Israeli Elections 2015: Likud’s win, and how the polls got it wrong

Binyamin Netanyahu, his wife and supporters as the victorious election results come in

Since the initial exit polls came out, the final numbers have changed the results even more radically.  Some caution is still required since the “double envelop” absentee and soldiers’ vote have still not been fully counted and those could change the results further, albeit by only one seat here or there.

For the moment the (almost) final numbers read as follows:

Likud (Netanyahu): 30
Zionist Union (Yitzchak Herzog): 24
Joint Arab List: 13
Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid): 11
Kulanu (Moshe Kachlon): 10
Bayit Yehudi (Naftali Bennett): 8
Shas (Sephardi haredim): 7
Yisrael Beitenu (Avigdor Liberman): 6
United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazi Haredim): 6
Meretz: 5

The Times of Israel has the full list of the members of each party, although Meretz’s list could change since party leader Zahava Gal-On announced her resignation on receiving the poor election results.

The JTA makes an attempt at forecasting the various options for what the next government will look like:

The right-religious “natural partners” coalition (67 members)

Parties: Likud (30), Kulanu (10), Jewish Home (8), Shas (7), United Torah Judaism (6), Yisrael Beiteinu (6)

The most likely scenario based on the results, this coalition is the one analysts are expecting to take shape. It’s basically a reversion to Netanyahu’s relatively stable 2009-2013 coalition of right-wing and religious parties, called Likud’s “natural partners.” The center-right Kulanu, headed by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, would also join this coalition in return for a prominent post like finance minister.

The center-right coalition (65 members)

Parties: Likud (30), Yesh Atid (11), Kulanu (10), Jewish Home (8), Yisrael Beiteinu (6)

The haredi Orthodox UTJ has not endorsed Netanyahu for prime minister. What happens if they refuse to? Another scenario for Netanyahu is again excluding the haredi parties from the government, choosing right-wing and centrist allies instead. This coalition would look a lot like the outgoing one.

The unity government (81 or 77 members)

Parties: Likud (30), Zionist Union (24), Yesh Atid (11), Kulanu (10), Yisrael Beiteinu (6), or

Likud (30), Zionist Union (24), Kulanu (10), Shas (7), UTJ (6)

Netanyahu has said several times that he does not want to partner with the Zionist Union in a coalition, so this is unlikely. But if UTJ, Kulanu or Yesh Atid force his hand, this may become a possibility. And a wider coalition usually means more stability, which Netanyahu values.

We will all find out in the next 2-3 weeks. I’m willing to take an educated (and hopeful) guess that Netanyahu will go for the first option, perhaps with a couple of additional parties as well.

So what does this all mean?

Firstly, it means the pollsters – Israeli, European, American – got it completely, utterly, totally wrong.

The Washington Post  attempts to grapple with this question:

Observers are now beginning to wonder whether Israel’s political polling companies, which had recently given Netanyahu rival Isaac Herzog an edge, painted a misleading portrait of the country’s electorate. “So, about those Israeli pollsters….” the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted wryly as the scale of Likud’s win became clear.

There are two primary explanations for the polling errors: Either respondent opinions changed from the time the poll was taken or there was flawed polling methodology.

There is anecdotal evidence of this late switch among voters. While the media are prohibited from publishing polls, campaign pollsters continued to conduct internal polls. Those results have remained private, but some Twitter whispers suggest that the race narrowed toward the end.

The second explanation goes to the fundamentals of polling methodology. This remains a big question because many public polls in Israel lack fundamental disclosures about how the surveys were conducted

Next they addressed the issue of the misleading exit polls, which suggested a dead heat rather than the outright win by Netanyahu:

Joe Lenski, an expert on exit polls at Edison Research, is quick to caution that even at best, polls can only make predictions. “Exit polls have margin of errors like any other survey,” he says in a phone interview. “It just becomes magnified when races are this close.”

Lenski does not work on polling in Israel, but he did point to media reports he had seen that suggested possible problems in Israeli exit polling. First, he noted that some Israeli polling experts believe Likud supporters had refused to participate in exit polls more than any other group.

“In certain voting stations, voting stations in places where there are a lot of new immigrants, pro-Likud ballot boxes, the percent of those who voted (in the exit polls) was especially low,” Channel 2 TV’s pollster Mina Tzemach told Israel’s Army Radio, according to Reuters. This is a common issue in exit polls, Lenski explains, and generally polling companies take demographic details from non-responses and adjust results accordingly.

