A new pre-election poll, conducted exclusively for The Times of Israel, shows that a remarkable 31 percent of likely voters in the January 22 elections remain undecided.

The perceptions, ideology, and demographics of that undecided bloc lean slightly more to the center-left than to the right, suggesting that the final two weeks of the campaign may see a narrowing of the gap between the right-wing and center-left blocs. It may be that the profusion of center-left parties has resulted in a relatively substantial proportion of center-left voters weighing their options even at this late stage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu will still almost certainly win the most seats, and will almost certainly be better placed than the center-left parties to build the next coalition, the survey indicates, but the margins of his victory may well be narrower than most recent polls have suggested, and his coalition dilemmas more complex.

Formulated by The Times of Israel and the author, from the political consultancy firm (202) Strategies, with field work conducted by TRI-Strategic Research between December 25 and January 2, our survey is the most accurate publicly available poll to date, having questioned a relatively large sample of 803 likely voters — as opposed to the Hebrew media’s norm of 500 eligible voters. Of those 803, also in contrast to the Hebrew media norm, 10% of our surveys were conducted by cellphone, and another 10% were conducted in Arabic.

The poll shows the Likud-Beytenu alliance at 34 seats after the undecideds have been factored in on a proportionate basis, Shelly Yachimovich’s Labor Party rising to 21, a strong Jewish Home under the leadership of recently elected party leader Naftali Bennett at 15, and a falling Hatnua party under Tzipi Livni at 5. Deeper analysis of our survey’s findings, however, would suggest that the undecideds may not ultimately divide proportionately, and that a slightly greater proportion of them are wavering between the various center-left and left-wing parties, rather than between the various right-wing parties.

Respondents were asked for whom they would vote if elections were held today. Likely voters representing a full 31% of the electorate — or 37 seats in the 120-member Knesset – said that they did not yet know. Another 5% said they would vote for parties that did not come close to clearing the 2% Knesset threshold — including Am Shalem, Otzma Leyisrael and Kadima.

With the undecided votes and the votes for the failing fringe parties redistributed on a proportionate basis across the spectrum, our results are as follows:

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By way of comparison, here is how the seats in the Knesset would look before the proportionate distribution of the “undecideds” — 31% of all likely voters, representing 37 Knesset seats:

Analyzing the right-wing vote

In the Times of Israel survey, we asked respondents to label themselves left, center, or right, and 38% of respondents self-identified as right-wing — the largest bloc, compared to 36% center and 16% left. Some 39% of the right intends to vote Likud-Beytenu and 18% to vote Jewish Home (with the rest divided among Shas, United Torah Judaism, and other smaller parties). But 23% of right-wing voters are undecided — the equivalent of 10 seats. Much of the election battle on the right over the next few days, therefore, will be a fight between Likud-Beytenu and the Jewish Home for these votes.

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Looking through the data for clues as to who is undecided on the right, the merger of Yisrael Beytenu and Likud looms large. Likely voters who voted for Likud in 2009 intend to vote 59% for Likud-Beytenu and 10% for Jewish Home, but a full 20% remain undecided.

Most strikingly, an analysis of former Yisrael-Beytenu voters reveals that they did not follow party chairman Avigdor Liberman to the alliance with the Likud in overwhelming numbers. In fact, only 32% of those who voted for Yisrael-Beytenu in 2009 intend to vote for Likud-Beytenu today. A plurality of 36% remain undecided, 12% vote Labor, 8% vote Jewish Home and 8% vote Yesh Atid. Look for the Likud-Beytenu campaign to refocus efforts on energizing its former voters.

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Analyzing the center

While pundits claim that Israel is moving rightward, 36% of likely voters self-describe themselves as centrists. This voting bloc is the most important group to watch in the coming days because, with 40% of its members self-professedly undecided (approximately 14% of likely voters, or 17 Knesset seats), it can help decide who sits in the next government.

