Don’t read too much into new PRRI poll of Jewish voters

Dr. Rafael Medoff Director, The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies
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According to a new poll, 62% of American Jews support the re-election of President Obama. Democrats and Republicans both seem pleased. Neither of them should be.

Democrats are keenly aware of earlier surveys and anecdotal evidence suggesting President Obama’s share of the Jewish vote this year may drop sharply from the 78% he won in 2008. From the Democrats’ point of view, 62% may be less than 78%, but it’s still a large majority.

Republicans, for their part, know all too well that no GOP candidate in modern times has won a majority of the Jewish vote. The record is the approximately 40% Ronald Reagan captured in 1980, running against a president, Jimmy Carter, whose policies on Israel deeply alienated many American Jews. The new survey puts the Republicans within striking distance of Reagan’s record.

Both camps are looking at it all wrong.

The poll, which was carried out by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), surveyed a representative sample of 1,004 American Jews. The sample was structured to resemble the American Jewish community: 40% residents of the Northeast, 25% from the South, 23% from the West, 12% from the Midwest.

That’s fine if you want a sense of what Jews all across the country think. But it tells us nothing about the possible impact of Jewish votes in a presidential election.

The PRRI poll treats Jewish voters in Connecticut and California the same as Jews in Pennsylvania, Florida or Ohio. But neither Connecticut nor California has gone for a Republican presidential nominee since 1988, and polls show this year will be no different. Thus Jewish votes in those states will not affect the national outcome.

The only Jewish votes that will have an impact are the ones cast in states where the race is extremely close. In toss-up states such as Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio, the 2012 race could be dramatically affected if a significant number of voters suddenly change from their usual voting habit because of a particular issue — such as Jews who are angry with President Obama over Israel.

Pennsylvania, with 20 electoral votes, has a Jewish populace of about 300,000, constituting approximately 4% of the state’s voters in a presidential race. The Democratic candidate has won Pennsylvania in the last five presidential races, but in 2004, Democrat John Kerry beat President George W. Bush by just 51-49% — about 145,000 votes.

In Florida, which has 29 electoral votes, the last three presidential races have been close, especially George W. Bush’s 537-vote margin of victory in 2000. Florida has about 640,000 Jewish residents, who make up 6% to 8% of those who cast ballots on Election Day.

And Ohio, which has 18 electoral votes, has a Jewish population of about 150,000, an estimated 2% to 3% of the voters. Since 1976, the Republicans have won Ohio five times, the Democrats four. Some races have been extremely close, such as Jimmy Carter’s margin of 11,000 over President Gerald Ford in 1976, and Bill Clinton’s victory by 90,000 votes in 1992. Polls show it will be close this year, too.

All of which means that neither side should be too quick to celebrate the new PRRI poll results. Because yes, President Obama might win a majority of Jewish votes nationwide. And yes, the Republican nominee might win more Jewish votes than any previous GOP presidential candidate.

But the only place the Jewish vote will matter is in the battleground states. When we start seeing some polls of Jewish voters in those states, it will be time to pay attention.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is the coauthor, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the forthcoming book “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel,” which will be published in April.