Washington — Polling American Jewish voters, who are a tiny percentage of the overall population, is frequently compared to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Since it would cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to randomly call homes to find enough Jewish voters for a scientific survey, most polls compromise in some way.
So it is difficult to judge whether the most recent survey of preferences in the presidential race is an accurate snapshot of the challenges still facing Democratic nominee Barack Obama — or a flawed assessment of Obama’s standing among Jewish voters.
The poll, released September 25 by the American Jewish Committee, showed Obama garnering just 57% of the Jewish vote, well below the level of support enjoyed by past Democratic nominees. Republican nominee John McCain drew 30% of the 914 respondents who identified themselves as Jews. Four years ago, a similar pre-election AJCommittee survey showed that 69% of Jewish voters supported Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.
“There seems to be a barrier to Obama’s making further gains within the Jewish community,” said David Singer, the AJCommittee’s director of research.
A key factor for Obama is that 13% of Jewish voters surveyed remain undecided. Pollsters and analysts offered a variety of reasons that many Jews continue to hesitate to embrace Obama. These include his short tenure on the national stage, some still-unknown details of his life, unfounded rumors about his religion and McCain’s strong support for Israel.
Though similar to the results of other polls conducted last spring and summer by the Gallup Organization and the J Street political action committee, as well as to those of private polling that has typically shown Obama drawing 61% to 63% of the Jewish vote, several pollsters and analysts questioned the results and significance of the AJCommittee poll. One went so far as to call it “ancient history,” because recent events have shifted and turned the presidential contest upside down again.
“It’s suggestive of some conclusions about the Jewish community, but because of the long time of the poll, because of changing circumstances, I don’t find it particularly instructive or helpful in explaining what’s going on in the Jewish community,” said analyst Stuart Rothenberg, editor of his respected independent newsletter, The Rothberg Political Report.
The poll, which has a 3% margin of error, covered some of Obama’s worst weeks in recent months on the campaign trail, Rothenberg and other political observers noted. The poll began immediately after the Republican National Convention, when McCain enjoyed a large bounce in public approval and his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, was drawing high marks across the country before questions about her record and experience began to emerge. The survey ended just as attention turned to the financial crisis, which, polls showed, hurt McCain.
“For most of the time that AJC was in the field, Obama was down in the national polls 5-6 points. Now he’s up,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said. The survey period also did not include the September 26 presidential debate, which might have swayed some voters.
Among those polled, 56% said they consider themselves to be Democrats, 25% Independents and 17% Republicans. Nearly three-quarters approve of Delaware Senator Joseph Biden as Obama’s running mate, while 54% disapprove of Palin. Respondents also overwhelmingly said they believed Democrats are more likely to make the right decisions fighting terrorism, strengthening the economy and supporting Israel, as well as on energy crises and the Iraq War.
Mellman was also critical of the methodology used by the AJCommittee’s pollster, Synovate. The firm surveyed self-identified Jewish members of the panels whom they use for consumer polls. These are members who opted-in to participate in the poll. “It is a random sample of a nonrandom sample of the American-Jewish community,” Mellman said.
Singer stood by the poll, saying that the results are consistent with other public polls. “When people are unhappy with the survey results, they try to find problems that aren’t there,” he said. “I don’t think it makes sense to ignore this problem that exists with people hesitating about Obama.”