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The state of the campaign

Me vs him, forward vs backward: Netanyahu and Lapid try to ‘frame the choice’

The challenger has begun his campaign with an economic focus. But he and the incumbent will likely end up making mirror arguments about the dangers posed by the rival camp

The state of the Israeli election campaign: Poll of polls, July 24, 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, July 24, 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.

At their core, election campaigns are about defining the choice facing voters.

A well-run campaign builds its strategy and communications in a way that frames the election as a clear choice between two competing ideas, visions, groups or individuals: a choice that the campaign knows – on the basis of in-depth public opinion research – places the bulk of its target voters on its side of the divide.

Let us give you an example of how it works in practice.

Quite a few years ago we were doing an overseas presidential campaign in which our client, a classic “man of the people,” came up against a tough, populist opponent. In one of our initial polls, we asked whether the public would prefer that their next president was a “strong leader” or “cared about people like them.” Over 75% chose the latter.

And so our campaign was clear – the public was asked whether they wanted a president that talked tough, or one that understood them and their needs. Every speech the candidate gave, video we made or post that went out was designed to highlight this choice. We ended up winning the election by a significant margin.

A few years later, we began to devise our strategy for the president’s re-election campaign. It was quickly clear from our polling and focus groups that circumstances had changed, and the public was now looking for a strong leader. Needless to say, this time the campaign had a very different message.

In the initial weeks of the current Israeli election campaign, each of the two main contenders to be prime minister – Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu – has been working to start building their winning narrative.

Netanyahu, whose Likud party currently sits on 34.9 seats in our “poll of polls” average, began the campaign with a strong economic theme, pledging to lower prices if returned to office.

“Prices have gone up because of this bad government. We will take it down and take down prices as well. That is our first mission,” Netanyahu declared during a  June 30 visit to Jerusalem’s Malha Mall.

The choice: rising prices under Yair Lapid, or falling prices under Netanyahu.

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu tours the Malha Mall in Jerusalem as he kicks off his election campaign for Israel’s 25th Knesset on June 30, 2022. (Screenshot/Facebook)

This economic theme was a little surprising. While the economy is the main concern for many at the moment, historically few Israelis have voted on economic grounds. Likewise, polls often show Israelis care deeply about education as an issue, but few people vote based on it.  As discussed in our column last week, the left-right divide in Israel is more about “tribal “identity or attitudes towards the Palestinians and peace than about socioeconomic issues.

More significantly, Netanyahu has been spoiling for a one-on-one battle with Lapid for the last four election cycles. Even when Lapid was number two to Benny Gantz in Blue and White in 2019 and 2020, Netanyahu frequently sought to frame the election as a choice between him and Lapid.

He did this because he was well aware that – at the time – Gantz had greater popularity than Lapid, and most importantly, had lower unfavorability numbers among potential Likud voters. Lapid was used therefore as a tool to boost turnout among the Likud base.

In the last election, in 2021, with Lapid now unquestioningly leading the second largest party, Netanyahu again sought to frame the election as a choice between the two men. But, well aware of the above, Lapid skillfully managed to deflect from this choice. Instead, he spoke of his bloc, the need for change, and most of all, about the dangers of re-electing Netanyahu.

It was an exceptionally disciplined, self-aware and strategically sound campaign. Lapid’s Yesh Atid party would likely have secured more seats within his own bloc had he played up the head-to-head race, but the overall outcome could well have been a Netanyahu victory.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid gives a campaign speech on July 20, 2022. (Elad Gutman)

This time around, with Lapid the incumbent prime minister, it will be harder for him to deflect the perception of a Lapid vs Netanyahu race. And while Lapid has been progressively gaining in the “Who is most suitable to be prime minister?” polling question, Netanyahu still has a clear advantage (in a recent poll from Channel 13, Netanyahu led Lapid as preferred prime minister by 45% to 32%, as opposed to 51% to 30% from the same pollster three weeks earlier.)

Considering this context, while Netanyahu is beginning by framing the electoral choice as an economic one, it would not be surprising if in a later phase of the campaign – perhaps when there is greater public attention, after the summer holidays – he seeks to re-frame it as a direct choice between himself and Lapid. This would likely evolve into a broader choice between “a strong and stable government led by Netanyahu versus a weak government relying on the Arab Joint List party, led by Lapid.”

Prime Minister Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party rose 0.4 seats in our poll of polls average this week to 22.6, began to outline his own preferred choice for the campaign on Wednesday. Speaking at a party faction meeting, he argued that, “The decision being placed before the citizens of Israel is not between me and Netanyahu… [but] between the future and the past. The choice is between those who think only of their own good and those who think of the good of the state.”

As these comments show, Lapid is again seeking to re-frame the election, not as a choice between two individuals – a choice he believes serves Netanyahu better than him – but rather as a classic choice between the country moving forward and backward.

In this, he is trying to lay the blame for the past three years of paralysis at Netanyahu’s door, while shining a spotlight on Likud’s likely coalition partners – the hardline Religious Zionism party – as a way to drive up turnout among his own supporters.

In the end, it is quite possible that both major parties will end up making a mirror image of the same argument. Lapid will hope to frame the choice as a broad, stable and “sane” government, led by him, versus a narrow, backward-looking and extremist government led by Netanyahu, relying on Ben-Gvir and the Religious Zionism party.

Netanyahu will be looking to invert the choice: a broad, stable government led by him, versus an unstable, weak and dangerous government led by Lapid, relying on the Arab Joint List.

As ever, whoever is more successful in framing and asserting their choice over the upcoming months will have a strong advantage on November 1st.

Poll of Polls update

As noted above, Yesh Atid continues to rise in our polling average, increasing 0.4 seats to 22.6. It began the campaign polling at 20.7 seats, meaning it has increased by two seats over the past month. In the same period, the Likud has remained steady around the 35-seat mark.

The state of the Israeli election campaign: Poll of polls, July 24, 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.

Last week we noted the possibility of the Blue and White-New Hope alliance dropping gradually in the coming weeks as the media interest in their new partnership wanes. In the four polls immediately following their merger, their alliance averaged 13.5 seats. But it slipped to 12 in each of this week’s polls, dropping in our poll of polls to 12.6. We will be watching closely in the coming weeks to see if this fall continues, or whether the alliance now stabilizes around the 12-seat mark.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the fortunes of the two parties at the bottom of our polling average continue to diverge. Yamina has now failed to cross the threshold in each of the last seven polls, and barely registers in our average. Meanwhile, as it goes about selecting a new leader, Meretz is showing renewed signs of life. It has now crossed the threshold in five of the last six polls.

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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