WASHINGTON – Barack Obama has hit a wall of Jewish indecision. An American Jewish Committee survey published last week shows the Democratic presidential nominee still hovering around 60 percent among Jewish voters. His big problem: the undecideds.
The U.S. senator from Illinois scored 57 percent, compared to 30 percent of respondents who said they would vote for his Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain. That’s consistent with two other major polls taken since May.
If Obama’s figure holds, he would finish about 15 points behind the 75 percent of the Jewish vote that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won in 2004, according to exit polls.
“He seems to have reached a plateau,” said David Singer, the AJC’s research director. He noted that Jews among the party faithful are strongly supportive of their respective candidates, with 81 percent of Jewish Democrats backing Obama and 84 percent of Jewish Republicans backing McCain.
“In the past, Jewish independents usually in their voting behavior tended to go Democratic” by this point in the campaign, Singer said. “It’s this group that seems to be hesitating.” The AJC survey found an even split among Jewish independents for McCain and Obama – with 20 percent still undecided.
Part of the explanation is McCain’s popularity among Jews relative to President Bush, who garnered only 24 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004 even after four years of what was widely seen as consistently strong support for Israel. McCain’s appeal combines similar support for Israel with a reputation as a moderate – one that Jewish Democrats say is no longer deserved after McCain picked a staunch religious conservative, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as his running mate.
A similar poll conducted by the AJC four years ago, in September 2004, showed Kerry at 69 percent and Bush at 24 percent. Kerry ultimately persuaded the undecideds to vote for him six weeks later.
Whether Obama can do the same in the time remaining before the election with twice as many undecideds up for grabs this time around is a worrying question for Democrats. They say that a Republican campaign depicting Obama as overly sympathetic to Palestinians and as insufficiently confrontational with Iran, as well as an Internet-based campaign falsely depicting Obama as a secret Muslim, has hurt support for the Democrat among Jews.
Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said his ads in Jewish newspapers in swing states where Jews may make a difference – particularly Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio – have raised substantive questions about Obama. Brooks cited Obama’s emphasis on the need for more diplomacy in dealing with Iran and his bungled efforts to explain his views on Jerusalem – and Brooks predicted bigger gains come Election Day.
“This poll is just another data point in an ongoing series of polls that underscore the tremendous problems Barack Obama has among Jewish voters,” Brooks said.
Throwing Obama’s difficulties into even sharper relief is that the poll shows Jews are consistently liberal. Jewish Democrats comprised 56 percent of the respondents in the AJC poll. A majority of all respondents – 47 percent to 42 percent, all Jews – opposed “the United States taking military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons,” a striking number in a community where the organizational leadership almost unanimously supports the idea of keeping the military option against Iran on the table.
Ira Forman, who directs the National Jewish Democratic Council, said he saw the “undecided” numbers as an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one. He noted that part of the poll, taken Sept. 8-21, was during McCain’s post-convention “bounce.”
“The way national numbers move, Jewish numbers move,” he said, referring to McCain’s decline in recent polls.
The AJC poll surveyed 914 Jews over the phone and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Among its other findings:
Obama earned the support of just 13 percent of Orthodox Jews, compared to 59 of Conservative Jews, 62 percent of Reform Jews and 61 percent of those who identified as “just Jewish.” McCain garnered 78 percent of Orthodox Jews, against 26 percent of Conservative Jews, 27 percent of Reform Jews, and 26 percent of those identifying as “just Jewish.”
Obama is doing better among Jewish women (60 percent) than Jewish men (54 percent). For McCain, it’s the opposite: Thirty-five percent of Jewish men said that they support the GOP nominee, compared to 25 percent of Jewish women.
A majority, 56 percent, disagreed with the statement that “there will come a time when Israel and its Arab neighbors will be able to settle their differences and live in peace.” Thirty-eight percent agreed.
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, predicted that Obama would make gains among Jewish voters by Election Day.
He said it was unfair to compare Obama with recent Democratic candidates. Bill Clinton’s respective opponents in 1992 and 1996 – President George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole – did not have good relations with the Jewish community, Mellman said. Al Gore in 2000 tapped Joe Lieberman, making him the first Jew on a national ticket, and the current President Bush was perceived as polarizing among Jews when Kerry ran against him in 2004, he said.
Referring to Obama’s consistent 60 percent range, Mellman said: “It’s still well in the range that other Democrats before Clinton have gotten.”