POLITICS SEPTEMBER 29, 2008
It is a politician’s rite of passage--at least if he expects to win Florida. Each summer, the presidential candidates take turns speaking to the Council of Jewish Elders (really just a sufficiently telegenic synagogue, preferably in a swing district like Tampa), competing with each other to see just who can claim to love Israel the mostest. The media covers the events with great ardor, usually suggesting that Jewish voters are the key to the entire state--and perhaps the entire election. Fortunately, at least, Jewish people are gentle about expecting gentiles to sample Jewish culture, so nobody has to don a yarmulke like they might a sombrero, and there is no risk of a matzah ball soup equivalent to the infamous Gerald Ford-tamale incident.
Dividing the electorate into small subgroups, however, is a staple of the modern campaign. In his memos on behalf of the Clinton campaign, which found their way to Josh Green at The Atlantic, Mark Penn identified no fewer than 25 distinct demographic subgroups--like “no college women” and “men $35k-$75k”--with an abundance of polling numbers for each of them. Penn at least avoided giving these subgroups cutesy names, a temptation that many campaigns can’t resist. When Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, then an advisor to Bob Dole, first launched the term “Soccer Mom” into widespread usage in 1996, it was probably not something he’d come up with on the spot. Instead, more likely, it was a specific group that the Dole campaign had identified as part of its electoral rubric.
Identifying these subgroups is important to the extent that campaigns have a chance to contact voters on an individual basis. If you are a person who has the surname “Rodriguez,” for instance, you will probably be inundated with mailers highlighting the candidates’ reasoned positions on Mexican immigration--even if you happen to hail from the Philippines. But with the exception of mailings and a couple of other activities--yes, you can order your Hebrew Obama Rally Sign for the low, tax-deductable price of $2.50--most activities involving the candidates themselves take place at the macro level. Candidates speak to mass audiences, and they speak through the mass media.
Why, then, do the candidates seem to make an exception for the Jewish vote in Florida? And it’s not just the candidates. The Jewish Council for Education and Research, with an assist from Sarah Silverman, has launched something called The Great Schlep, designed to encourage Jewish grandchildren to commute to Florida and convince their bubbies to vote for Obama.
All this fuss seems to be misdirected. It is not as though Jewish voters make up an especially large share of the electorate. Just five percent of voters were Jewish in the 2004 elections in Florida, and they split their votes 80/20 for John Kerry, hardly qualifying them as the most unpredictable swing demographic. By comparison, atheists made up 11 percent of Florida’s electorate--but you can’t find any Atheists for Obama yard signs. Nor are there any mailers designed for, say, parakeet owners, or stay-at-home dads, who probably make up a comparably large fraction of the electorate.
The campaigns, however, may be confusing two things: swing regions and swing voters. Miami-Dade County, which John Kerry won by 6 points in 2004, is a perennial swing region, and there are lots of Jewish voters there; likewise with Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties in the Tampa Bay area.
What campaigns ought to be concerned with, however, is not swing regions but swing voters: Which voters are undecided, and which are most likely to be persuaded to change their vote. Odds are that it isn’t the Jewish vote. The recent Quinnipiac national poll, by contrast, suggests that groups like Catholics and evangelicals are more likely to be undecided. A disproportionate number of Jewish voters have college degrees, but polling shows that “no college” voters are far more likely to be undecided. Likewise, the strong majority of Jewish voters identify as Democrats, but it’s independents who make up the bulk of the undecided vote:
A good campaign will do plenty of internal polling in order to better identify its targets, and it will have far more detailed information than Quinnipiac provides. But there are groups of persuadable voters everywhere. And the most persuadable ones may not always correspond to the media conceptions thereof, be they “soccer moms” or “NASCAR dads” --or the Jewish voters of Florida.
Nate Silver is the founder of FiveThirtyEight.com, a political website, and a contributor to The New Republic.