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Perfecting the art of predicting the future — Israeli elections

Pre-election polls are a national sport in Israel, but they’re not very accurate. Now there’s a new player on the field, running a new polling project that claims to to have found the system’s flaws — and fixed them. A look at how polls affect voting patterns, which populations are traditionally under-represented and the mistakes that must continue to be made if ‘Project 61’ is to succeed.

By Angela Gruber

A small Israeli girl casts her mother's vote in the 2013 Knesset elections. (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

A small Israeli girl casts her mother’s vote in the 2013 Knesset elections. (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

Predicting the future can be tricky business, especially for those trying to figure out how Israelis will vote in next month’s elections. Previous elections have proven that the big polling companies are not always spot-on with their surveys. The final results of the 2013 elections, for example, were largely surprising for everyone: Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party ended up with 19 Knesset seats compared to the eight to 13 seats polling companies gave him leading up to the vote. That’s a pretty large margin of error.

Fast-forward two years, however, and there’s a new player in the field of polling, 28-year-old political analyst and freelance strategist Nehemia Gershuni-Aylho, who runs Project 61. (“61″ refers to the minimum number of seats needed to form a coalition in the Israeli Knesset.) Using some rather simple logic and some complicated mathematics, he thinks he found a way to make better predictions of actual election day results.

Gershuni-Aylho does not do any polling himself. He looks at the polls that are already out there, corrects the errors he is able to identify and then repackages the improved results in a way anybody can understand. To do so, Gershuni-Aylho had to learn about each polling company’s weak spots. He says he built a database of all polls from the 2006, 2009 and 2013 elections up to 30 days before election day and then compared the predictions with results at the ballot box.

“I had to find out if one of the pollsters was biased in any way,” he explains. “I was looking for a systematic error for each pollster toward a certain party and then I tried to erase this error with my formula.“

With his new formula, Gershuni-Aylho has reached a few interesting conclusions about the quality of different polls. The best polling in the last elections apparently came from a 79-year-old lady, Professor Mina Tzemach, who at the time worked for major polling company Dahaf. Internet pollster Panels Politics comes in second. The least reliable data, according to Gershuni-Aylho, came from Shvakim Panorama and Geocartography.

Perhaps most interestingly, Project 61 found that pollsters indeed produce party-specific errors.

“Every pollster has its own signature,” Gershuni-Aylho says. In other words, certain pollsters consistently predict too many (or too few) seats for a certain party. Parties like Likud or Labor tend to be more successful in polls than at the ballot box. The number of voters who cast ballots for Arab or ultra-Orthodox parties on the other hand, tends to be underestimated.

Benjamin Netanyahu thanks his supporters at the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu headquarters, January 23, 2013 (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

Benjamin Netanyahu thanks his supporters after Israel’s 2013 elections (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

Gershuni-Aylho doesn’t attribute those errors to deliberate manipulations, it’s just that the pollsters’ complex models are not tuned to perfection.

“It’s commercial polling that is their bread and butter,” he says. “It’s not like they work on improving their election polls 12 months a year.“

The basis for each poll is a representative sample of the adult population in Israel, explains public opinion researcher and political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin. Ideally, this sample is a tiny make-up of the Israeli population and includes Arabs and Jews, men and women, young and old, according to their share in Israeli society.

“The polls regularly published in the Israeli media, based on samples of 500-600, have approximately a 4.5 percent margin of error, give or take,” explains Scheindlin.

Getting good samples isn’t as easy as it used to be, says Scheindlin. “More and more people in Israel only have mobile phone numbers, which are almost impossible to get as a pollster. This means that if you call people only on their landlines, you will miss out on certain parts of the population.”

Internet polling, according to Scheindlin, is an increasingly popular method nowadays, in part because it is cheaper. The downside is that Internet polls only reach a self-selected group of people who have signed up to be part of the pollster’s database.

But why is it so hard for statisticians to put out precise predictions, even when you asking a random sample group?