Another potential factor that Lenski noted were reports that the polling companies had stopped interviewing voters about two hours before the polls closed in a bid to have numbers for news reports at the 10 p.m. close of polls. In closing their polls early, pollsters may have missed a last-minute rush from right-wing voters. Counting the votes of members of the Israeli army also was known to be a problem, Lenski added. The soldiers vote earlier than the rest of the population and follow different procedures.

Another overlooked demographic in the exit polls were the widely demonised and delegitimized (and often disregarded) residents of Judea and Samaria, who voted largely for the right-wing, from Likud, through Bayit Yehudi, to Eli Yisha’s Yachad.

Note to the pollsters: If you don’t count a quarter of a million votes out of a total of 4.5 million, from people who are known to vote almost entirely for one side of the political spectrum, your results are going to be skewed.

But what was the root cause of the misleading polls leading up to the elections in the first place? Why was it the received wisdom, even by the right-wing and Netanyahu himself, that they were going to lose this election? How did widespread dissatisfaction with Netanyahu, combined with a well-orchestrated and well-funded campaign from the Left, still translate into  resounding victory for the right?

Firstly, the “anyone but Bibi fallacy” might have caused the Left to be a victim of its own success. As the Left’s campaign gained steam, the right-wing panicked and started flooding to support Netanyahu, even at the expense of the smaller parties like Bayit Yehudi:

“Anyone but Bibi” was the theme of the past three months’ campaign on the Left.

Bayit Yehudi supporters wanted a Bibi victory so badly that they fled Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s party in droves to try to ensure Netanyahu would stay prime minister.

It’s also safe to assume that anyone who voted for Bayit Yehudi backed Netanyahu, since Bennett promised to recommend the Likud leader to the president.

Ychad, whose fate in relation to the electoral threshold was unclear at press time, made the same promise.

Shas also realized “Anyone but Bibi” was not picking up steam, and party chairman Arye Deri promised he would recommend Netanyahu to the president. And in the final days before the election, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman kept repeating that he is a member of the “nationalist camp,” code for: “It’s safe to vote for me, if you support Netanyahu.” Not that it seems to have helped him much.

Another Jerusalem Post article confirms this assessment of the Left’s campaign boomeranging, saying that  “the second Israel has spoken“:

Ashkenazi immigrants from Eastern Europe were seen as having an unfair advantage over their Sephardi counterparts from North Africa and the Middle East. The people, who are called “the second Israel,” have complained since then that the “elites” in the Left, the media and academia have discriminated against them.

The “second Israel” did not like the way the media seemed to be deposing Netanyahu and bringing to power the Left under the leadership of Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. The two were raised not far from each other in northern Tel Aviv, and both are the children of former Knesset members.

The Zionist Union inadvertently played into Netanyahu’s hands with a campaign of “anyone but Bibi.”

Zionist Union campaign strategist Reuven Adler, who joined the campaign late, said Wednesday morning that he was against that strategy from the start. By contrast Likud strategist Aron Shaviv got the Right correct. He sent the prime minister to give countless interviews – it made him look like he was panicking (and he was), but the public got the message.

I will cover what the media got wrong about the elections in  a separate blog. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile just a couple of quotes to conclude. The blog Politically Incorrect comments:

Western pundits will, of course, continue to find fault with Israel, obstinately applying the ‘glass half empty’ approach to the Jewish State.  Ironically however, the most interesting and revealing commentary on the recent elections came from a Palestinian Arab journalist:

“We say all these bad things about Israel, but at least the people there have the right to vote and enjoy democracy.  We really envy the Israelis. Our leaders don’t want elections. They want to remain in office forever.”

And here are a few great tweets summarizing the whole thing:

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6 Responses to Israeli Elections 2015: Likud’s win, and how the polls got it wrong

  1. Daniel says:

    Great election coverage. Still waiting for your scathing observations on Obama’s scathing comments on Bibi!

  2. Martin says:

    The large number of “undecided”!voted for Netanyahu. Why? Just before the election the USA took Iran and Hezbollah off the List of Foreign Terroritst Organzations. It was previously reported State Dept. funding went to those backing the negative “Anyone but Bibi” campaign. Negative advertising works in the USA, but not everywhere. Some of the vote for Bibi was likely a vote against Obama.

  3. Reality says:

    Today on Galei Zahal they couldn’t get over how the people have yet again made a mistake and voted for a right wing govt! They went on and on how come people keep on “making the same mistake now for 15 years!”. Finally some reporter told them that just because the media is left leaning, doesn’t mean that the general public is. He said it’s time his journalistic colleagues started reporting facts and not creating fantasy scenarios that the left would win.

    Schadenfreude!!

  4. Pingback: How the media got the Israeli elections so wrong | Anne's Opinions

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