Obama’s “Jewish Problem”

by John Sides on September 15, 2011 · 4 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Public opinion

Nate Silver tweets these three things:

Politico: Obama’s approval rating down 5 points with Jewish voters since June. (Unmentioned: it’s also down 5 points among ALL voters.)
Basically, the Politico article presents objective evidence that Obama does not have a “Jewish problem”. Author concludes the opposite.
Also might be worth mentioning: a 5% approval decline among Jewish voters = a 0.1% decline in Obama’s overall rating.

It’s worth remembering that this exact same narrative emerged in 2008.  Here is a NY Times article from May 22, 2008, with the headline “As Obama Heads to Florida, Many of Its Jews Have Doubts.”  (The article also falsely asserted—without citing evidence—that Jews were generally “drifting to the right.”  See my old post documenting that the percentage of Jews voting Democratic has increased over time.  As Jon Cohen points out, Obama did as well or better among Jewish voters than did Clinton or Kerry.)

So why won’t this meme die?  In general, intra-party strife is newsworthy, as I’ve noted before. It’s not interesting when evangelical Christians dislike Obama.  But when the base, including most Jewish voters, is “angry” or “demobilized”—no matter how weak the evidence—a thousand stories are spawned.

Commentators also tend to underestimate how much a campaign rallies the base.  Fourteen months out, things look bad for Obama and Democrats are fretful.  Their angst makes headlines.  But no one bothers to remember that campaigns really do bring wayward partisans home.  This is the most venerable finding from political science studies of campaigns.  I wrote about it here.

But there is a fundamental problem in the interpretation of polls as well, which Silver gets at.  When analyzing polls, you must always ask: “compared to what?”  Very little in polls is definitively large or small in absolute terms.  It’s the relative comparisons that matter.  A 5-point decline among Jews says little about Jews if there’s been a 5-point decline among basically every other demographic group.

The fixation on a trend among one group is doubly misleading because it gets your mind thinking about explanations idiosyncratic to that group.  So with Jews, it’s because of Obama’s alleged dovishness on Israel.  With Latinos, it’s because he hasn’t pushed comprehensive immigration reform.  With working-class whites, it’s because he’s too elitist.  And so on.

What’s happened to Obama is not a “Jewish problem.”  It’s an “economy problem.”

 

{ 4 comments }

LFC September 16, 2011 at 9:21 am

A perhaps tangentially related point: A lot of the news media still seem to assume that, when it comes to Israel/Palestine, the views of the well-established, ‘mainstream’ American Jewish organizations accurately represent the views of most American Jews. Whereas I think Jewish voters are less reflexively and uncritically pro-the-Israeli-government-position-of-the-moment-whatever-it-is than the organizations and their leaders are.

matt w September 16, 2011 at 11:07 am

Also, from the armchair, it seems possible that Obama might have a particular problem with Orthodox Jews. Which could be particularly salient because Orthodox Jews are a pretty big part of the population in NY-7, which was big news recently.

But everywhere outside of NY-7, a drop in support among Orthodox Jews is a rounding error on a rounding error. (Which is why I’m talking from the armchair; it’s pretty hard to get good polling numbers for Orthodox Jews specifically, isn’t it?)

David Littleboy September 18, 2011 at 8:26 pm

“… underestimate how much a campaign rallies the base. ”

Well, the far left part of the base is also frothing crazily. The health care act is evil because it doesn’t have single payer, Guantanamo didn’t get closed, progress on gay rights is way too slow. A lot of us thought Obama was the Christ Savior rescuing us from the sell-out-to-the-right-at-every-chance-she-can-get pawn-0f-the-DSC Clinton, and now we’re talking about how liberal Hilary is. Give me a break. I hope you are right, but it sure looks like we lefties are going to shoot ourselves in the head trying to hit our feet.

Dylan Verner-Crist March 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm

I find this offensive, He is not a monkey!!!

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