Understandably, there is a lot of uncertainty involved when questioning people about their future decisions, says Tamir Sheafer, a professor of political science and communications at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“The problem in Israel is that we have a high amount of undecideds, people who make a last minute decision,” he explained. Polling in a multi-party system like Israel’s makes things even more complicated. “The parties in each block (Left, Right and center) are often very similar ideologically so voters tend to shift their opinion within one block.”

To make things even more complicated, the polling results that the public sees have been processed and packaged to show how many seats a given party is expected to hold in the next Knesset.

“For this kind of mandate modeling, you have to make assumptions about many factors, for example, the actual voter turnout,” says Scheindlin. This translates to an additional source of uncertainty.

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog announce a joint slate for the upcoming elections, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog announce a joint slate, named the “Zionist Camp,” for the upcoming Israeli elections, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Ironically, the very existence of the polls themselves has the potential to influence their accuracy. If small parties are predicted not to pass the threshold (3.25 percent of all votes), they become unattractive choices for people who fear wasting their vote. “People will just vote for a different party that is predicted to pass the threshold. We call this strategic voting,” says Sheafer.

So would it be better to skip the whole polling altogether? No, according to Jeremy Saltan, a campaigner for Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party and a political analyst who tries to make sense of the pre-election polls on his blog.

“To ignore the most useful political analysis tool that is based on science in order to go with your gut does not make that much sense either,” Saltan says. “Overall, polls are the best measure we have to predict the public’s reaction to a given situation.“

Asked about Project 61, Saltan was reluctant to evaluate his colleague’s work, but praised the additional perspective the project is adding to the polling results.

Whether Gershuni-Aylho’s formula enables him to make better predictions than the veteran pollsters remains to be seen.

His model’s biggiest weakness is that he relies on the polling companies to continue making the same mistakes they have made in the past. “If they look at my data and change their system, my formulas will be lost. So I can only hope they don’t change anything up to the elections.“

Since starting Project 61 a few months ago, Gershuni-Aylho has published all of his research on a enormous Google-Spreadsheet and has been busy creating all sorts of diagrams with his findings, which he puts up on Twitter and Facebook. He has received lots of reactions to his fieldwork, he says. “The public wants to know public opinion. I want to know what others think about the parties — who will be the next prime minister, which party will vanish.“

Gershuni-Aylho humbly rejects comparisons to American statistician-wunderkind Nate Silver, who in 2012 managed to establish a prediction model that was much more accurate than the models the big pollsters had come up with. Nonetheless, he hopes his system will prove its value on election day.

“I just hope I will be as close as anyone can be. One seat up or down for each party. If that is my margin of error, I will be very happy.“

Angela Gruber, 26, is a German journalist, blogger and intern at +972 Magazine. She’s a scholar for the “trialog of cultures” scholarship of the German Quandt foundation and reports from Israel. Follow her on Twitter: @netzkolumnistin.

Read this article in Hebrew here on +972’s sister site, Local Call.

Special Coverage: 2015 Elections

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    COMMENTS

    1. A conscientious objector

      To all: ‘ICat’ is a destructive entity, a super troll. Irit called him a psychopath. I agree. I think the use he made of ‘Viktor Arajs’ and then the exchange he had with Irit is the last straw. And I think we are all just really tired of his inane posts salted with dishonesties. I suggest we all from here on out never ever respond to him. If you feel you absolutely must respond, say something like: “By mutual agreement, psychopaths are never responded to.” But almost always it’s better to say nothing. We can do this. And, together, take back our site.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Daniel

