A Republican group is taking responsibility for a poll that has roiled the Jewish community by asking sharply negative questions about Senator Barack Obama.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, which is launching a campaign against Obama on behalf of Senator John McCain, sponsored the poll to "understand why Barack Obama continues to have a problem among Jewish voters," the group's executive director, Matt Brooks, told Politico.
The poll asked voters their response to negative statements about Obama, including reported praise for him from a leader of the Palestinian terror group Hamas and a friendship early in his career with a pro-Palestinian university professor. Some Jewish Democrats who received the poll – including a New Republic writer who lives in Michigan – were outraged by the poll, describing it in interviews as "ugly" and disturbing. A group that supports Obama, the Jewish Council for Education and Research http://www.jewsvote.org even staged a protest outside the Manhattan call center from which the calls originated Tuesday.
"If the RJC is responsible for these calls, which are designed to frighten Jews and sow mistrust, they have forfeited their place at the Jewish table," said the co-executive director of the group, Mik Moore. "It is incumbent upon the McCain campaign to speak out forcefully against this and ongoing efforts by his supporters to scare Jews into supporting his candidacy."
Brooks, however, denied that the poll was meant to influence Jewish voters, and said it was a traditional poll meant to gauge the opinions of Jewish voters.
"What we did is test, in standard polling methodology, a number of factual issues that have been reported on in the press and are policy positions to see how they're resonating in the Jewish community," said Brooks. "The notion that this is a 'push poll' is offensive to us."
Brooks said the RJC, whose board includes advisors and fundraisers for Senator John McCain, had placed 750 calls to Jewish voters in five states: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. He accused the protesters of "intimidation."
Mark Blumenthal, editor of the website Pollster.com, said the form of the poll, and its length of 15 minutes, made it more likely to be a traditional "message testing" survey than a "push poll," in which brief calls are made to deliver a message and the caller typically has no interest in the results. He added, however, that in some cases a pollster might anticipate—and welcome—the possibility that negative questions would draw media attention and, indirectly, amplify the pointed statements.
Certainly, they have drawn attention: After first reporting on two voters who were polled, Politico was contacted by a half-dozen more, and many Jewish Obama backers are livid at the survey.
"The fact that the Republican Jewish Coalition is targeting Jewish Americans with these disgraceful and deceitful tactics fits in perfectly with the dishonorable campaign that John McCain has chosen to run. Peddling lies and hateful distortions to scare Jewish voters is reprehensible and deeply disrespectful to Jewish Americans," said Florida Congressman Robert Wexler, an Obama supporter.
The poll may not itself have been aimed at delivering a single message, but it does point to the group's possible lines of attack on Obama in the heated battle for Jewish votes. John McCain's hawkish, pro-Israel credentials, and nervousness in the Jewish community over both Obama's promise of diplomacy with Iran and the false rumors that he is a Muslim and hostile to Israel had produced polls over the summer that showed Obama winning about two thirds of the Jewish vote. That's a substantial margin, but a narrower one that Al Gore and John Kerry took, and a worrisome issue for the Democrats, particularly in Florida.
The selection of Sarah Pali, whose record on Israel is thin and who recently sat through a sermon suggesting that terrorism in Jerusalem is God's judgment on Jews for not believing in Jesus, has re-energized Jewish Democrats and may push some voters back to Obama's camp.
Brooks' group has already released ads aimed at reinforcing Jews' skepticism of Obama. "Concerned about Barack Obama? You should be," says a print advertisement displayed on the group's Web site , with a picture Obama speaking to a large crowd in, according to the caption, Germany. The ad criticizes his foreign policy as "naïve and weak" and says he has "anti-Israel advisors."
Though some outside Obama advisors, including former Carter aide Zbigniew Brzezinski, are viewed with skepticism in the Jewish community, his inner circle of policy advisors are drawn from the pro-Israel mainstream of Democratic foreign policy.
"We want to talk about what's really on the mind of the Jewish community," Brooks said.
Brooks declined to release the script of the poll, but he denied the charge – made by two voters who received it – that pollsters had asked for a reaction to the claim that Obama is a Muslim.
"I went into this whole tirade about how I had read his autobiography and how he wasn't a Muslim but if he was a Muslim I would vote for him anyway," said Joelna Marcus, a retired college professor who received the call at a phone number for her home in Key West, Fla.
Brooks said the questions transcribed by the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn were roughly accurate, but were only part of an 82-question survey, the bulk of which asked more general questions about political
views and religious affiliation.
Cohn wrote that he was asked how six different statements would affect his vote:
• Obama has had a decade long relationship with pro-Palestinian leaders in Chicago
• the leader of Hamas, Ahmed Yousef, expressed support for Obama and his hope for Obama's victory
• the church Barack Obama has attended is known for its anti-Israel and anti-American remarks
• Jimmy Carter's anti-Israel national security advisor is one of Barack Obama's foreign policy advisors
• Barack Obama was the member of a board (sic) that funded a pro-Palestinian charitable organization
• Barack Obama called for holding a summit of Muslim nations, excluding Israel, if elected president
Most of the statements are true, at least in part. Obama was friendly with pro-Palestinian leaders in Chicago in his early days in politics, but they denounced him years ago for his support of Israel. Obama's church bulletin ran articles sympathetic to the Palestinian cause; Brzezinski is an informal advisor to Obama; the Woods Fund, whose board he served on, gave a grant to a community center in Chicago founded by Palestinian activists; and he did propose a summit of Muslim nations.
But the poll – and the Republican Jewish Coalition's material more generally – leaves out virtually all of Obama's recent record, which includes a stance on Israel that has won him praise from the main pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, and attacks from Palestinian leaders.
He has pushed legislation, for instance, that would force companies to divest from Iran, and has backed Israel's right to aggressively fight Palestinian militants. He's also had a good relationship with Chicago's Jewish community.
"Mr. Obama's commitment to Israel, as he has articulated it so far in his campaign, is quite moving and a tribute to the broad, bipartisan support that the Jewish state has in America," the fiercely pro-Israel
New York Sun editorialized earlier this year.
Obama is also campaigning aggressively in the Jewish community, directly and through surrogates, and his running mate, Joe Biden, recently visited South Florida and made jokes in Yiddish, his familiar
presence a contrast with the unknown Palin. O Wednesday, Obama himself is slated to dial into a "National Rabbis Conference Call in honor of Rosh Hashanah," according to an email from the campaign's Jewish outreach wing.