Dueling exit polls, Sestak-Toomey and the eternal J Street debate
11/03/2010 - 19:11
James Besser

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.



The shock of this analysis is that 60% to 70% of Pennsylvania Jews voted for the candidate who signed a letter excoriating Israel for fighting the Gaza War to end massive barrages of missles on Southern Israel. The Democrat Candidate supports Hamas and blames Israel for terrorism against Gaza. Pennsylvania's Jews clearly supported Sestak and his Pro-Hamas and Pro-J Street politics. I say: Let the psychoanlysis begin.
It would be besser if Besser stopped providing cover for J Street and its confused members. J Street, funded by (tzuros) Soros is a disgrace with its pro Arab/Muslim leanings at the expense of the welfare of the majority of Israel's citizens. Of course most, but not all, of J Streeters are either secularist, aetheists, Muslims, Self Hating Jews or leftists. Admittedly a few of its members are well meaning and love Israel but are unfortunately misguided, naive or just delusional or perhaps just plain stupid and descending quickly to insanity.
James -- I don't understand how you can discuss Gerstein's polls without telling readers that he's a senior director -- a founding vice president, in fact -- of J Street. According to the IRS file, J Street also paid him $60,000 last year for his polls, even though he's a director of the organization. Of course his polls will reflect what J Street wants to show. Do you think he'd publish anything that ran against J Street's doctrine?
Mr. Besser: I think you are missing the most interesting aspect of the Sestak-Toomey race. Orthodox Jews, who will put Israel as #1 of their list of concerns, gave overwhelming support to Toomey. In fact, it is fair to say that their votes on behalf of Toomey was the margin needed for him to win! After all, it was a very close election. I informally questioned my orthodox friends and neighbors. I'd say it was about 10-1 for Toomey. Imagine this; Sestak signed the infamous Gaza letter that 54 anti-Israel congressmen (all dems) signed. When the OU met with Sestak and gave him a chance to renounce that signature, he refused. To him, Israel had no right to attack Gaza during Cast Lead or to impose a siege in order to protect its border. Shame on him, and good riddance! We are looking forward to Mr. Toomey's term with great hope in the pro-Israel community.
A level headed analysis unlike any of the following comments.
You understand that even though the party was named the National Socialist party Hitler practiced FASCISM which opposed to any form of Liberal ideology. Read up on your history and/or go to college; the true history of the past isn't taught on Fox News or Conservative Blogs. You implied that Obama is a Jew hater... what makes him a Jew hater? Because he wants Israel to stop constructing illegal settlements in Palestinian territory? Israel has killed 5 times as many Palestinian civilians than groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah combined. The true terror here is Israel... killing Palestinians for their land and them calling them terrorists when they try to fight for their stolen lands. You crazy neo-conservatives have had the white house for 8 years and congress for 6. Within the Bush/Republican reign you all took our booming economy and left America in a deep recession. The economy is picking back up under Obama and the Democrat congress, but after last night I doubt it will last long. If you drop your biases and study real facts and statistics you will see that the failed right wing ideology has completely left this country in the trash.
62% isn't a teutonic shift? You're still an Obama loving self hating Jew if you don't see that WE JEWS are leaving the Democrat party in DROVES. We see the Jew hater in the WH for what he is. I bet you won't even POST this. Just follow the Hitler in power, right? Hitler came from the left love. National SOCIALIST Party, and they came from the SOCIALIST WORKERS PARTY. Leftwing all the way. Keep supporting them, you're nothing but an Alfred Rosenberg!

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.