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State of the campaign

How close is Netanyahu to the magic 61?

As our comparative data shows, the answer to that question right now depends on who’s doing the polling

  • Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu delivers an election campaign speech from inside a modified delivery truck with a side wall replaced with bulletproof glass, in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem, September 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu delivers an election campaign speech from inside a modified delivery truck with a side wall replaced with bulletproof glass, in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem, September 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • The state of the Israeli election campaign: Poll of polls, September 18, 2022, showing the number of seats parties would be expected to win if the election was held today, based on a weighing of the latest opinion polls.
    The state of the Israeli election campaign: Poll of polls, September 18, 2022, showing the number of seats parties would be expected to win if the election was held today, based on a weighing of the latest opinion polls.
  • Prime Minister and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks during an election campaign event in Tel Aviv, September 8, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
    Prime Minister and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks during an election campaign event in Tel Aviv, September 8, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
  • Seats for the Netanyahu bloc in every major poll through the 2022 campaign since June 20
    Seats for the Netanyahu bloc in every major poll through the 2022 campaign since June 20
  • Members of the Hadash and Ta'al factions in the Joint List speak to the media after breaking off from Balad on September 15, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)
    Members of the Hadash and Ta'al factions in the Joint List speak to the media after breaking off from Balad on September 15, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)
  • Election blocs -- weekly polling average
    Election blocs -- weekly polling average
  • Members of the Balad party register their list for the upcoming elections at the Knesset on September 15, 2022. Party leader Sami Abou Shahadeh is at second from right. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Members of the Balad party register their list for the upcoming elections at the Knesset on September 15, 2022. Party leader Sami Abou Shahadeh is at second from right. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • The Netanyahu bloc by pollster through the 2022 campaign since June 20
    The Netanyahu bloc by pollster through the 2022 campaign since June 20

Finally, after three months of wrangling, the election campaign is truly underway.

On Thursday, the parties submitted their official candidate lists for the elections, meaning there can be no more mergers or breakups.

Under the guidance of Benjamin Netanyahu, Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit agreed to run as a single slate, as did two different strands of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party.

In contrast, on the left, Meretz and Labor decided to run independently, despite the best efforts of Prime Minister Yair Lapid — which runs the risk of one of them not crossing the threshold.

The last-minute drama came from the Arab parties, where, a matter of minutes before the deadline, Balad opted to break away from the Joint Arab List and run independently. As discussed in last week’s column, this will likely mean that at least one Arab party drops beneath the threshold, and therefore bodes well for Netanyahu’s chances of forming a government.

Indeed, in all three polls conducted immediately following the closing of the registration of candidate lists, Balad failed to cross (or even get close to) the threshold, reducing the overall number of predicted seats for Arab parties to eight (from 10 in the current the Knesset). This in turn meant the Netanyahu bloc got to 60 seats in all three polls, compared to an average of 59 seats in the previous batch of polls.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu delivers an election campaign speech from inside a modified delivery truck with a side wall replaced with bulletproof glass, in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem, September 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

One other remaining question, the fate of Ayelet Shaked’s Zionist Spirit Party, was settled when the party was effectively dissolved, and she instead became leader of the Jewish Home party. She immediately embarked on a billboard campaign with the slogan “My heart is on the right,” ending any remaining ambiguity about which side of the map she belongs to – though it was not enough for her new-old party to pass the threshold in any of this week’s polls.

The Netanyahu bloc

With the parties and blocs now settled, the question is whether the Netanyahu bloc can get up to 61 seats over the next six weeks.

As of today, our average has his bloc at 59.4 seats. This has been steady throughout the campaign, remaining between 58.7 and 60.1 seats; always on the cusp of, but never reaching, the crucial 61-seat mark.

Election blocs — weekly polling average

With things so tight, and the average so steady, today we will look at the polling through a different lens, which raises the possibility of a slightly different view of the state of the race.

The problem with averages

As campaign strategists, we are traditionally skeptical of polling averages.

There will inevitably be differences between polling companies and their methodologies, which can translate into different results from different pollsters. Adherents of polling averages believe that taking an average gets us closest to the truth. But pollsters will ask the question, what if one poll or methodology is right, and the others are wrong?

This debate is best explained through an example given by CBS News’ Elections and Surveys Director Anthony Salvanto in his book on polling. In it, he uses the example of a police manhunt after a robbery. The police ask two eyewitnesses for a description of the thief. One says the person was 6 foot 6 inches. The other says he was 5 foot 6 inches. In this scenario, it makes little sense for the police to take an average and look for someone who is 6 foot. In all likelihood, one witness is right and one is wrong.

So, using this logic, let’s try and look at all the polling individually, and see if it leads us to any other conclusions about Netanyahu’s chances of getting to 61. To put it in statistical terms, for the benefit of this article, we will this time ignore the mean (average), and instead look at the modal (most common) outcome.

Seats for the Netanyahu bloc in every major poll through the 2022 campaign since June 20

Over the three-month campaign so far, there have been 56 public polls conducted. In them, the Netanyahu bloc has ranged from 57 to 62 seats, and has passed 61 seats 12 times – just under 20 percent of the time.

Looking at the changes in this data over time, we can see that there was a three-week period between mid-July and early August in which the bloc passed 61 fairly frequently (six times in 12 polls), with various explanations possible for why the right performed so “well” at that point. But since then, it has passed 61 seats just five times (out of 32).

