A Fresh Perspective: Insights from the campaign trail

For the past three months, I have been managing the francophone campaign for reelecting Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat.

Barkat Jerusalem elections 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Barkat Jerusalem elections 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For the past three months, I have been managing the francophone campaign for reelecting Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat.
At the time I write this article, election results are not yet known.
However, you read this article knowing the results of the municipal elections.
This gives me the opportunity to write an article of a uniquely pure nature: I have no reason to convince you of voting for my candidate, and on the other hand, I cannot spin the results of the election.
It is precisely because of this window of opportunity that I choose to dedicate this column to insights from the past few months, as I managed a political campaign for the first time.
Small electorates are dangerous
Less than 250,000 people vote in Jerusalem’s municipal election. Usually, the difference between a win and a loss is around 10,000 votes. The race is tight.
Every vote counts.
While there are definite advantages to the fact that “every vote counts”– politicians are forced to listen to every citizen as an example – this advantage loses value when the electorate also includes organized groups, which make demands that do not necessarily take into account the good of the whole electorate but solely that of their own.
In fact, any group of 1,000 people can list demands. If the candidate facing them is not incredibly ethical, he might very well sacrifice his vision of what is good for the city at large to make a deal with this group. All to increase electability.
Of course, this highlights the importance of requiring your elected officials to outline their vision for the city and to make sure to elect those officials who come to serve the interests of the greater electorate. This reality has far-reaching consequences, not limited to municipal elections.
For example, for a long time I believed in primaries for parties trying to enter the Knesset. Once, I even said I would only vote for a party that holds primaries.
However, most parties in Israel have a small membership, even smaller than the Jerusalem electorate. This means that any well-organized group of a few thousand people within a party membership can decide the fate of certain MKs, by making demands that can swing the results of the primaries, since the electorate is so small. The MKs are dependent on these interest groups.
Remember, for a spot in the Knesset, 30,000 votes might be enough! Parties without a primary system also have problems. The MKs in some cases become dependent on the party leader and if they do not do everything he asks, they risk their job (see Danny Ayalon’s relationship with MK Avigdor Liberman). That being said, at the very least, the party leader is then accountable to the electorate in the general election.
Interest groups that enter party membership to influence MKs are never held accountable.
The real solution would be to widen party membership to minimize the strength of interest groups in primaries.
Different approaches exist for such a model: In the US, every registered voter registers for a party or as an independent, thus making the electorate in primaries much wider. One might also think of non-legislative ways to influence party membership, with NGOs calling on the masses to join parties and change Israel’s political culture.
However, until this happens, I am unsure whether we can claim that parties with primaries (called in Israel “democratic parties”) have a healthier system than those that do not.
Negative vs positive campaigns
The feeling of most people in Jerusalem has been that this municipal election has been one of the most negative elections they have seen in a while. As someone who was behind the scenes and knows exactly how much was invested in negative campaigns and how much in positive campaigns, at first, I was not sure why people felt this way.
The reason is simple: It is not that more was invested in negative campaigns than in positive ones. Not at all.
However, negative messages became viral while the positive ones did not.
How many people know of Barkat’s detailed plan for the city for the next few years? How many people know the people on his list? We invested much in promoting his detailed plan and the identity of his list. Yet no one pressed “share” when these things appeared on their Facebook newsfeed.
On the other hand, when a few videos outlined facts pertaining to why Moshe Lion was a problematic candidate, these immediately became viral. People laughed at Lion’s knowledge of Jerusalem; they were afraid of his ties with MKs Lieberman and Shas leader Arye Deri; they wanted to understand what a person from Givatayim came to look for in Jerusalem. When they saw videos outlining these topics, they pressed share. They wanted everyone else to know these things.
This meant that the public was exposed to a plethora of negative campaigning, instead of the positive campaigning in which we invested much, much more. This made Jerusalemites surmise this was a very negative election cycle (on both sides).
The future of the Holy City
There is a very special feeling when working in the campaign for the Jerusalem Municipality. The fact that you are helping decide the fate of Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital, lends a great sense of mission.
It is also a little scary. When you really believe in your candidate, the way I did, and when elections are expected to be so close, you quickly realize that the amount of work you put into this election can actually be the deciding factor. Maybe, if I convince another 1,000 people to go out and vote or support Barkat, I can change how Jerusalem will look in the next five years! This sense of responsibility is what fuels the insanely long hours of work invested in the campaign.
Sense of mission
There is a difference between those working on a campaign just because the salary is good, and people who, even if paid, also really believe in their campaign. Both types exist on both sides. However, I have come to understand that the electorate can quickly see through masks.
Voter turnout
From the very start of the campaign, we invested less in getting a message across and more in encouraging a strong turnout. The reason is simple: We knew that if 100 percent of people were to vote, our candidate would win in a landslide.
If voter turnout would end up being low or unevenly distributed, it could spell disaster.
On one hand, we know what the people of the city want; on the other hand, the democratic process will not give them what they want unless they go out and vote. Our opponents even created a Facebook page calling for people not to vote! They thought: If we cannot convince them to vote for us, let us at least keep them from voting for Barkat.
For democracy to work, people need to engage in democracy. If not, a minority can decide for the majority, and at that point, there is not much difference left between democracy and other forms of government.
Democracy in Jerusalem
As we come to the end of this intense campaign, I feel privileged to have been part of a campaign defining the future of Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.
Three thousand years ago, Jerusalem was established as our capital, and today, through democracy, we all have the opportunity to be a part of defining its future. It is a real privilege of historical proportions.