Israel during this election, making its biggest ever investment. It is hoping to show a political return. Most of the group’s ad money went to eight races, but RJC polls do not provide information about the influence it had on the outcome of those races.

One of J Street’s main talking points since its inception has been that attacking basically pro-Israel politicians for being insufficiently hard-line on Israel does not fly with Jewish voters.

Finkelstein does not agree. “Israel really did matter,” he said, “and Obama really does have a problem with Jewish voters.” He said that Israel is an emotional factor among Jewish voters.

The polls conducted by both groups found that among Orthodox Jews — a small but growing denomination, currently estimated at about 10% of the American Jewish population — Israel is a deciding issue. These voters, the polls show, trend heavily toward the Republican side.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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