The Final Campaign Week and the Exit Polls
Two important events — unrelated to the campaign – happened in the last week before the elections. One was the return of the remains of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel, who fell in battle 37 years ago in Lebanon.1 The second event was Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.2 It is impossible to understand what impact, if any, these events made on the decisions of voters.
Only days before April 9 election day, Netanyahu promised on television to extend sovereignty to all Israeli settlements. He specified that he would not distinguish between those in the main settlement blocs and isolated ones.3 A day later Netanyahu said that the United States was aware of his plan to annex West Bank settlements and his rejection of full Palestinian statehood. 4
Toward the end of the campaign it became apparent that the election results would be significantly determined by those voters undecided during the last days or even until election day. A poll carried out by the Maagor Mochot firm on behalf of Israel HaYom and i24TV on April 5 asked how confident interviewees were that they wouldn’t change their vote by election day.5 Labor voters showed the highest loyalty at 76%. The United Right, Blue and White, United Torah Judaism and the Likud voters were all recorded at 70% or higher.
April 5 was the last day polls were allowed to be published. As many as 11 polls came out between the 3rd and 5th of April. Seven of these indicated that Blue and White would gain between 1 and 4 seats more than the Likud. Three polls found that the Likud would gain between 1 and 3 seats more than Blue and White. In one they were found to win an equal number of seats. In the election the Likud won 36 seats, one more than Blue and White.
In all these polls the Labor party came in third with 8 to 11 seats. Only in one poll did the Gesher party, led by Orly Levy-Abekasis, pass the election threshold of 3.25% of the votes. According to four polls Yisrael Beitenu did not pass the threshold. The Arab Ra’am-Balad party and Kulanu did not pass the threshold in two polls.6
The companies carrying out the polls cannot interview in a representative way soldiers who are the bulk of the approximately 5% of voters whose votes are counted separately. Another important issue is that the polls reflect voting intentions at the moment of the interview. Yet on election day interviewees may vote differently.
The two large parties syphoned off votes in the election from their potential allies rather than from their opponents. That explains the demise of the New Right, which did not pass the threshold. The last 11 polls had given the New Right between 5 and 7 seats. The Zehut party scored between 4 and 8 seats in these polls. Yet it remained below the threshold in the election. Labor ended up with 6 seats even though all polls in the last week had found it would receive between 8 and 11 seats. 7
Campaigns impacted the public domain much less than in previous election years. There were not many billboards. Propaganda leaflets from various parties were not distributed in great numbers to mailboxes. All these activities involve huge costs and apparently yield few results. On television the party broadcasts were far less important than on previous occasions. All this made this election campaign more difficult to follow.
Election day was fraught with tensions and rumors. It was claimed that on election day the Likud placed as many as 1200 hidden cameras at Arab town polling stations. Some of these were hidden on the bodies of activists and observers from the Likud. The chair of the Central Election Committee, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, said that filming inside polling stations was a breach of election laws. Police removed the cameras. Netanyahu reacted by saying that in order to ensure a fair vote, there should be open cameras everywhere, rather than hidden ones.8
Immediately after polls closed on April 9 at 10pm, the three television channels 11, 12 and 13, published exit polls. While channels 11 and 13 were close to the ultimate result, channel 12 was far off the mark giving Blue and White 4 more seats than the Likud. 9 10 11 12
An analysis of polls during the elections by the Jerusalem Post found that Channel 12 and Yediot Ahronot pollsters were wrong on many occasions. The paper said that they always over-estimated Blue and White’s success. There were speculations that some polls might be distorted because of media trying to influence results. Perhaps a more plausible reason is that discrepancies between polls were influenced by the amount of money invested and the methodology of polling.
There was much criticism of the exit polls. One expert said that samples were too small and the results were published too fast. This was due to the need to satisfy an impatient public waiting for answers. Another factor was that some people intentionally gave false answers to pollsters.13
It was perhaps symbolic that there was even confusion in the counting of the ballots. Publishing the final results was delayed several hours. A messy election campaign was followed by untidy counting of the votes.