By running advertisements that seek to tie Senator Barack Obama to Iran, Palestinians and Patrick Buchanan, and by sponsoring a poll that some say is misleading and even manipulative, the Republican Jewish Coalition is mounting an unusually aggressive campaign that has drawn criticism from Democrats and even some Republicans.
Obama supporters led a September 16 protest outside a Manhattan calling center, where pollsters asked 750 Jewish households in the battlegrounds of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey whether several negative statements about Obama changed their attitude toward the Democratic presidential candidate. The RJC, which sponsored the poll, said it was researching Jewish public opinion. Critics say it amounted to a “push poll” that is sometimes used to spread untruths about a candidate.
According to the Web site Politico.com, Jewish Democratic groups and others who documented the calls, those surveyed were asked whether their vote would be affected if they learned, for instance, that Obama had given money to the PLO or if they learned that the leader of Hamas hoped for Obama’s victory.
Respondents were asked about how they would react to other “ifs”: if Obama’s political advisors are “pro-Palestinian,” if Obama once said “the Palestinians have suffered the most,” if Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad endorsed Obama, or if former President Jimmy Carter’s anti-Israel national security advisor is one of his foreign policy advisors.
“I’m sure that a part of this is to be provocative so that you can raise these issues, and without your fingerprints on it, raise doubts,” said Norm Ornstein, a political expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Those questions are certainly much more push poll questions than traditional questions.”
Democrats quickly labeled the survey a “push poll,” a controversial form of polling sometimes used by political campaigns and interest groups not to measure voters’ opinions but to influence their positions with negative statements or misleading questions. Matt Brooks, the RJC executive director, denied that label and said that the survey was aimed at testing how issues and policy positions resonated with Jewish voters.
“The notion that this was an effort to influence public opinion was ludicrous,” he said.
The firestorm over the poll erupted after Jonathan Cohn, who writes for the New Republic, received one of the calls. Cohn took notes and posted details on the liberal magazine’s website under the headline, “I Just Got Push-Polled on Obama and Israel.”
Push polls typically ask only a handful of questions and may try to reach thousands of voters. In contrast, Brooks said the RJC poll asked 82 questions on a range of issues, including testing support for Senator McCain and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the GOP ticket, and Senator Joseph Biden, Obama’s running mate.
Although he declined to release the actual questions or the results, Brooks said that those surveyed were also asked about abortion rights, immigration, the economy, Iraq, Iran and Israel. The questions critics cite as offensive represent a fraction of the issues sampled to collect data on Jewish community opinions, he said.
Still, “this poll is pretty aggressive for them,” observed Michael Fragin, a Republican Jewish operative and activist from Long Island. Fragin added that he doesn’t necessarily view the poll to be as negative as Democrats perceive it to be.
Mark Blumenthal, editor of the Pollster.com Web site, told Politico.com that the 15-minute poll sounded like traditional “message testing.”
But the fact that RJC may have employed standard polling methodologies or that questions may have some basis in fact, doesn’t make for a credible poll, according to Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which is working for The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and conducting its own independent surveys in the same states RJC polled.
“One loaded question in a poll is too many. Those are definitely push polls,” Richards said after being read questions that poll recipients claimed they were asked.
Democrats say it is proof that the Republicans’ only chance of building support for McCain within the Jewish community is by running a negative campaign against Obama.
“This is really an indictment of the case they believe they have to make on behalf of John McCain,” said Mik Moore, co-executive director of the Jewish Council for Education and Research, a pro-Obama group involved in drawing attention to the poll on its site, jewsvote.org.
The poll comes on the heels of an advertising campaign the RJC launched September 9 in Jewish newspapers across the country that Democrats say is similarly aimed at stoking fears and spreading misinformation within the Jewish electorate.
Under the headline, “Concerned about Barack Obama? You should be,” the first ads included a series of pictures of Ahmadinejad, other Muslim leaders and protesters burning an Israeli flag. One of the ads, which calls Obama’s position on Iran “Naive and Dangerous,” partially quotes Obama saying that “Iran, Cuba, Venezuela… don’t pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us,” and questions Obama’s willingness to hold direct negotiations with Iran and his opposition to a resolution that labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. (Obama has said that he supports the label, but along with other lawmakers, was afraid that the Bush administration would interpret the resolution as an authorization to attack or invade Iran.)
The ads mirror a McCain ad that independent groups including FactCheck.org have debunked as misleading. What Obama actually said was: “These countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union,” according to FactCheck.org. The non-partisan group also pointed out that Obama has said that Iran is the greatest threat to Israel.
A third ad, unveiled September 17, features Buchanan, who it says endorses Obama’s “dangerous views on Israel.” In a statement announcing the ads, Brooks says, “By no means does the RJC infer from this quote that Barack Obama supports the views of Patrick Buchanan. Rather, we are highlighting the fact that Buchanan believes that his views are in line with Obama’s on the critical issues of Israel and Iran. Because Pat Buchanan shares Obama’s views on Iran and Israel, how comfortable can the Jewish community be with those positions?”
Matt Dorf, a Jewish liaison for the Democratic National Committee, derided the ads. “At the end of the day they know that John McCain will not win Jewish votes on merit and he will only win on the basis of smears, lies and deceit,” he said.
The week of September 22 is when Brooks says the group will run its first positive advertisement touting McCain’s policies. All the ads include citations in fine print to allow voters to examine every claim. “We lay it out there for people to make up there own minds,” Brooks said. “We’re comfortable with what we’re representing.”