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The Rosner-Fuchs Exchange, Part 3: Had There Been Doubts About Bibi…

by Shmuel Rosner

February 15, 2013 | 5:54 am

PM Netanyahu, photo by Reuters

Professor Camil Fuchs, who has been a valuable contributor to Rosner's Domain for the past year, is a veteran Israeli statistician. He is a Professor of Statistics at Tel Aviv University, where he has also served as head of the Department of Statistics and Operations Research, and as the chairman of the School of Mathematical Sciences. Professor Fuchs, who is the official  pollster of Haaretz daily and channel 10 news, has been one of the leading and most reliable polling experts in Israel for many years.

In the third part of this exchange about the results of the Israeli elections (part one and two can be found here and here) we examine the Likud Beitenu's poor performance and take a look at the idea that had there been more doubts about Netanyahu remaining in power he may have done much better.

 

Dear Camil,

I'll begin the next round by quoting your previous answer. You said that voters "found in Yesh Atid a party which is a candidate to join the government and not the opposition" - and this raises an interesting question. 

From your polls (and others') it was clear that Prime Minister Netanyahu isn't a very popular PM, but that he is still seen (by far) as the most capable candidate for the top job compared to other potential candidates. So what you say points to the possibility that many Israelis voted for Lapid or for other smaller parties (smaller - that is- than Likud-Beiteinu) because they already knew that Netanyahu will remain PM. In other words, had there been doubt about Bibi's next term, would many voters for other parties (Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, Lapid, Kadima) have stuck with Netanyahu? 

And please also say something about the burden this puts on Lapid as he decides whether to join the government or to remain in the opposition. If his voters are mainly people who want him to be a moderating voice within the coalition - does it not make it very tricky for him to ultimately decide to remain in the opposition?

Best,

Shmuel

 

Dear Shmuel,

If there had been doubt about Bibi's next term, many voters for other parties- especially voters for Habayit Hayehudi- probably would have voted for Likud Beitenu and would have stuck with Netanyahu. But, in my opinion, they were glad they didn't have to, since Netanyahu and his party were quite unpopular.

But just how many were the "many" voters who would have changed their votes to keep Netanyahu as PM? The truth is that we couldn't have predicted this with a high degree of certainty. You see, "what triggers a vote?" is a $64,000 question in the area of political campaign and prediction.

We do have empirical data with election results which seem to support (at least partially) the "vote for PM" theory, though: Until the 1996 elections, the largest party always got at least a third of the 120 seats in the Knesset. In 1996, the election system was reformed, and the voters casted two ballots, one for the PM and one for the party, and then, the support for the largest party dropped dramatically to 34 seats, and it has remained less than 40 seats ever since. In fact, in the last three elections the number of seats the largest party received was even less than 30 (the 31 seats of Likud Beitenu from the last elections, are actually divided between two parties: Likud with 21 seats and Israel Beitenu with 10 seats).

The problem with this empirical data is that since 2003, the election system has returned to the good old single-ballot system, and the Knesset has been even more fragmented, with a low number of seats for the largest party.

So, as I said, the empirical data only partially supports the "vote for the PM" theory. OK, you might say, if we cannot base our theory on the election results, we can always ask the people in polls, can't we? Yes, we can, and we do, and the polls in which we ask the respondents "what is the main issue which will trigger your vote?" give us some indications. But those results have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Here is an example: In our last poll before the elections (in January this year) we asked "among the following four issues, which one do you consider as the most important when you cast the vote next Tuesday"? 47% responded that the economic and social agenda is the most important. The other issues- the negotiations with the Palestinians (18%), the military draft for the ultra-orthodox (12%) and the Iranian nuclear threat (10%)- were seen as "the most important" by much fewer respondents.

There's a saying in Hebrew- "happy is the man who believes". As Dan Ariely puts it in his popular book, people are "predictably irrational": It makes us feel good to believe that we vote for the "economic and social issues", but do we? Several days before the elections we just found out that there is an Israeli fiscal-cliff with a 39 billion shekel deficit, and the austerity measures to be imposed by the Likud are around the corner. If indeed 47% had voted for the "economic and social" agenda, the Labor party would have received much more than the meager 15 seats it eventually did.  

So let me return to the beginning of my answer: In my opinion, if there had been doubt about Bibi's next term, probably many more voters (but we have no way of assessing how many) would have voted for Likud Beitenu and would have stuck with Netanyahu.

As for the presumed burden that Lapid may feel since the voters wanted him to join the government and not the opposition-well, I don't think it's so substantial. Lapid is fully aware of the recent history of new parties which collapsed after one term in the Knesset. I believe that he doesn't want to join them. So, if he will not be able to live up to his slogan "We came to change" he may try to build himself towards eventually replacing Netanyahu. He was quoted as saying that in a year and a half he'll replace Netanyahu. I believe that if necessary and if he'll fight for some of the issues on his agenda, the voters will give him some leeway and wait.

Best,

Camil.

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