Beware Small Samples

Near the top of the aggregator I most use is a post from Commentary‘s Jonathan Tobin claiming on the basis of a new national poll from TIPP that Obama’s support among Jews is collapsing. Seems TIPP’s crosstabs show Obama only taking 59% of the Jewish vote. That’s enough to send Tobin off to the races:

While that is still a majority it is a dramatic decline from the 78 percent of the Jewish vote he got four years ago.

Obama has a 46-44 percent lead over Romney in the TIPP poll. That means Obama is suffering from a decline in support throughout the electorate from his 2008 victory when he won 53 percent of the vote. But the president’s loss of approximately 25 percent of Jewish voters this year is not matched by a similar decline in any other demographic group. Indeed even in the unlikely event that Obama was to win almost all of the undecided voters in the survey, that would barely match Michael Dukakis’ 64 percent of Jewish votes in 1988. Far more likely is a result that would leave the president with the lowest total of Jewish votes since 1980 when Jimmy Carter received 45 percent in a three-way race with Ronald Reagan and John Anderson. While some losses in Jewish support could be put down to disillusionment with his economic policies that is shared across the board, the only conceivable explanation for this far greater than average loss of Jewish votes is the administration’s difficult relationship with Israel.

And on and on he goes with other explanations of this demographic disaster for Obama, up to and including the platform kerfuffle over language about Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trouble is, slicing and dicing small demographic groups in a national poll (with a total sample of 808 registered voters) is a very nearly meaningless exercise unless the pollster has over-sampled the group in question (and there’s no sign of that here). I’m guessing the margin of error for TIPP’s assessment of Jews significantly exceeds the drop in Obama support levels that Tobin is so excited about.

You’ll see a lot of this when political writers get really obsessed with polls as we approach November 6. Don’t buy it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.