Dueling exit polls, Sestak-Toomey and the eternal J Street debate

The dust has settled from Tuesday’s electoral earthquake, which was about a 6.2 on the political Richter scale, and  the spinmeisters are hard at work telling us how to interpret the piles of rubble.

As promised, I’ve been looking at exit polls about the high-profile Senate race in Pennsylvania. The exit polls aren’t exactly conclusive – and aren’t exactly in agreement.

J Street, the pro-peace process group that heavily backed Democratic nominee Joe Sestak, hired pollster Jim Gerstein, who concluded that 71 percent of the state’s Jewish voters went with the unsuccessful Democratic candidate despite aggressive attack ads from GOP-affiliated groups denouncing his J Street connection and portraying him as a threat to Israel.

According to Gerstein, only 23 percent of Jewish voters punched the button for the winner, former Rep. Pat Toomey.

The Republican Jewish Coalition came up with a different set of numbers; 62 percent, according to an exit poll by Arthur Finkelstein, voted for Sestak, 30.7 percent for Toomey.

I’m not enough of a statistician to assess the methodology and sampling of the two polls, but I’m going to suggest something radical: it doesn’t really matter.

Assume for a moment that the GOP poll is the more accurate one – which, by the way, I am not doing.

A 61 percent take for the Democratic nominee from the strongly Democratic-leaning Jewish community isn’t something party leaders will be shouting from the rooftops – but it’s also not wildly inconsistent with what we saw nationally on Bloody Tuesday.

2010 saw a strong shift to the GOP across voter groups (excluding, apparently, the African American and Hispanic communities). A 70 percent Democratic take might be the predictable outcome in a normal year; with this year’s strong political currents, a 62 percent take isn’t out of line.

If you look across other white voter groups, Sestak’s 62 percent of the Jewish vote – if that’s the correct number – doesn’t look great, but it looks a heck of a lot better than the 37 percent Democratic vote for white voters in general in House races, according to a CNN exit poll. Gerstein also did a national exit poll of Jewish voters and found that overall, 66 percent of Jews surveyed voted for Democratic candidates, 31 percent for Republicans.

That’s pretty good news for the Jewish Republicans, but hardly a tectonic shift.

The difference between the Finkelstein and Gerstein numbers is interesting, but ultimately they polls say more or less the same thing: Democrats did worse than usual among Jewish voters in a year when they did worse than usual with almost every voter group, but there was no mass desertion, and they still did better than they did with white voters in general.

That’s something the Republicans may be able to build on in the next two years, or it may prove to be just a reflection of more dramatic partisan swings we’ve seen among the overall electorate in the past few elections. We just don’t know.

So what about J Street, you ask? Do the numbers indicate that J Street was the kiss of death for Sestack?

I don’t think so.

Whether you accept Finkelstein’s 62 percent or Gerstein’s 71 percent, Sestak’s Jewish numbers don’t point to a dramatic shift away from the Democrats and they do not look close to decisive in the election.

The margin was close -51 to 49 percent – but not razor thin. Sestak won by about 78,000 votes; Jews were about 2.7 percent of the electorate; either 62 percent or 71 percent of  them voted for Sestak. Do the math.

Were the J Street attacks effective in swaying Jewish voters who were not already committed to the Republican? We just don’t know, but in any event it didn’t sway enough of them to be decisive.

There was another number in the Gerstein poll that was intriguing and spoke indirectly to the J Street issue.

Asked about the two issues “most important for you in deciding your vote in the Senate race this year,” the economy scored first with 53 percent, health care was second at 35 percent, education third at 15 percent…and Israel was eighth at 8 percent.

Poll bias? I don’t think so; that’s pretty consistent with a number of other surveys we’ve seen that refute the popular notion that for Jewish voters, it’s all about Israel.

Pennsylvania’s Jewish voters were more motivated by a range of domestic factors than concerns about Israel, a pattern we’ve seen over and over again across the country.

And that reinforces the conclusion the J Street controversy, and the millions spent on attacking Sestak for his connection to the group, weren’t pivotal, perhaps not even all that influential. It may also point to a softening of the Jewish attachment to the Democrats on domestic issues. In the RJC poll,  37 percent of the Jews said they disapprove of "the Obama national healthcare plan," with 55 percent approving.. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement from this traditionally progressive chunk of the electorate.

While we can’t say that J Street endorsements hurt candidates in this week’s elections, we also don’t have much evidence they helped.. Some of its endorsees won handily, but most of them weren’t facing really challenging races, and the J Street issue surfaced in only a tiny handful.

In the highest profile one aside from Sestak-Toomey – Sen. Russ Feingold’s bad defeat at the hands of political newcomer Ron Johnson, a Republican – Israel and J Street weren’t factors at all; this was a race defined almost entirely by economic fears and Feingold’s inability to connect with worried voters.

From my perch, the jury is still out on exactly how much of a political player the group is. Yes, there will be a lot of spin from both sides, but I still don’t see any real proof.

If I was a Jewish Republican, I’d be pleased with the nation results and indications Jewish voters are looking more favorably on many of their candidates, but I’d be careful about touting an electoral revolution. If I was a Jewish Democrat I’d be worried, but I wouldn’t be heading to the lifeboats.

Both sides need to heed the meaning of that intriguing figure in Gerstein’s poll; Israel is important to Jewish voters, but it’s rarely decisive in elections.


About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.