The Siena poll, one of the two key polls of New York state voters, has come out with its monthly snapshot of the presidential race in the Empire State. And it’s stunning. It is remarkable, though not eye-opening, that John McCain is now only 5 points behind Barack Obama, 46-41 — not shocking because polls have narrowed to similar margins in New Jersey. (It should be noted, however, that according to a Rasmussen poll released yesterday, Obama is leading in New York by 55-42.)
No, the shocking detail has to do with a wild, 35-point swing toward McCain among Jewish voters. Obama led among them by a margin of 50-37 in August. This month, McCain is actually leading Obama by a margin of 54 percent to 32 percent.
Siena polled 626 likely voters this month. Of those, according to Steve Greenberg, the spokesman for the Siena poll, 77 were Jews, or 12 percent of the sample. That is Siena’s best guess of the size of the Jewish vote in New York state in November. With a sample size that small, the margin of error for the Jewish voter sample is plus-or-minus 11 points.
That means the poll could be off by as many as 11 points in either direction — i.e., McCain could be leading by as little as 11 points or by as many as 33. (UPDATE: I got this wrong; this stat could also mean they’re tied or that McCain is more than 40 points ahead or anywhere in the middle. For a clarification on this point, click here.)
The only difference between the September poll and the August poll as a matter of methodology is that in September, Siena polled likely voters, whereas in August it only polled registered voters.
The poll could, of course, be an outlier. But if it even begins to approximate the truth, it is huge news. No Republican has scored more than 39 percent of the Jewish vote in modern times, and that was Ronald Reagan in 1980, following a series of missteps by the Carter administration. These sorts of numbers for McCain have implications in two other states particularly — Florida and Pennsylvania.
In Florida, the implications are obvious. Obama’s own Jewish organizers in Florida are telling the campaign they are finding profound resistance to him, particularly in South Florida. The polling overall there seems to be moving inexorably in McCain’s direction, which is necessary for him; it is nearly impossible to see how he can win the election if he loses Florida.
But what about Pennsylvania? That is a state it appears Obama must win. There are, it is estimated, more than 200,000 Jewish voters in Pennsylvania, a state John Kerry won by 140,000 votes. If we assume Pennsylvania’s 200,000 voting Jews voted in the same way as Jews nationwide in 2004 and went 76-24 for Kerry, we can attribute 150,000 Jewish votes to Kerry, his entire margin of victory plus seven percent. Now imagine if that number had been closer to 50-50. Kerry would have received 100,000 Jewish votes rather than 150,000. Bush would have received 100,000 Jewish votes rather than 50,000. Kerry’s margin of victory would then have shrunk to 40,000 votes.
It appears Obama may have a tougher time in Pennsylvania than Kerry did because of his difficulty attracting the ethnic white vote in the western part of the state. If there is a Jewish swing away from him as well, he really could lose there. And if he loses there and loses Ohio, he is sunk. Ohio has approximately 80,000 Jewish voters, so a swing away from Obama to a 50-50 race would cost him 25,000 votes Kerry presumably received in 2004 — and in a state that Bush won by 121,000 votes.
We’ll need more data from two other states with a significant Jewish population to allow for a measurable sample size in a poll — Florida and California — and a polling firm willing to break out the Jewish vote as Siena has, to see whether this is just statistical smoke or whether Obama has a brushfire he needs to put out somehow before it consumes him.