The battle between Likud-Beytenu and Jewish Home for votes on the right will not likely affect the general make-up of the next coalition. However, the 40% of undecideds in the center could go either rightward, to Likud-Beytenu and Jewish Home, or leftward, to Labor, Yesh Atid and Hatnua, or they could go to the ultra-Orthodox Shas.

Among centrist voters who have made up their minds, twice as many vote Labor as do Likud-Beytenu. If this trend plays out among the undecided centrists, then the prediction above — with its proportionate distribution of the undecided votes — under-represents support for Labor and over-represents Likud-Beytenu and Jewish Home.

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A notably successful advertising campaign and messaging targeted at undecided voters in the center by either Labor or Likud-Beytenu could very well determine the ideological structure of the next government.

It should also be noted that almost twice as many centrists support Likud-Beytenu as do Hatnua. If Hatnua can’t gain traction in the center, its numbers will go down.

Livni’s problem

In most political campaigns, certainly including this one, there are competing demands on campaign resources. Money and time can be spent trying to convince voters to like you, or to convince voters who already like you to vote for you. The party leader with the biggest challenge here is Tzipi Livni. Only 6% of voters who view her favorably actually intend to vote for her Hatnua party. Livni doesn’t need to convince more people to like her; she needs a higher proportion of those who say they like her to go out and vote for her.

Where did Kadima go?

Kadima is dead – and don’t bother resuscitating it. A full 3 respondents out of 803 (0.4%) surveyed said they would vote for Kadima if elections were held today, leading our survey to conclude that Kadima will not come remotely close to passing the threshold.

The data reveal exactly how Kadima’s 28 seats in the Knesset are divided today, with the lion’s share of these voters undecided, looking for a new party to support, at 41%. Labor receives 21% of former Kadima voters, Yesh Atid receives 13%, Hatnua gets 10% and Likud-Beytenu 9%.

The undecideds

If you are Likud-Beytenu, you will not be happy to learn that the ideologies, perceptions and demographics of the undecided voters —  including perceptions of Netanyahu, job rating of Netanyahu, general outlook on the direction of the country, and ethnic heritage — appear to favor Labor. Netanyahu and Yachimovich have almost identical likability ratings among undecided voters.

Looking at the general outlook of undecided voters, they view the direction that Israel is heading as more negative than positive, which also favors Labor. Among undecided voters, 35% view the country as heading in the correct direction while 48% view it as heading in the wrong direction. Voters from Bennett’s Jewish Home match the sentiments of undecided voters far better than either Likud-Beytenu or Labor, but a full 11% of undecided voters say they have never heard of Bennett and a whopping 30% say they do not know whether they have a positive or negative view of him.

Undecided voters have a far more negative rating of Netanyahu’s performance as prime minister than positive, with 34% of undecided voters saying he is doing an excellent or good job while 60% say he is doing a fair or bad job. With such sentiments, it is hard to believe that the undecided voters will split proportionally towards Likud-Beytenu, as these views are far closer to the views of Labor voters.

Lastly, undecided voters are more likely to self-identify as Ashkenazi Jews, rather than Sephardi or Mizrahi Jews. This is similar to the make-up of Labor’s voters, and very different from the make-up of Likud-Beytenu’s voters.

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This is the first in a series of nine articles that The Times of Israel is publishing this week on the basis of our pre-election poll. Formulated by The Times of Israel and the author, from political consultancy firm (202) Strategies, with field work conducted by TRI-Strategic Research between December 25 and January 2, our survey is the most accurate publicly available poll to date, having questioned a relatively large sample of 803 likely voters — as opposed to the Hebrew media’s norm of 500 eligible voters. Of those 803, also in contrast to the Hebrew media norm, 10% of our surveys were conducted to cellphones, and another 10% were conducted in Arabic. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.5%, with a confidence level of 95%.

The methodology of the poll is detailed here and the raw results are here.

Stephan Miller, cited by Campaigns and Elections magazine in 2008 as “James Carville’s young protege,” 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 eight countries across three continents.