Will Netanyahu's voter-turnout campaign win him the election? - analysis

The votes are there, Netanyahu believes, the voters just have to be compelled to go to the polls.

 Head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud Party election event in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem, September 11, 2022.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud Party election event in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem, September 11, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

A critical component of Benjamin Netanyahu’s overall campaign strategy can be summed up in one pithy phrase: 1+1=4.

This is a phrase he has told the party faithful innumerable times at campaign rallies around the country, explaining that “if every Likud voter would bring another Likudnik who did not vote in the previous elections to this one, then we will get four years of a stable right-wing government headed by the Likud. Four years.”

This phrase taps into one of the oldest campaign strategies known to man: Get out the vote; make sure the party faithful go to the polls.

But Netanyahu’s adoption of this phrase as a key part of his campaign reflects something else as well: a realization that the only way to grow the Likud’s piece of the Knesset pie is not to try and attract voters from the Center-Left bloc – he knows that is a lost cause – but rather to just get Likud supporters who did not turn out in the last four previous elections to do so this time.

The votes are there, Netanyahu believes, but the voters just have to be compelled to go to the polls. This is the reason why such a large part of his ads on social media have to do with convincing people “not to despair” and to get out and vote.

 Workers prepare ballot boxes for the upcoming Israeli elections, at the central elections committee warehouse in Shoham, before they are shipped to polling stations, October 12, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Workers prepare ballot boxes for the upcoming Israeli elections, at the central elections committee warehouse in Shoham, before they are shipped to polling stations, October 12, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

He is not the only one. Voter turnout – among Likud supporters, in the Arab sector and among haredim – will determine this election.

From the election in March 2020 to the one a year later in 2021, overall voter turnout dropped 4% from 71.3% to 67.4%. The decline was much more pronounced in the Arab sector, with turnout dropping a full 20 points (from 64.8% to 44.6%). Correspondingly, the Likud fell from 36 to 30 seats, and the representation of the Arab parties dropped from 15 to 10 seats. 

In other words, voter turnout matters in a big way.

An analysis of voter turnout by the Israel Democracy Institute after the last elections showed that it dropped much more in traditional areas of support for the Likud and the right-wing than it did in those bastions of support for the Center-Left bloc.

For instance, in Tel Aviv, voter turnout dropped by only 1.7%, and in upper-middle-class cities in the center of the country that voted heavily for the Center and left-wing parties – Givatayim, Hod Hasharon, Modi’in, Kfar Saba, Ramat Gan and Ra’anana – it slipped by only 1.3%.

By contrast, in the Likud strongholds of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba, Hadera, Holon and Netanya, voter turnout fell 4%. In the development towns, where the Likud also traditionally does very well, voter turnout was down nearly 5%, and it was down 4% in both the settlements and Jerusalem.

In short, the Center-Left turned out in greater numbers than the Center-Right, and that impacted the results.

This time, however, that trend may be reversed. According to a Channel 12 poll on Tuesday, 78% of those who said they planned to vote for one of the parties in the pro-Netanyahu coalition intend to vote on November 1, but that figure drops to 72% among those intending to vote for one of the parties in the coalition.

The numbers of likely voters in the Arab sector are even lower.

The Arab parties, running together in 2015, scored historic gains, winning 13 seats. Netanyahu’s notorious cry that year that the “Arabs are going to the polls in droves” is credited in part with driving up Arab turnout, which reached a 16-year-old high of 63.5%. When the Arab turnout dropped to 49% in the next election in 2019, the Arab representation dropped as well to 10 seats.

In 2020, when the four Arab parties ran as one Joint List, Arab turnout soared to a 20-year high of nearly 65%, bringing the Arab parties to a historic high of 15 seats. A year later, as Arab turnout dropped to 45%, the Arab parties lost 33% of their representation – corresponding pretty much to the percentage decline in voter turnout – dropping from 15 to 10 seats.

This year, amid a further splintering of the Arab parties into three different slates, Arab turnout is expected to be even lower – a KAN News poll in September put the expected number at 39% – and as a result, Arab Knesset representation is predicted to be even smaller.

Low Arab turnout means that one, and maybe even two, of the three Arab lists running may not pass the 3.25% electoral threshold, which in the last election was just over 143,000 votes. If that happens, the Arab party representation in the Knesset may drop from 10 to four.

Fewer Arab voters mean fewer votes in a potential Center-Left bloc, which is good news for Netanyahu and the Right.

Netanyahu, obviously, wants to see lower voter turnout in the Arab sector and those bastions of support for the Left. However, this is a double-edged sword. Lower voter turnout means that the number of votes needed to cross the electoral threshold will also be lower. A lower number of votes needed to cross the electoral threshold may mean it will be easier for a party that Netanyahu doesn’t want to see make it into the Knesset, such as Ayelet Shaked’s Bayit Yehudi, to make it over the hump.

And then there are the haredim.

One given over each of the last four elections was the combined 16 seats for the two haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism. All the other parties went up and down with each election, but the numbers for the haredi parties stayed constant. In fact, this has been the case going back to 2003. In the nine elections since then, these two parties have won 16 seats in six elections, 18 in two of them and 13 in 2015.

That’s pretty stable. An average of the major polls for the upcoming election gives them 15 seats. What is interesting about these numbers is that they have remained constant over the last two decades, even though the haredi population has soared.

That means two things: The first is that a not insignificant number of haredim are voting for other parties – one explanation given for the fact that the Religious Zionist Party with Itamar Ben-Gvir is currently doing so well in the polls. And the second thing is that many haredim, on ideological grounds, are simply not voting.

A poll taken among haredim found that some 12% are planning to stay away from the ballot box on Election Day, Channel 12 reported Tuesday. Since Netanyahu is banking on the haredi parties to help him form a coalition of at least 61, the fact that 12% of the haredim won’t vote is for him a net loss.

Not only does Netanyahu need to be telling Likud voters that 1+1=4, he also needs to convince haredi politicians to direct a similar message to their constituents, since increasing the strength of the haredi parties could be one of the former prime minister’s keys to returning to power.