Let's answer a question with a question: What does the Florida GOP primary tell us about how the state's Jews will vote in the general election? Who knows?
Some folks are highlighting exit polling from the Florida GOP primary that found only 1 percent of those who showed up to vote identified themselves as Jewish (so few that the folks behind the poll offer no information about how they divided up their vote).
The New York Times’ political number-cruncher Nate Silver wrote:
…there is no sign tonight of Jewish voters switching their registration over to the Republican side in Florida. According to early exit polls, just 1 percent of voters in tonight's Republican primary identified as Jewish. That's down from 3 percent in the Florida Republican primary in 2008, which also might mean that Jewish Republican voters in the state are not terribly enthusiastic about this group of candidates. Jewish turnout in general elections in Florida is normally about 4 percent.
The National Jewish Democratic Council linked to Silver’s take on the 1 percent stat, as well as other similar analyses in a statement headlined “Exit Polling Shows No Evidence of Jewish Voters Switching to GOP ID in FL.”
Well, it’s certainly true that the exit polls don’t offer any evidence of a Jewish registration shift to the GOP. But I do wonder whether we can really know from the exit polling how much of a real decline there was in the Jewish percentage of Republican primary voters. After all, like other types of polling, exit polling also has a margin of error. (Of course, I'm no statistician, so my tentative thoughts on this issue should be taken with a big grain of kosher salt.)
And if there were, in fact, Jewish voters switching to the GOP in appreciable numbers, it’s not as if we’d necessarily see dramatic evidence in the primary exit polls. Since, according to Silver, Florida Jews are only about 4 percent of the general election vote, it would make sense that even if there were a Jewish surge of GOP primary voters, their total would still seem likely to be somewhere south of 4 percent, since Jews in any event are likely to remain disproportionately Democratic.
Finally, any Jewish defections from Obama in the general election may take the form of Jewish Democrats and independents simply casting votes for Romney, and not necessarily switching parties in advance of the Republican primaries.
From the right, Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin accepts the notion that Jewish turnout was higher in the 2008 GOP primaries but argues that “Democrats would be foolish to seize on such flimsy evidence for proof they are not in trouble with Jewish voters.”
It is true that a drop in GOP Jewish registration shows none of the candidates generated enough Jewish buzz to get more voters to switch party affiliation as in 2008. But the comparison is unfair, because the man who drove that mini-surge in Jewish Republican voters was Rudy Giuliani. Though he flopped in the Florida primary four years ago, the former mayor of New York was a big favorite of the Jewish and pro-Israel community. None of this year’s Republican crop can claim that kind of loyalty from Jews, but the ultimate winner of the GOP nomination will have one thing going for him: he’ll be running against an incumbent president who is rightly viewed by many Jews as having distanced himself from Israel.
Florida is a state where Jewish swing voters could affect the outcome in November. That’s why Obama is trying so hard to make Jews forget his record of non-stop quarrels with Israel’s government in the last three years. Any Republican, especially a relative moderate like Mitt Romney, will be well-placed to take advantage of this Democratic problem.
Of course, we’ll have to wait for the general election to see just how vulnerable Obama is and just how well-positioned Mitt Romney is when it comes to winning Jewish votes. It's worth recalling though that back in 2008, some people thought Obama was going to have a much tougher time with Jewish voters than he actually did.