The battle for the Jewish exit poll begins

Even before voting was over, Democrats were challenging how Republicans count Jewish votes

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Behind a sign barring loaded firearms in the building, people stand in line to cast their votes on Election Day at a precinct at the Wake County Firearms Education and Training Center in Apex, N.C.,  Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Behind a sign barring loaded firearms in the building, people stand in line to cast their votes on Election Day at a precinct at the Wake County Firearms Education and Training Center in Apex, N.C., Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Even before the US election polling stations closed Tuesday, the parties were already arguing over how to count the votes cast by American Jews.

The Republicans seemed to have the early-bird advantage, convening a conference call to publicize exit polls by pollster Arthur Finkelstein on Wednesday at 2 pm Eastern. A J Street conference call for its own commissioned exit poll will only take place at 8:30 pm Eastern on Thursday. (Update: J Street clarifies that a media call will take place Wednesday at 1 pm, an hour before the RJC call. The Thursday evening call is for J Street’s members and the public. All Jewish exit poll numbers, Republican and Democrat, should be public by Wednesday afternoon.)

The Republican Jewish Coalition exit poll was to include a 1,000-person sample national survey of Jewish voters and two 600-person sample surveys in Ohio and Florida. All surveys were being taken Tuesday evening, after the polls closed.

But Democrats were already hitting away at the Republican poll’s methods Tuesday afternoon, sending around news articles from 2006 and 2010 that criticize RJC polling methods.

The argument has to do with how one counts the Jewish community. The RJC polls only counted Jews who affiliate with a specific movement, whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, not those who answered “just Jewish” in the poll. More affiliated Jews tend to be more conservative.

“By excluding Jews who identify as ‘just-Jewish’ and screening out unaffiliated Jews, the sample [in 2006] excluded almost half of the American Jewish community and heavily biases the sample toward the Republicans. If RJC’s past polling is any indication of what we’re going to see from their 2012 poll, the results are going to be far from representative of the Jewish community and skewed toward conservatives,” Aaron Keyak, a Democratic operative who works on the party’s outreach to the Jewish community, wrote in an email to this reporter on Tuesday afternoon.

Republicans say they have a point. Jewish identity is a fluid thing in America. Arguably a lot of people who are technically Jews don’t find that Jewishness important or influential in their lives or decisions. It’s not hard to see an argument that they should not count as a “Jewish vote,” since their Jewishness arguably does not seem to affect their vote.

But Democrats may be more in tune with where Jewish affiliation is going. Many young Jews are profoundly committed to the Jewish community but would not know how to answer the affiliation question.

Major studies have shown that the numbers of committed Jews answering “just Jewish” – that is, who feel deeply Jewish but not at home in any of the movements – is growing, especially among young people. If the RJC is only measuring those affiliated with the movements, critics argue, it’s not measuring where the Jewish vote is going, only where it’s been.

Update: The Republican Jewish Coalition confirmed Tuesday night that it would poll unaffiliated Jews alongside affiliated ones in its exit poll, which should be released Wednesday at 2 pm Eastern to the press.

The fact that both Democrats and Republicans (or rather, J Street and the RJC) would be polling both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews should make their numbers comparable. It will be interesting to see if there are differences between the two polls Wednesday afternoon.

Until the Jewish-focused exit polls are out, we won’t be able to know much about the Jewish vote. The US Jewish population is so small (roughly 2% of the population) that general exit polls don’t have enough Jews in the sample to offer a statistically reliable indication of how Jews voted.

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