Washington Jewish Week’s Adam Kredo investigated the recent claims that American Jews are abandoning President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. His investigation, which included looking at authoritative polling data, led him to assert that the claims are nothing more than a “political poltergeist.”
President Barack Obama’s so-called ‘Jewish problem’ is quickly becoming a political poltergeist. Nearly everyone has a spooky tale to tell, yet no one can prove that it actually exists.
Just like a phantom, the perception that Obama is unduly tough on Israel haunted the race last week in New York City’s 9th District…
Billed by many as a referendum on Israel, Weprin’s surprising loss was hailed by conservative ideologues as a clear sign that Jews are fed up with what they perceive as Obama’s negative attitude towards Israel. If a heavily Jewish enclave in New York City could turn red (for the first time in 88 years, no less), so might the rest of Jewish America, they maintained.
Yet there is scant statistical evidence to support this claim. A recent Gallup poll placed the president’s approval rating at 54 percent in the Jewish community - a 30 point drop from the early days of the Obama presidency. But Jews have soured on Obama along with the rest of the nation, Gallup reported, and there isn’t much evidence to prove that Israel-related issues played a roll.
Jewish support ‘has generally declined no more than it has among all Americans,’ wrote Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief, in a column last week. ‘This calls into question attempts to link a decline in Obama’s approval among Jews to his statements or polices on matters important to Jewish policymakers and lobbyists. These include his major “1967 borders” speech in mid-May and the apparent rebuke of the president in this week’s special congressional election.’
Weprin’s surprising loss sparked numerous stories about Obama’s now-notorious ‘Jewish problem.’ Headline after headline declared that Jews are abandoning Obama mainly because he’s seen as insufficiently pro-Israel…
Democratic observers, however, flatly deny this claim.
‘Everything that has been written about Israel playing a key role in this election is speculation and none of it is rooted in any data,’ said Jim Gerstein, a veteran Democratic pollster. ‘To draw the lesson that Israel is the problem facing Democrats and President Obama is a dangerous misdiagnosis for those who are focused on Jewish voters.’
As proof, Gerstein cited a poll conducted earlier this month by the Siena Research Institute. The survey found that just 16 percent of the 9th District’s Jewish voters said that a candidate’s stance on Israel would determine their vote. (And, among general voters, just 7 percent said that Israel was a top issue.)...
Stephen Richer, a Republican analyst, explained that the outcome in New York is ‘being slightly oversold in terms of what it bodes for the Jewish vote in the 2012 presidential election.’ The composition of the Jewish electorate in that particular district, he noted, is hardly representative of the national landscape.
Though the area has the fourth largest Jewish population of any congressional district in the nation - somewhere near 173,000 Jews, according to some estimates - it’s comprised of a disproportionate number of Orthodox Jews, most of whom tend to vote Republican and don’t support the president.
‘The Jews there are not representative of American Jews,’ explained Richer, who serves as the president of RK Research, a nonprofit political research group.
George Washington University Political Science professor John Sides also examined this topic:
It’s worth remembering that this exact same narrative emerged in 2008. Here is a NY Times article from May 22, 2008, with the headline ‘As Obama Heads to Florida, Many of Its Jews Have Doubts.’ (The article also falsely asserted-without citing evidence-that Jews were generally ‘drifting to the right.’ See my old post documenting that the percentage of Jews voting Democratic has increased over time. As Jon Cohen points out, Obama did as well or better among Jewish voters than did Clinton or Kerry.)
So why won’t this meme die? In general, intra-party strife is newsworthy, as I’ve noted before. It’s not interesting when evangelical Christians dislike Obama. But when the base, including most Jewish voters, is ‘angry’ or ‘demobilized’-no matter how weak the evidence-a thousand stories are spawned.
Commentators also tend to underestimate how much a campaign rallies the base. Fourteen months out, things look bad for Obama and Democrats are fretful. Their angst makes headlines. But no one bothers to remember that campaigns really do bring wayward partisans home. This is the most venerable finding from political science studies of campaigns. I wrote about it here....
When analyzing polls, you must always ask: “compared to what?” Very little in polls is definitively large or small in absolute terms. It’s the relative comparisons that matter. A 5-point decline among Jews says little about Jews if there’s been a 5-point decline among basically every other demographic group.
The fixation on a trend among one group is doubly misleading because it gets your mind thinking about explanations idiosyncratic to that group. So with Jews, it’s because of Obama’s alleged dovishness on Israel. With Latinos, it’s because he hasn’t pushed comprehensive immigration reform. With working-class whites, it’s because he’s too elitist. And so on.
What’s happened to Obama is not a ‘Jewish problem.’ It’s an ‘economy problem.’
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