He didn’t say a word.
American pollster John McLaughlin stood nearly stock-still next to Benjamin Netanyahu as the prime minister filmed yet another campaign ad ahead of the September 2019 election. Speaking Hebrew, Netanyahu frantically warned voters that his opponents from the Blue and White party were working with Arab lawmakers to place his continued stay in Balfour Street at risk.
Netanyahu didn’t introduce McLaughlin or even acknowledge him, and he didn’t need to. The pollster’s presence appeared designed solely to grant an extra dose of legitimacy to Netanyahu’s words: It wasn’t just the prime minister who thought right-wing voters should avoid casting their ballots for parties other than Likud. The stern-faced consultant nodding periodically alongside him thought so as well, and he’d come all the way from America to raise the alarm.
It was an uncanny, if awkward, use of a US political strategist, but it revealed the weight that Netanyahu believes they carry in Israeli elections. And he’s not the only one who thinks so: At least three other major parties in the Holy Land have purchased the services of consultants from the Land of Liberty ahead of the March 23 vote.
מסר חשוב לכל מצביעי הימין >> pic.twitter.com/6Lfyohts4n
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) September 13, 2019
Reliance on such outsiders, whose familiarity with Israel’s language, politics and culture can only pale to that of local strategists would appear a perplexing choice on the face of it.
But those in the business explain that only in the US can one collect the experience and expertise these consultants bring to the table. It’s true given the unique nature of the Israeli political system that there are areas of the campaign where American strategists have little to offer. However, their polling know-how, ability to recognize consequential trends, as well as what seems to be a harder-to-explain intangible quality, have turned them into hot commodities for parties in the Jewish state.
“There is a bit of a mystique” to having American consultants on an Israeli campaign, said Dahlia Scheindlin, Israeli-American political strategist and public opinion expert. “It’s exciting, it looks big, it looks serious.”
‘Myth of the American consultant’
Arthur Finkelstein wasn’t the first American pollster to wade into Israeli elections, but his work to get Netanyahu elected prime minister in 1996 was what set off the phenomenon, according to Scheindlin.
Finkelstein, who worked for right-wing candidates around the globe, didn’t speak Hebrew. But he was credited for the Likud leader’s election win that year, thanks to the coinage of the campaign phrase “Peres will divide Jerusalem.” Labor leader Shimon Peres had made no such commitment at the time, but the accusation appeared to have stuck, convincing enough Israelis that Netanyahu’s rival was beyond the consensus on such a key issue.
“Because Finkelstein happened to be American, Israelis thought that American consultants are part of the strategy to win elections, when really he was just really good at what he did,” said one US-born strategist advising an Israeli party who asked to remain anonymous.
“It created this sort of myth of the American consultant,” he claimed.
The trend has continued to this day, with new American consultants breaking into the Israeli scene with each election.
“Democracy is one of the things that America still exports. We have a lot of practice with it, while Israel is still catching up,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who has worked with Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid since 2012. “There are so many consultants in the US simply because there are so many elections.”
In 1999, Scheindlin worked alongside James Carville, Robert Shrum and Stanley Greenberg, three US pollsters who had been instrumental in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential victory, on helping Labor head Ehud Barak oust Netanyahu.
She acknowledged that the idea of parachuting in consultants does not necessarily seem logical. “I’ve worked in 15 other countries where I had never stepped foot before, don’t speak the language, knew very little [to] nothing and sometimes arrived a couple days before,” she said.
The strategist added that she’s put “nose to grindstone,” learning everything she could about the countries where she was dispatched to work ahead of time. “There’s a lot that we don’t know, but the way you deal with that is through humility and research.”
“Sure there are challenges, limitations and drawbacks, but given that this is a profession we bring with us an expertise that is transferable,” she explained. “It’s not as much as trying to replicate any one political situation. It’s a matter of bringing professional tools, like a physician or a lawyer would.”
Scheindlin noted that despite the language difference, Israeli campaigns are more similar to ones in the US than other countries where she’s worked. “The real distinction between countries where it becomes very hard for us to be relevant is when the country does not have an open political system, is not sufficiently democratic, has no real freedom of press or speech.”
Mellman said that in each of the dozens of countries where he’s operated, there’s always a degree of skepticism from locals. “If I’ve consulted for a campaign in Illinois and then come to work on a Chicago campaign people will say, ‘oh but you’ve never worked in Chicago.’ And then I’ll do that and then people will say, ‘well you’ve never worked on the south side.'”
“There’s some truth to that, but part of the job we have is surfacing the assumptions natives are bringing to the table and test whether they’re accurate,” he explained.
Each American consultant who spoke to The Times of Israel said that they have been most successful abroad when working in tandem with local partners on the ground.
Jim Gerstein, a Democratic strategist who was also on that 1999 Labor campaign, credited that victory to the “complete buy-in, cooperation and collaboration by both the American team and the Israeli campaign.”
What helps is the fact that the politicians often match up by ideology. Hence Finkelstein, who died in 2017, went on to work with other conservative parties, and in 2015 Likud began working with McLaughlin, who also consulted with Donald Trump on his presidential campaigns.
