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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

How opinion polls and media hype can force politicians’ hands

In March, Israeli voters went to the polls to elect 120 representatives of the Knesset. Pollsters had predicted a victory for the left-wing Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog. The Zionist Union was established in December 2014 from the Israeli Labour Party and Hatnuah (under Tzipi Livni). Their main political opponent was Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, a wily political operator and as incumbent (and longest serving Israeli Prime Minister since Ben Gurion) a significant obstacle for Herzog to overcome. Throughout the election campaign, and on election day itself, the international media was talking up a Herzog win and an anticipated 25 to 21 seat win for this party. Then it suddenly goes wrong.

As the day unfolded, Likud, no doubt spooked by the possibility of being decisively routed, warned that Arab voters were “turning out in droves”. In an act that appeared as quaint as ham-fisted, they sent a barrage of SMS messages to Israeli cellphones with a blunt call to action: “Get out of your homes and vote.” Netanyahu’s 11th-hour follies went even further, with the Prime Minister appearing to U-turn on his policy on the “2-state-solution” for Israel/Palestine, and announcing another programme of housing development in the disputed territories.

The US took umbrage at these clumsy utterances and the frosty relationship between Netanyahu and Obama dropped further on the mercury. Seasoned pundits saw through Netanyahu’s posturing and rightly called it as a sop to parties such as Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, with its more hard-line right-wing stance. After all, a vote wasted on the right would help to deliver Israel into the hands of the Zionist Union. Netanyahu was soon being lambasted as hawkish and extreme by the global media (in all its organised and disorganised forms) – though some seasoned pundits saw things with greater acuity and realised that Netanyahu was in the death-grip of political desperation. Inaccurate polling information, self-doubt and a fear of loss was driving his agenda. In many ways, the Prime Minister had lost control.

The Zionist Union could have been forgiven for counting their chickens early. There was little dissent that victory was theirs. Herzog would then set about the business of coalition building. Having a system of proportional representation, Israel is effectively governed by coalition in perpetuity. But wily old Netanyahu and his Likud colleagues beat the odds and swept Herzog aside with surprising ease. The pollsters in gross error faded behind the cacophony of Netanyahu’s demonization.

We are left to wonder if his actions delivered victory or if victory was certain and his actions were dictated by false prediction. This is the economics of political short-selling.

In the days and weeks after the election I spoke to several members of the Labour Party in the UK. Their disappointment was readily apparent and freely expressed. They felt a missed opportunity to re-orient the political discourse of the Middle East, and no doubt wished for a new relationship between Israel under Herzog and Britain under Miliband.

The fortunes of Netanyahu and Cameron and Herzog and Miliband seem oddly entwined. Yair Lapid, Israel’s liberals, fared better than Nick Clegg. Nigel Farage, on the other hand, cannot be said to have a parallel anywhere!

Cat on a hot tin roof

UK pollsters had unionist parties dancing like cats on a hot tin roof during the Scottish Independence Referendum in September 2014. Cameron, terrified of presiding over the literal disintegration of the UK, ended up writing Scotland a blank cheque. The result was nowhere near as close as pollsters predicted. Cameron and the No Campaign forgot the simple law that people fear loss twice as much as they desire gain (we observe this in Netanyahu’s election-day rhetoric).

Polls do not accurately predict the behaviour of the herd and it is politically dangerous to base “policy pivots” on dud information. The BBC exit poll on May 7 was accurate (Lord Ashdown’s hat eating aside), but the exit polls from Channels 1, 2 and 10 in Israel were significantly deviant and missed the gravity of the Likud victory. Polls rarely spot the radical swings that redefine outlier events.

I was up for Portillo in 1997 and felt the shock of many as Labour’s Stephen Twigg took the seat. In 1997 the ‘“outlier event” was a swing of 17.4%. Within 18 years there has been a swing of 39% to the SNP in Glasgow North East. Far more “big names” fell in 2015 than in any election for many years – with Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander, Vince Cable and Danny Alexander all losing their seats, and then Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg falling from their leadership perches as a result.

In the wreckage of victory however, Netanyahu needs to rebuild a credible peace process, while Cameron faces the federalisation of the Union and his own 2-state problem between England and Scotland. Damaging long-term effects are easily caused by under-thought announcements and on-the-hoof policy formation. I firmly believe that victory belongs to the bold. The bold need self-control and steely nerves. When the polls predict your demise, fight on with stoicism and principle. It is better to go down a statesman than a sheep. More likely than not, the pollsters will be wrong and you will profit most by smiling wide and waiting for the declaration. If you are defeated by an outlier, take solace in the thought that either you or they were on the wrong side of history.

Steve Nimmons