On October 25, when Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman stood in the Dan Panorama and announced that their two parties would be running on a joint slate, they looked happy and satisfied. One reason for this satisfaction was their joint internal polling which predicted that the new list would win around 45 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset.
This poll, reportedly conducted by US Republican pollster Arthur Finkelstein, helped persuade both parties to make the deal. Some MKs even thought it was to pessimistic and briefed the media they they expected to win 50 seats in January’s general election.
Things have been going down hill ever since.
The chart below shows Likud Beiteinu’s polling performance from October until today. The lines before the deal was announced represent the sum of Likud’s and Yisrael Beiteinu’s predicted seats, and are included for comparison purposes only.
The downward trend is evident in basically all of the nine firms polling the general election, but the picture is a little more complex than that.
This graph looks at Likud Beiteinu (LB)’s polling performance in the aftermath of the joint-slate deal in October. Again, the lines before the deal represent the sum of the two parties’ votes. As is clear, almost all polls showed the joint slate getting fewer seats than the two parties would have obtained individually.
Finkelstein aside, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. Political mergers are usually less than the sum of their parts, and this is especially the case in Israel where voters have plenty of other choices. Voters who liked both of the parties were probably already voting for one of them, but some voters who like one of the parties and hate the other defect to other parties. Relatively few new voters (who previously liked neither party) would be attracted to the new merged slate.
Additionally, the new bloc effectively guaranteed that Benjamin Netanyahu would be the next Prime Minister, further freeing up right-leaning voters to back other parties – like HaBayit Hayehudi – without worrying that they would let someone else in.
As expected, then, the new Likud Beiteinu slate dipped a little in the polls, but it stabilised and didn’t move substantially for much of November. Up in some polls and down in others, no trend was evident. The election of Naftali Bennett as HaBayit HaYehudi leader didn’t seem to have any particular impact on LB’s numbers.
December has been a different story. In the last two weeks of December, LB’s predicted seats have plummeted in almost all polls. The falls have been so consistent that it is probably more than just sampling error – this is a real move of voters away from the party.
What has caused this sudden drop? It’s almost never possible to pinpoint what causes these sorts of moves. In an election, lots of things are happening all at once: other parties might be making inroads; a scandal or mistake by one party can cost them votes; a bad campaign can slowly bleed a party, and sometimes issues from weeks ago can have a gradual impact on public opinion which can also strip away support. In this case, here are a few speculative possibilities:
- The rise of HaBayit HaYehudi has cost LB some voters, though this is not a straightforward dynamic. Note that HaBayit HaYehudi picked up many voters in late November and early December while Likud Beiteinu was holding steady.
- Likud’s primaries produced a slate to the authoritarian-right of Likud’s current Knesset faction (and excluded the Right-Liberals like Benny Begin), but this had no immediate impact on the polls. Could this have been a slow-burning concern that is turning off some voters?
- Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua party, founded in late November, might have pulled away some LB voters as it has begun to secure its position
- The indictment of Avigdor Lieberman could be hurting LB – it keeps the party in the headlines for the wrong reasons. On the one hand, traditional Likud voters who don’t like Lieberman are reminded that he’s the Number Two in the LB slate. On the other, traditional Yisrael Beiteinu voters who support Lieberman might worry about voting LB if Lieberman is ultimately forced out of the party
- LB’s reaction to Naftali Bennett’s comments about refusing orders to evacuate settlements potentially hurt the party at both ends: on the one hand, Netanyahu’s attacks on Bennett might have pushed some YB/Bayit Hayehudi waverers into Bennett’s camp; on the other hand, Likud candidate Moshe Feiglin’s attempt to out-Bennett Bennett by comparing soldiers who evacuate settlements to Nazis might have also put off centre-right voters.
- LB is running three different campaigns: one for Likud, one for Yisrael Beiteinu and one for the joint slate. The two parties have established political infrastructures at the local level, and these are still separate from one another. Perhaps this is leading to a badly-coordinated campaign
Whatever the cause – or causes – of the Likud Beiteinu collapse, it is real and it is significant. Likud alone was occasionally polling close to 33 seats in the weeks before the merger; now LB as a whole has slumped to the same number.
The polls over the next week or two will tell us the next part of the story. Will LB recover, level out or keep bleeding? If the merged list reaches as low as 30 seats, then Likud Beiteinu will really be in a crisis.