Likud’s current campaign manager is Aaron Klein, a Philadelphia-born writer and talk show host who was the Jerusalem correspondent for the far-right Breitbart news site before Netanyahu hired him as a communications adviser last year.
New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud apparatchik who is challenging Netanyahu from the right, found a parallel with his hiring of four consultants from the Lincoln Project, a band of former Republican strategists who left the party and campaigned aggressively against Trump in last year’s election. But while they brought their expertise from the recent American election, they also carried substantial baggage due to a sexual harassment scandal that erupted shortly after, and Sa’ar announced last month that he was reviewing ties with the group.
“The Lincoln Project … had this aura of a magic wand, of people inside the party going against it,” Scheindlin said of Sa’ar’s consultants.
Klein, McLaughlin and representatives of the Lincoln Project all declined to speak on the record.
The more niched the party, the less there is for an outside consultant to offer, Mellman admitted.
But not everybody is enamored with foreigners meddling in their elections.
“The pull is that it’s cool to have a foreign consultant, but there’s a push as well because people don’t want to be accused of allowing Americans to fiddle with their elections,” Mellman said. “I did a campaign abroad where the candidate refused to shake my hand because he wanted to be able to say that he never spoke with an American consultant. I only worked with his staff.”
Still, Scheindlin and other consultants said that the strategists had managed to import US-style politics to Israel, changing the way campaigns are run. Finkelstein brought with him a number of quintessential features of an American campaign that have remained in Israel since, she said, listing “the 30-second ad spot, negative campaigning, personalized campaigning and the war-room concept of a centralized command.”
“Do they do it well? No, but they try and know they’re supposed to,” she quipped.
A US-born strategist speaking on the condition of anonymity made a point of crediting Mellman for injecting the Democratic Party’s grassroots campaigning into Yesh Atid, saying it helped build a sustainable base for the party.
“You didn’t have this in Israeli politics as much before that,” the strategist said.
Lapid had been transitioning from a career as a journalist into politics, “so one of the things we suggested was for him to go to a lot of homes to meet constituents and people would gather together for these meet-and-greets, inviting their neighbors and he talked to them over their kitchen table about the issues they’re concerned about,” Mellman recalled.
“It’s grassroots campaigning that provided practice interacting with voters and practice dealing with questions away from the glare of television lights,” he added.
Lapid is continuing to draw inspiration from Democratic strategy. A person with knowledge of Yesh Atid’s 2021 campaign said the party was particularly looking at Democrats’ work to flip Georgia blue and win two hotly contested Senate races there.
“American consultants can bring structure, which is not something Israeli campaigns are known for. Structure and professionalism,” the US-born strategist said.
At the same time, several of the strategists interviewed for the piece said there were parts of the campaign landscape that contrasted sharply with the way they were used to doing business, especially regarding the media.
“The standards for truth in the Israeli press are not the same — and [are] weaker — than in the American press, particularly in terms of sourcing,” said one consultant who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. “News outlets will be willing to publish a totally unproven smear that is given to them by a rival opponent and still allow that source to remain anonymous.”
Polling too lags behind in Israel, several of them said.
“I take them seriously, but not literally,” Mellman claimed, noting that Israeli polls don’t provide enough weight to the fact that many voters are undecided and instead assigns each respondent a party, even if they haven’t made a decision yet.
“Margin of error problems are magnified, not minimized,” he said, pointing out that polls are less accurate when done in the span of one or two nights, as is often the case in Israel.
Apple pie and elections
At the end of the day, what Americans bring to the table is experience, several strategists said.
“We’re involved in dozens of campaigns every year, and when you get that experience, even though each one is different, you learn different things, spot changes and apply them, regardless of whether you’re in Skokie, Illinois or Natanya, Israel,” said Gerstein, who is the founding partner of GBAO Strategic Communications and does polling for the J Street Middle East lobby in the US.
“I know it feels right now in Israel that there has been this never-ending cycle of elections, but four elections in two years is not a lot. American consultants would go out of business if there were only four elections in two years,” he added.
“The massive amount of money that’s poured into campaigns in the US allows us to experiment a great deal with polling methodology that helps us improve our accuracy,” said Mellman.
Pressed as to why pollsters still have failed to forecast major trends, such as the rise of Donald Trump, Mellman acknowledged that the enterprise can still improve, “but we’re still able to invest and learn those lessons in ways that strategists in other countries cannot.”
“It’s not just polling, we test advertising, field operations, get-out-the-vote operations and data analytics,” he continued. “These are extensive, expensive tests that are just not affordable in other countries.”
“Eighty percent of what we do is worthless, but we don’t always know which part that is, so we try everything,” Mellman said.
“What we are able to contribute is at the margins,” he said. “Someone who otherwise would get 5% of the vote, is not going to get 50%, but we could be the difference between 12% and 14% or between turnout of 70 to 80%, which could add another seat or two. That’s still a real difference.”
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