Predicted seats for the Netanyahu bloc through the 2022 campaign since June 20

The takeaway so far is that while the bloc average of 59.4 looks fairly close to what is required, the magic 61 might actually be further away than it seems: The Netanyahu bloc seemed to be trending down before the boost it got from the split in the Arab list last week, and even with this bump, it still remained “stuck” at 60 seats.

Two versions of the situation

But there is still another way to look at the situation, and that is by breaking down the results by pollster.

The table below tells a fascinating story.

The Netanyahu bloc by pollster through the 2022 campaign since June 20

Of Israel’s five main political pollsters, data from four of them shows the Netanyahu bloc getting to 61 in less than ten percent of their polls (4 times out of 45).

According to Kantar and Manu Geva’s Midgam – generally considered to be Israel’s premier election polling company – the bloc has not gotten to 61 even once.

Pollster Manu Geva (Screen capture: YouTube)

The exception is Direct Polls, owned by Shlomo Filber, Netanyahu’s former close confidant-turned state’s witness against him, who conducts polls for the religious and right-wing Channel 14. In contrast with the four other pollsters, Direct Polls has the Netanyahu bloc passing 61 in seven of its nine polls.

Some may explain this discrepancy as evidence of bias. Many on the right would claim that this is evidence of “establishment” pollsters and media outlets deliberately knocking the right down. Alternatively, those on the left may well claim that Shlomo Filber and Channel 14 are simply biased the other way.

We prefer not to look at this discrepancy as a result of bias, but rather as a result of contrasting methodologies and approaches to weighting.

Shlomo Filber, former director-general of the communications ministry, testifies in a trial against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court, May 18, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

To illustrate this point, we would reference a famous experiment conducted by the New York Times ahead of the 2016 US presidential election. It gave exactly the same raw data to four respected pollsters, and asked them what the results of the poll were. Each pollster gave a different result, ranging from Hillary Clinton +4 to Donald Trump +1.

The main lesson from this is that polling is both art and science. Pollsters make assumptions about turnout and other factors, which affect the weight they give to each respondent and how they build their sample – which in turn influences the result of the poll. While pollsters tend not to release their models, it is safe to say that Direct Polls is working off a different set of assumptions than the other pollsters.

The difference between the pollsters is therefore more methodological than ideological.

Prime Minister and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks during an election campaign event in Tel Aviv, September 8, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Looking back to past elections, we see that this discrepancy was always there. In its final polls before the 2021 election, Direct Polls gave the Netanyahu bloc 61 seats, while the other four gave it 59 or 60 seats, suggesting Netanyahu would fall just short of falling a government – which is exactly what happened. In 2020 a similar thing happened. Direct Polls gave the Netanyahu bloc 59 seats, while the other four combined gave it an average of 57.25. The bloc ended up with 58 seats.

This is not to say which of the camps is right or wrong, or to question or grade any polling company. What we would say is that there is little evidence to suggest Direct Polls is right where the others are wrong, though of course the fact that it was slightly off with its assumptions last time does not mean the same will happen this time.

What does this say about the race?

Most interesting, though, is what this says about the state of this election.

If we follow this “pollster-based analysis,” the main factor in the ebbs and flows of the polling is not what other external events are occurring, but rather who is polling at that time. What is moving the average does not only seem to be events, but rather which pollsters poll when.

This of course impacts the coverage. Were Direct Polls to conduct four polls over the next week, it would likely push the Netanyahu bloc up to its highest point in the campaign, which in turn would shift the narrative toward one that claims that Netanyahu is closing in on victory. But that – as we have established – may well be misleading.

Our main conclusion from all this is that perhaps it is mistaken to view this election through the prism of one single average.

What we are really seeing are two versions of what is happening in this election, two ideas of the likely makeup of the electorate, and therefore two different polling averages.

Members of the Hadash and Ta’al factions in the Joint List speak to the media after breaking off from Balad on September 15, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

The first had – until this weekend – showed the Netanyahu bloc as stuck at 59 seats (where it finished in the past election), which in reality is much further away from securing the 61 seats it needs than it might seem on first glance (though of course the breakup of the Joint Arab List could change this equation significantly).

The second – minority – position is that the Netanyahu bloc is hovering around the 61-seat mark, and looks fairly likely to secure the very narrow majority it needs to form a coalition. Or as Shlomo Filber told a podcast recently, “Netanyahu is at 60.5 seats.”

The state of the Israeli election campaign: Poll of polls, September 18, 2022, showing the number of seats parties would be expected to win if the election was held today, based on a weighing of the latest opinion polls.

Things of course can change as the campaign heats up, and it is quite possible they will. In particular, the last-minute split among the Arab parties has already improved polling for the Netanyahu bloc and increased its chances of getting to 61 seats.

But even taking this into account, the slight, but significant, variation between the mainstream pollsters and Direct Polls could well mean that – as in 2021 – going into Election Day, one group foresees a narrow Netanyahu victory and the other sees him just falling short.

In the end, only one camp of pollsters will be proved right.

Simon Davies and Joshua Hantman are partners at Number 10 Strategies, an international strategic, research and communications consultancy, who have polled and run campaigns for presidents, prime ministers, political parties and major corporations across dozens of countries in four continents.

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