WASHINGTON -- A newly released poll of Jewish American voters provides some comforting news to an Obama administration working feverishly to keep its popularity high among that group. Despite having a sharply unfavorable opinion of how he has handled the Israeli-Palestinian crisis -- and offering a mixed review of his handling of the economy -- Jewish Americans remain committed to President Obama heading into the 2012 campaign.
The national survey, which was sponsored by the progressive-leaning, pro-Israel group J Street and designed by prominent Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein, has Jewish Americans approving of the president’s job performance by a 20-percentage point margin, with 60 percent approving and 40 percent disapproving. Those numbers match surveys sponsored by established independent pollsters. A recent Gallup release found Jewish American approval of Obama at 60 percent and disapproval at 32 percent (with a margin of error of 7 percentage points).
Not all the findings were positive for the president. Some 56 percent of respondents to the J-Street poll disapproved of the job he was doing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while 44 percent approved.
Jewish Americans interviewed for the poll were split on Obama's handling of the economy, with 51 percent approving and 49 percent disapproving -- still a higher percentage approving than among the general population.
The overall 60 percent approval rating, moreover, represents a significant drop from where the president stood four months after inauguration day, when Gallup measured his approval among American Jews at 79 percent.
But despite loosing a chunk of that early support -- and facing skepticism on the economy and Middle East policy -- the top lines in the J Street poll do give the White House some helpful data points heading into the reelection campaign. American Jews may be a touch more wary of the president, but they aren't bolting elsewhere. In a hypothetical match-up against former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Obama holds a 63 percent to 24 percent advantage in the J Street poll. Against Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Obama's advantage is wider: 67 percent to 19 percent.
Those margins fall short of the 78-21 percent victory Obama scored among Jewish voters when he squared off against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. But regaining that support for 2012 is far from impossible for the reelection team, pollster Gerstein insists.
"Jewish voters," he told The Huffington Post, "are disproportionately Democrats and we have plenty of evidence where base constituencies ... come home in the final weeks [of an election]."
"We saw this in July of '08 when Obama was leading McCain 62 percent to 32 [percent]," he added. "What happened was the undecideds broke towards Obama, but also McCain lost support as they got to know Obama better."
Gerstein's prediction: If those who are currently undecided break according to their party identification, Obama would reach 70 percent of the Jewish vote against Romney, who enjoyed only a 16 percent favorable opinion rating (60 percent unfavorable) in the J Street poll. Obama would reach 73 percent against Bachmann, who had a 12 percent favorable rating (57 percent unfavorable) in the poll.
The president's campaign team has recently begun gearing up efforts to bring lost Jewish voters back into the Obama tent. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent reported the president's political advisers were assembling a team of "high-profile" surrogates to help change the frame of the argument surrounding the administration’s policy on Israel. The underlying objective is to appeal not just to the Jewish electorate, but to some of the usually big campaign donors as well.
When it comes to campaign money, the J Street poll provides some relief for Obama's reelection team. The survey found that of the 16 percent of respondents who said they made a contribution the Obama campaign in 2008, 82 percent said they will donate again or already have done so. By comparison, of the 4 percent of respondents who said they had donated to McCain's 2008 campaign, 80 percent said they would make a contribution to a Republican presidential candidate in 2012.
But those numbers can be misleading. Gerstein acknowledges the loss of one donation bundler could erase the benefits of maintaining popularity among a wide swath of smaller donors.
Still, Jewish voters, including top donors, are not monolithic. And the more contrast they see between Obama and whoever ends up the Republican nominee, the more confident Gerstein is that historical voting patterns will be upheld.
Gerstein said any reports predicting a mass exodus of Jewish Obama supporters were "based on someone's conversation with their Aunt Esther and not of a representative pool of American Jews."
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The J Street poll was conducted online July 7-12 among 800 Jewish Americans who participate in online surveys conducted by the polling company Mountain West Research Center and Opinion Outpost and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points. For this survey, Mountain West contacted members of their opt-in panel who had previously identified their religion as Jewish or identified themselves as having no religion but said they identified as Jewish in a follow-up question. Mountain West confirmed that respondents identified as Jewish at the beginning of the survey.
Although online panel methodology is controversial in the survey research community, the J Street survey not only had similar topline numbers but also comparable demographic breakdowns to Gallup's polling of Jewish Americans over the course of its daily tracking from April through June, findings Gallup provided at the request of The Huffington Post.
The J Street poll and the Gallup data show similar gender splits, age and ideology breakdowns. The J Street survey respondents were slightly more Democratic (70 percent Democratic and 20 percent Republican) than the pooled Gallup sample (66 percent Democratic and 26 percent Republican). The two samples also differed in the education levels of respondents: The J Street survey had fewer respondents who had a high school education or less but more who had some college education but had not completed college, as well as slightly more who were college graduates than those in the Gallup sample.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story identified YouGov/Polimetrix as the company the conducted the survey for J Street. The survey was conducted by Mountain West Research Center and Opinion Outpost.