Good News for McCain — or Polling Mush?

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

James Besser in Washington

Here’s a political shocker for you: Jews who say religion is “an important part of my daily life” are more likely to vote for Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, than those who say religion isn’t as important.

How do you spell “Duh?”

This nugget was part of a Gallup poll released this week that shows the same dynamic working in the broader population, but even more so.

According to Gallup,  only 39 percent of  Jews  surveyed say religion is important to them, far behind the national average of 66 percent. That minority of Jewish is evenly divided between McCain and Sen. Barack Obama supporters, both at 45 percent.

The majority of Jews who say religion is not that important – 61 percent – break strongly for Obama,  68-26 percent.

Among voters in general,  50 percent of those who say religion is important chose McCain, 40 percent Obama; those on the other side of the religious divide break for Obama 55-36 percent.

So what do the data on presidential preference and level of religious observance mean? Statistically, that’s a hard one to answer.

Numerous studies have indicated that as levels of observance go up, voters tend to be more conservative and more Republican, and that the same dynamic holds true in the Jewish community, albeit at a lower level.

Nathan Diament, political director for the Orthodox Union, said there are elements of good news in the Gallup data  for both presidential candidates.

“For Sen. McCain, it is indicative that he is doing better among Orthodox or otherwise traditional Jews,” he said  “It shows that McCain is at least competitive in this group.”

But the data also shows that Obama “still has persuadable voters” among Jews who take their religion seriously.

He said Gallup’s definition of what it means to be a religious person leaves something to be desired.

“The problem is that the definition they use of ‘observant’ is somebody saying religion is ‘important’ in their life,” he said. “That’s pretty fuzzy.”

University of Florida political scientist Ken Wald, who studies Jewish politics, agreed, calling it a “truly mush question.”

Wald  offered an interpretation of the survey much more hopeful for the Democrats.

“Jewish support for Obama is still almost 20 points higher than among Protestants and almost 10 more than among Catholics,” he said. “This tells me that Jews will probably continue to vote 25-30 percent more Democratic than the  electorate as a whole.”

So extrapolating from that,  if Obama wins half the overall vote in November he could get 75-80 percent of the Jewish vote, bringing him right up there with recent Democratic candidates.

But extrapolation is a risky business – especially months in advance of a volatile election and especially in view of a question on religion that won’t win any awards for precision.

Read the poll results here.

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.