It's election time once again

The media was constantly harping on how Peres didn’t really have to worry about the competition against Netanyahu in 1996, and we all know how that election turned out.

Scots vote in independence referendum (photo credit: REUTERS)
Scots vote in independence referendum
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Newspaper and TV editors like to publicize poll results during election season because it creates drama. All available airtime revolves around the latest poll results. Commentators ask loaded questions and politicians react. The moods at the various election headquarters change with every poll, and there have been instances where candidates were even replaced mid-campaign as the result of a low poll numbers.
Then prime minister Shimon Peres replaced the late Haim Bar-Lev with Yitzhak Rabin as candidate for defense minister following a conversation with the owners of the Dahaf Institute. The election results didn’t change, though, and so Peres did not form a government and, of course, Rabin was not appointed defense minister.
Polls are indeed a very important tool, but only for examining trends and controversial issues that enable voters to compare one party with another. They are intended to help manage campaigns, to let candidates know which issues they should emphasize or downplay. To know what works and what issues should be left alone. But polls about the number of mandates parties supposedly have in their pockets are mere entertainment, at best; there is no correlation between them and the actual election results.
The first question usually asked in a poll is, “Who would you vote for if elections were to be held today?” And yet elections are not held on the day polls are taken, and this leads to a very large deviation. On Election Day voting is no longer a theoretical question but an actual decision that needs to be made. In the words of former foreign minister Abba Even, voters need to choose between the unwanted and the unbearable. The number of candidates who are truly idealistic and enthusiastic is getting smaller and smaller every year.
In addition, Israelis are a motley group that is difficult to sample (not to mention the fact that many people simply lie to pollsters).
Some are concerned about feeling alienation from the government, others fear the government’s power, or the lack of democratic culture in the country they (or their parents) grew up in.
For example, it is very difficult to achieve reliable results from polls of Israeli Arab voters.
Firstly because there are very few Arabic- speaking pollsters. Secondly, many in the Arab community are always wary of their responses being recorded and later used against them in a “Big Brother” type of way. A similar phenomenon exists among a portion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who also fear that “Big Brother” is recording their responses. They even try to guess the identity of the candidate who commissioned the poll so they can give the “correct” answer.
And then there’s the haredi community, a large portion of which are quite cynical and believe that they should always aim to deceive the authorities, and in this specific situation the pollster is the authority. It turns out that the correlation between how haredi voters answer in polls and who they actually vote for is entirely coincidental. All of these population groups together make up 40 percent of the electorate.
I became involved in elections for the first time as a young Labor Party staffer in Tel Aviv in 1977. Since that time, I’ve played an extremely central role in elections for the Labor Party, Kadima and Am Echad. Over the years, I’ve watched as pollsters found ways to overcome obstacles by asking loaded questions or by assessing voting patterns in certain sectors. Sometimes their polls were accurate, and sometimes anything but.
In the 1996 elections between Netanyahu and Peres I served as campaign headquarters spokesman, and the poll results that we were shown seemed to me to be overly optimistic. Together with the secretary- general at the time, Nissim Zvilli, and businessman Jean Friedman, we carried out our own independent poll. Our numbers showed a much smaller gap between Netanyahu and Peres, not because we were smarter but because we took into consideration the above issues that affected respondents in the Arab, haredi and immigrant populations. Our results led us to conclude that there was a reasonable chance that Peres would lose the election. Only if we had read these minority groups incorrectly would Peres win by a small margin. So we came up with the optimistic scenario and the pessimistic scenario. Unfortunately, the pessimistic scenario is the one that came to pass.
Another reason it’s difficult to predict election outcomes is the variability of voter turnout.
In the earlier days of the state, voter turnout would reach 80%. In other words, almost all Israeli citizens who were physically in the country on Election Day would go out and vote. This made life much easier for pollsters. Since the year 2000, voter participation has dropped significantly, mostly out of disgust with the politicians, but also due to lack of trust in their ability to make a difference. In addition, many young people live in rental apartments far from the city in which they’re registered to vote, and have little desire to make the effort to go vote. And then on top of all these reasons there is a new trend of people boycotting elections. (This doesn’t stop them from complaining about the results, of course.) The low voter turnout also makes predicting the election results more complex, because respondents who participate in polls do not feel comfortable telling the pollster that they have no intention of actually going to vote, and therefore it’s hard to know which responses are relevant and should therefore be counted.
In an effort to show how this enormous deviation occurs, I will list the results of a poll that was carried out in December 2012, just two months before the previous election (the so-called “poll of polls”).
Likud-Beytenu received 39 seats in the poll, (but only 31 in the actual election). Labor received 20 (15), Yesh Atid 8 (19), Bayit Yehudi 10 (12), Hatnua 8 (6) and Meretz 4 (6). As you can see, there is a huge gap between the poll forecast and how many seats each party won in the actual election. So we can see that election forecasts that are publicized in the media are fun to talk about, but are far from realistic.
And yet every time an election comes around we hear the following comments explaining away these huge gaps: “Isn’t it amazing how many people changed their minds in just one week / the last two days?” Do they really think that people suddenly changed their minds and voted for Lapid? Or, “Wow, what surprising results!” Who exactly was surprised? People who believed the questionable poll forecast? Another typical response: “Gee, I can’t believe so many people were convinced by the election propaganda we saw on TV last night.” Who even watches those anymore? This is all nonsense.
And one last word for those of you who say that there is no alternative candidate for prime minister who can beat Netanyahu.
First of all, this is a completely undemocratic statement. And it reminds me of the 1996 race between Peres and Netanyahu. Peres, who was prime minister at the time and had been defense minister, foreign minister and finance minister in the past, was running against Binyamin what’s-his-name. The media was constantly harping on how Peres didn’t really have to worry about the competition, and we all know how that election turned out.
The author is a political advisor and has served as strategic consultant to Shimon Peres since 1990.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.