Israeli elections are harder to pick than a broken nose

Many pundits are making all sorts of extreme picks for Israel’s elections.

Their electoral system is difficult to come to grips with, but we must remove personality and politics and just look at the numbers.

FiveThirtyEight has provided perhaps the best assessment so far of the state of play in the Israeli elections.

There are two phases to the Israeli election that starts Tuesday. The first: electing some politicians. That?s the relatively easy part to forecast. The second: Figuring out who?s going to govern with whom.

That is what?s really hard to predict.

In the first phase, no party is likely to win a majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset, the country?s parliament. But the two main parties are still jostling to hold the most seats. Likud, the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is in a tight race for the most seats against the Zionist Union, the center-left leading opposition party.

Based on a local regression of polls since January, it looks like the Zionist Union will win the most seats: about 25, to Likud?s 22. In the following table, we?ve placed confidence intervals around the individual party estimates1 based on poll performance in the prior two elections.


Predicting the voting may be the easier part, but it?s not easy. This year, Israeli law restricted polling as of the Thursday before the election, and no pollster could release results of new polls after Friday. That leaves any shifts in public opinion that occurs over the weekend in pollsters? blind spot, especially because some parties and candidates save big ammunition for the final days before balloting. Just before the 2013 election, a video emerged in which a candidate for Bayit Yehudi, a right-wing religious party whose name means Jewish Home, speaks about the prospect of the mosque on Jerusalem?s Temple Mount being blown up. (Some people interpreted the remarks as support for the idea.) The resulting furor over what the candidate called a joke cost the party seats ? including that candidate?s.

The major potentially vote-shifting news Monday was Netanyahu?s pledge to oppose establishment of a Palestinian state.

Basically they are saying that Israeli elections are harder to pick than a broken nose. Israeli pollsters have had big misses.

But one pundit who tries to leave the politics out and focus on the math is “Jeremy Saltan, a 31-year-old political insider and commentator who has become a leading poll analyst and election forecaster. (He?s also a comedian and comedy-club owner.)”

Saltan is pulling for the right wing in his role as chairman of Bayit Yehudi?sEnglish Forum, an initiative to appeal to English-speaking voters. The partyis likely to throw its weight behind Netanyahu, and Saltan in his political career has always aligned with the right, he said. But Saltan, who was born in Chicago, added that he kept his political ideology separate from his poll analysis. ?I think that I do a pretty good job of keeping it pretty neutral,? he said. ?When you?re talking about math and science, it?s pretty hard to get politics into that.?

That’s a great statement.

Too often pundits project their values or desires not the numbers and?that’s why Key loves David Farrar so much,?he sticks to the numbers.

Saltan’s predictions on phase two will be interesting.

Phase two will get even more difficult to predict if it turns out that the polls missed phase one badly. The polls are stale enough to leave room for a major change before Tuesday, which could shift parties? power heading into coalition negotiations.

The polls could be flawed in addition to outdated. Saltan said that private campaign polling in Israel tends to be better than the publicly released polling, which can vary widely by how people are polled ? by landline, cellphone or Internet. Relying too much on any method risks missing parts of the electorate. Batelbe60 has identified what looks like ?herding? in the Israeli polls, a phenomenon we?ve spotted in U.S. electoral polls. The polls nonetheless did pretty well in the last two elections. In 2013, Saltan?s modelpredicted seat counts within one seat of the correct number for most parties.

Saltan isn?t promising great things from his predictions. ?It?s not going to be accurate ? there are way too many variables,? he said, adding: ?And, look, I?m no Nate Silver, right??

The liberal press in the US and Obama are hoping Bibi takes a pounding, but he has shown in many elections to be incredibly resilient.

It will be interesting to watch the Middle East’s only parliamentary democracy have their elections, while all their neighbours battle each other in civil war.


– FiveThirtyEight