Current trends among likely voters in Israel suggest a tighter race between Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog and Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu than previously reported ahead of the March 17 elections. In a new poll conducted exclusively for The Times of Israel, a full 24% of likely voters remain undecided — down from the 31% of likely voters that were undecided at a similar time before the 2013 elections according to Times of Israel polling, but still a large group that can sway the election in the coming weeks. The data suggest that a plurality of these undecided voters, however, have soured on Netanyahu, giving him lower personal and job approval ratings and edging in the direction of Herzog’s Zionist Union.
Still, even with a strong showing on election day, the Zionist Union would find it challenging to build a coalition of 61 or more seats in the Knesset in order to form the next government, which mathematically would require the buy-in not just of parties in the center such as Yesh Atid and Kulanu, but also either the ultra-right Jewish Home, the non-Zionist United Arab List, or the ultra-Orthodox parties.
What that means, in turn, is that the key votes in the March elections could actually occur after the tallies are counted, when the party leaders go to President Reuven Rivlin and tell him who they would like him to charge with the task of forming a governing coalition. In that battle, the final margin between Likud and Zionist Union may be critical: If one party comes in several seats ahead, it will be difficult for the various relevant party leaders, and for the president, to choose the head of the other as prime minister-elect.
Respondents were asked to identify the party they would vote for if elections for the Knesset were held today. The poll shows that if elections were held today and the 24% of voters who are undecided and did not identify a party were distributed based on their political ideology and perception of Netanyahu, the Zionist Union of Herzog and Livni would receive 27 seats in Knesset and Netanyahu’s Likud would receive 23 seats, which is still significantly more than his current 18 seats in Knesset but not enough to claim victory.
The data suggests that the United Arab List would receive 11 seats; Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home would receive 11 seats; and Yesh Atid would have the largest drop, going from 19 current seats to 11 seats, with some of those seats going to Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which would receive 11 seats. Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party would collapse from 13 seats today to 7 seats; United Torah Judaism would receive 7 seats; Shas would receive 5 seats, with some of its support moving to Eli Yishai’s new party Yahad, which would receive 4 seats. Meretz loses supporters to Herzog’s Zionist Union, going from 6 seats today to 4 seats.
The data suggests that the Zionist Union’s expected strong showing will be due more to the souring of Netanyahu in the eyes of likely voters than to Herzog’s standing. When likely voters are asked about their perceptions toward Netanyahu, a majority (54%) give Netanyahu an unfavorable rating, with 37% of voters giving him a very unfavorable rating. This is different from his positive standing in The Times of Israel pre-election poll ahead of the last elections in 2013, when a majority (53%) of likely voters gave Netanyahu a favorable rating.
A deeper look at the data points to a collapse of support for Netanyahu among the center, where the largest portion of undecided voters reside each election. Netanyahu remains largely favorable among self-identified right-wing voters with 67% favorable and 29% unfavorable, similar to his rating ahead of the 2013 elections of 70% favorable and 29% unfavorable. Among self-identified centrist voters, Netanyahu is 21% favorable and 73% unfavorable – a stark change from his 47% favorable and 48% unfavorable rating ahead of the last elections.
For undecided voters, it’s not just about Netanyahu personally, but about his performance as prime minister of Israel. When asked to rate the job being done by Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel, fewer than 30% of voters give him an “excellent” or “good” rating, while 67% of voters give him a “fair” or “poor” rating. Netanyahu enters the 2015 election in an even worse position than he did in the 2013 elections, when he had a 39% “excellent” or “good” rating and a 57% “fair” or “poor” rating. Further, the negative perception toward Netanyahu’s performance has grown deeper over time, with 36% of likely voters giving him a “poor” rating, up from 22% who said “poor” ahead of the 2013 elections.
Looking further at perceptions that undecided voters have toward Netanyahu’s performance as prime minister suggests that the majority of the undecideds will not be voting Likud. In the Times of Israel pre-election survey ahead of the 2013 elections, likely voters who were undecided on which party they would vote for gave Netanyahu a 34% “excellent” or “good” rating as prime minister and a 60% “fair” or “poor” rating. Today, undecided voters hold even more negative views, with 19% giving him a “excellent” or “good” rating and a 71% a “fair” or “poor” rating. The more this election is a referendum on Netanyahu and his performance as prime minister, the worse Likud will fare.
The survey was conducted February 1-3, 2015, among a representative sample of 824 Israeli adults who indicated that they were very likely or somewhat likely to vote in the upcoming Knesset elections. Respondents who indicated that they were less likely or not at all likely to vote were not included in the survey sample. 44.7% of completed surveys were directed to landline home phones, 33.5% to mobile phones, and 21.9% were conducted via online panels, helping to compensate for the high percentage of Israelis who do not have regular landline phones. 10.1% of respondents were Arabic speakers surveyed in Arabic and 10.9% were Russian speakers surveyed in Russian. The findings are rounded to the nearest whole digit. The margin of error is +/-3.41% with a 95% confidence level.
This is the first in a series of articles that The Times of Israel is publishing on the basis of the poll. The survey was formulated by The Times of Israel and the author, from political consultancy firm 202 Strategies. Our survey is the most accurate publicly available poll to date, having questioned a relatively large sample of 824 likely voters — as opposed to the Hebrew media’s norm of 500 eligible voters.
Stephan Miller, cited by Campaigns and Elections magazine in 2008 as “James Carville’s young protégé,” is an American-Israeli public opinion research analyst and communications strategist and a former adviser to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat who has worked on campaigns in 10 countries across four continents.