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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Don't believe the Israeli polls

I noted earlier that as of 4:00 pm we had an increase in the number of people voting as compared with the March 2006 election. JPost has an article whose headline expresses surprise that Israel's voters are not 'apathetic.' Perhaps this is a good time to remind you once again that you should not believe the polls coming out of Israel - not even the exit polls. And don't believe all those statistics that told you that 25-30% of the country was 'undecided' yesterday either.

We have a national culture of lying to - or refusing to answer - pollsters. This is especially true among the ultra-Orthodox (who may not be voting in quite the bloc in which they have voted in the past) and the Arabs (who may go to the polls after all), but to a lesser extent it is true of all Israelis. We don't like to tell people how we voted. And polls may be meaningless because Israelis often vote strategically (Hat Tip: Memeorandum).
Israel lacks polls [they've been forbidden since Friday CiJ] as well as the clarifying advantages of a two-party system. At least four parties — Kadima, Likud, Labor, and Israel Beiteinu — might end up winning more or less 20 mandates (out of 120). Through the last days of the campaign, confusion reigns supreme and Israelis are desperately trying to outsmart the system. They are known to vote “strategically” - that is, to favor electoral influence over ideological affinity.

This explains Ehud Barak’s warning today that if Labor doesn’t get “close to 20 mandates” he might not be able to remain defense minister. He is after those strategists wanting him as DM. They might not like Labor, but will vote to help Barak retain his position.

Such strategic decisions can lead to bizarre outcomes. One strategic voter is Yuval Rabin, the son of the late Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was meeting Likud’s Netanyahu today — and on this occasion announced he will vote for Labor but urged both parties to form a unity government. Rabin, like many other voters, doesn’t see the election as zero-sum-game. In Israel’s parliamentary system, Election Day is the beginning of a process rather than the end of it. You can win the day and lose the election, or vice-versa. Thus — while they formally belong to opposite camps — Netanyahu and Barak (and, apparently, Rabin) have the same goal in mind: blocking Kadima’s victory. If this happens, they can join forces and live happily ever after - well, for a year or two.

The intricacies of “strategic voting” will lead Meretz voters, who aren’t fond of Livni, to vote for her anyway in order to block Netanyahu. This motivation will give people an excuse to vote for Likud — even if they like Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu better - suspecting that Lieberman might end up joining a Kadima coalition.

Strategic voting has it’s weaknesses. It makes people vote for someone they don’t agree with on policy issues — thus rendering politics in general “dirtier” and less ideological. No wonder Israelis are so quickly disillusioned with their politicians: First they vote for someone they don’t care for — then they feign disappointment.

Another important weakness of strategic voting is its tendency to simply not work: Imagine five million voters trying to outsmart one another by voting “strategically” and you’ll easily understand why. Of course, this approach to electoral decisions confuses pollsters, drives political consultants crazy, and debases any serious ideological debates along party lines. It makes Election Night more exciting and most unpredictable.
By the way, Israel Radio just reported that although the turnout today is higher than in 2006, it is lower than in 2003.

Stay tuned. I'll be with you tonight.


At 5:47 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

It would be much more predictable if Israel had a constituency-presidential system. There would be one winner and one party with a stable majority. With pure PR, its any one's guess who will form the next coalition government after tonight.


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