WASHINGTON -- Exit polls indicate that President Barack Obama received 69 percent of the Jewish vote Tuesday. Partisans have just begun to argue whether that was an overwhelming endorsement or the latest evidence that one of the Democratic Party's most reliable constituencies is becoming less so with every presidential election.
On what was otherwise a dismal night for Mitt Romney, Jewish Republicans boasted they had increased their market share compared to 2008, when American Jews gave Obama either 74 percent, according to one large voter sampling, or 78 percent, as is more broadly reported.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), cited the larger number on Twitter to declare that "Obama saw massive erosion of Jewish support."
Romney's share of the Jewish vote represented a "huge increase" of almost 50 percent over Sen. John McCain's 22 percent in 2008, Brooks told The Huffington Post, calling it "part of an ongoing and unmistakable trend" in which five out of the last six national elections saw Republicans "steadily and consistently" make inroads in the Jewish community.
The RJC released results from its own surveys of 1,000 Jewish voters nationwide and 600 each in the pivotal states of Florida and Ohio. Nationally, it said Romney received 32 percent of Jewish votes, slightly higher than the 30 percent he received in the exit polls conducted by the television networks and the Associated Press. Either number represents the biggest GOP haul of Jewish votes in a presidential election since 1988, when George H.W. Bush took 35 percent.
In Ohio, a victory for Obama, the RJC said the president won 64 percent to Romney's 31.5 percent of the Jewish vote. No comparable numbers were available from exit polls of the Buckeye State, where Jews accounted for just 1 percent of the vote.
The RJC survey in Florida matched the exit polls, giving Obama 66 percent and Romney 30 percent of the Jewish vote. But the overall margin in the Sunshine State remains close. If Obama's lead holds up, Jews, who made up a statistically significant 5 percent of the vote, may have helped to decide the outcome.
Previously unreleased numbers from Democratic pollster Mark Mellman show that in the last five to seven weeks of the campaign, as Republican Jewish groups saturated Florida with anti-Obama ads, the president's Jewish vote actually improved by as much as 117,000 votes -- more than enough to put the state in the blue column.
That said, Obama appears to have lost ground overall among Jewish Floridians. While there are few good estimates of Obama's margin in Florida four years ago, at least one source had him winning about 76 percent of the state's Jewish vote in 2008.
Obama supporters in the past have questioned the Republicans' methodology in sampling the small and hard-to-survey Jewish population.
Democratic strategist Aaron Keyak said that RJC pollster Arthur Finkelstein has a history of skewing polls of Jewish voters by routinely screening out those who are unaffiliated with a synagogue -- most recently in the 2010 midterm elections. These "just Jewish" voters usually account for one-quarter to nearly half of the American Jewish community and are less likely to vote Republican.
Finkelstein said during a conference call with reporters that he used standard methods to reach voters after the polls closed this Tuesday, including relying on Jewish data lists and calling those who have "Jewish surnames." He also pointed out that his results closely tracked those of the media exit polls.
Democrats downplayed the national exit polls and the GOP election night surveys. Republicans "performed within the margin of error of their 2008 performance when Obama got 74 percent [of Jewish voters]," Keyak said, using a figure that Jewish GOP strategists reject but which their Democratic coreligionists say reflects a truer picture of how that 2 percent of the electorate voted.
In Democrats' own election night polling, sponsored by the liberal pro-Israel group J Street, Obama received 70 percent of Jewish votes nationally, 69 percent in Ohio and 68 percent in Florida.
Pollster Jim Gerstein, who ran J Street's surveys, said the shift in Obama's share of the Jewish vote from 2008 reflected similar downward trends this year among other Democratic constituencies, including Catholics. But he said Jews trusted Obama more than Romney on all issues, from protecting Social Security and Medicare to fixing the economy to dealing with Iran and Israel.
Gerstein argued that despite their claims, the Republicans' effort to peel off large numbers of Jewish Democrats isn't working, noting that 19 percent of Jewish Obama voters said they considered supporting Romney but eventually decided against it. Only 8 percent of Jewish Romney voters said they ever seriously weighed voting for Obama. Indeed, the Republican Party racked up a 64 percent unfavorable rating from Jewish voters compared to just 26 favorable, according to the J Street survey.
While Republicans hammered away on Iran's nuclear program and on Obama's perceived slight of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the J Street survey found those issues ranked low among motivating factors for Jewish voters. As with other Americans, the survey found, the economy and health care ranked near the top for Jews.
Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, echoed other Democrats in stressing that most Jewish voters are not fixated on foreign policy. "Reproductive rights, women's economic equality, health care and other issues critical to women were all at stake in this year's election, and we sent a loud, clear message to candidates that we will show up and we will be heard," she said.
Yet much, though not all, of the GOP's "buyers remorse" and other campaigns aimed at Jewish voters focused on Israel, fueled by $8 million in RJC and super PAC spending and more than $6 million put up by billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
"American Jews [showed] that the more than $15 million campaign undertaken by Republicans to woo Jewish voters with negative advertising, scare tactics, and outright lies simply did not work," said David Harris, president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, in a statement soon after Obama clinched reelection. "Since the New Deal, the Democratic Party has been the political home for the overwhelming majority of Jewish voters -- and tonight's data affirms that the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party is as strong as ever."
While Orthodox Jews and other Israel hardliners may disagree with Harris' assessment, the fact remains that Obama, possibly the most unpopular Democrat among Jews since Jimmy Carter, won't be on the ballot in 2016, and whatever advantage Republicans enjoyed this time will be gone in the next election.
Keyak, who this year headed a Democratic quick-strike message machine aimed at Jewish voters, said he would welcome a similar strategy on the part of Republicans in 2016.
"Our side spent hundreds of thousands of dollars while Romney allies spent many, many millions of dollars," Keyak wrote in an email. "As a party that's supposed to understand the business community surely understands, that's an extremely poor return on investment for Republicans, but I'm more than happy for them to divert significant funds that they clearly needed elsewhere."