Why Obama’s Jewish Numbers are Improving

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

James Besser in Washington

Why have Sen. Barack Obama’s Jewish numbers surged, at least according to two polls released last week?  The pollsters don’t answer that question in detail,  but several likely explanations jump out from the numbers.

*  The economy.

Well, duh.  Poll after poll shows the economic meltdown sweeping other issues off the table.  Many Americans are now asking which is a more pressing issue in 2008 – the evaporation of their 401K plans and threats to their jobs or gay marriage?

Traditionally, economic crises hurt the party that controls the White House.  And Jewish voters, predisposed to the Democrats for years,  are hardly immune to these calculations.

The economy has also wreaked havoc on a Republican Jewish strategy of focusing heavily on Israel and arguing that  Obama, more intent on negotiations and a multilateral foreign policy,  might try to push Israel to make dangerous concessions.

As September’s American Jewish Committee survey showed, the economy pushes every other issue – including Israel – to the margins for Jewish voters.

That’s not true among the most hawkishly pro-Israel and among the Orthodox – but many of them were already committed to Sen. John McCain. It’s all about swing voters – and for that group, Jewish and non-Jewish, the economy seems to be trumping all other issues.

*  Comfort level with Obama.

He has a “scary” name, according to comic Sarah Silverman, there were all those unfounded whispers about him being a secret Muslim, he spent years listening to a raving pastor, he’s an African American – all of which made him something outside the ordinary for Jewish voters.

But Obama has conducted a very mainstream campaign; he speaks in the kind of hyper-intellectual argot Jewish voters tend to like; he has said the “right things” about Israel; his views about negotiating with Iran increasingly seem like where many Republicans, including President Bush, are heading.  And his opposition to the Iraq war, expressed in cautious terms that infuriate many on the far left, is in sync with a Jewish  community that has opposed the war from the beginning.

In other words, the way he has positioned himself in this campaign has apparently increased Jewish voters’ comfort level with his candidacy.  And that may be reflected in last week’s polls.

* Return of Hillary Clinton voters.

Remember those angry women who said they’d rather vote for John McCain than the upstart senator who defeated their champion?

Well, there are a few of them out there, but analysts say most – scared about the prospect of another anti-abortion administration and the prospect of appointments that could tilt the Supreme Court for a generation – may be coming back to the Democrats.

That’s especially true in Florida, according to last week’s  Quinnipiac University poll.

* Sarah Palin.

The Republicans staunchly deny it, but most independent political experts agree: while energizing the Christian right base of the party and appealing to many blue collar voters – the storied “Joe Six Packs” –  McCain’s vice presidential nominee has been a big turnoff to many educated swing voters.

Palin’s “You betcha” folksiness and penchant for labeling the Democratic contender a “socialist” delight some GOP loyalists, but those kinds of populist appeals have never gotten much traction with  middle-of-the-road Jews.

Plenty of Jewish Republicans like Palin just fine; her domestic views and her personal story appeal to many in the Orthodox community.

But remember: we’re talking Jewish swing voters here, the ones who a few months back seemed poised to give McCain the biggest Jewish totals in recent decades.  That group, traditionally inclined to the Democrats anyway, may be less than impressed with the Alaska governor, many analysts say.

“She was a disaster for the McCain campaign’s Jewish outreach,” said Allan Lichtman, an expert in presidential politics at American University.

Of course, these polls came out two weeks before an election in what could well be the most volatile, unpredictable political year in recent memory.  Things could change before November 4.

The GOP campaign has ratcheted up its attacks on Obama in the Jewish community; an extreme example was last week’s email to Jewish voters in Pennsylvania implying that a vote for Obama would be a “tragic mistake” that could lead to a second Holocaust.

The attack email came from the state’s GOP  “Victory 2008” committee, which later disavowed it, saying it had been released without permission.

Will that kind of harsh attack get enough traction with Jewish voters to push some over to McCain?  Or will it backfire on the GOP and solidify Obama’s impressive poll numbers?

Also unclear is the impact of race on swing voters. Will the “Bradley effect” tip many nominally Democratic voters away from their party’s African American candidate at the last minute?  Analysts are split on that issue, and the bottom line is that nobody knows for sure, although even some who were predicting a significant racial impact now say economic angst is trumping that factor.

But for now, the only available polling data provides reassurance to the Democrats and another source of worry to the GOP.

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.