      @ All

      Conspiracy of “the conscientious objectors” and super paranoia

      “A Conscientious Objector”, do you have a personal relationship with Irit? You are acting like a paranoid psychopath. Maybe it might help to know that ICat is not with the Shabak so there is no reason for your paranoia if that is what is making you so nervous. These conscientious objectors are a very sinister group. If they start losing a debate, they get angry, start acting like a gang of paranoid thugs and silence their opponent. ‘That’s what is happening here. I Also read the exchanges between Icat and Irit. Viktor Aras identified “the Brians’ as his friends and supported them. Icat replied and said that Aras, the Brians and Mikesailor have the same goals. Irit injected herself with a barrage of insults against Icat calling him “psychopath”, “Judeonazi”, “fuck”, “shit”, “fuck you” and other names. Icat responded and used Irits words to belittle Irit and make her look stupid. But walla, Conscientious Objectors conspired with +972 to ban and silence ICat and turn around to smear him and deny him the chance to respond. I have noticed that some of his posts have been removed and some left, while only the posts from Irit that show Irit to be the culprit were removed. This is distortion. Well, what I can say to others is if you don’t want to look stupid, don’t debate ICat. If you want to debate ICat, don’t say thing he can “twist” and use against you like he did to Irit. If you don’t want to debate ICat at all, ignore him. Banning ICat is the stupidest thing that happened here especially when all anti-Israel people from foreign countries are allowed to post but pro-Israel Israelis like Icat are banned. That’s all.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        Viktor Arajs is obviously a troll; who else would come to an Israeli news site, naming themselves after a Latvian Nazi collaborator?

        And I’ve rarely seen lCat say anything worthwhile, apart from calling people “Mohammed,” accusing people of obsession with Jews and sexual obsession with Ginger Eis. He was obviously a troll as well.

        Reply to Comment
        • Daniel

          ICat has a good record on this site – that is depending on which side you are: anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian or Zionist and pro-Israel, etc. Here is an example:

          http://972mag.com/how-israels-mainstream-press-erases-arab-politicians/102224/

          I think ICat contributed so far more than you did on this site. Others call him names and he calls others names. Many times he goes on the offensive and start the name-calling. That is sometimes part of talk-back section, but was not reason for the “conscientious objectors” to conspire against him and abuse the position they have within +972 to smear him and at the same time deny him the opportunity to respond. ICat humiliated Irit who is also a “conscientious objector”. That’s all.

          Reply to Comment
          • Barbara

            There are many comments on this cite with nazi, sexual and sexist content posted mainly by Brian to Ginger Eis and one from Ben Zakkai to Ginger Eis. ICat pointed out that Brian acts strangely when Ginger Eis is around. Why should he not do that? Irit did the exact same thing thy persecute “ICat” for. Brian calls many commenters brown shirts and nazis. If anyone is a troll, it is Brian who also is always copying from other websites and pasting here. Bruce Gould is also doing completely copying and pasting off topic and Pedro X is always calling him out on that. Shouldn’t we all start copying and pasting from our favorite newspapers and websites? No way that would not make us trolls I think…..just saying…

            Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            Even from a pro-Zionist perspective, iCat’s comments are lame.

            In the article you posted, he defended Sheldon Adelson’s paper by making the specious argument that all news outlets are biased (by this, you could say that BBC and Russia Today are equal), and that Adelson has the right to influence Israeli politics because he worked hard for his money.

            He also criticized Bryan/Brian for calling him and other Zionist commenters “nazis” or “brownshirts.” This didn’t stop him from accusing Lo of sounding like a Stormfront member (i.e. a fascist). He also engaged in his favorite tactics of accusing people of having an unhealthy obsession with Israel.

            As for myself, I don’t comment here much anymore, because it’s a pointless habit.

            Reply to Comment
        • Barbara

          I have read many comments on this cite with sexual and sexist content posted mainly by Brian to Ginger Eis and one from Ben Zakkai to Ginger Eis. ICat pointed out that Brian acts strangely when Ginger Eis is around. Why should he not do that? Where were “a conscientious objector” and “Irit” then? If anyone is a troll, it is Brian who also always copying from other websites and pasting here. See for example below. Shouldn’t we all start copying and pasting from our favorite newspapers and websites? No way that would not make us trolls …..just saying…

          Reply to Comment
    3. Pedro X

      This is a very interesting and well written article. In the last 24 hours I have read 3 polls with different results. Maariv poll puts Likud ahead by 4 seats (26 to 22) over Labor (Zionist Camp). Jewish Home is given 13 seats. Yest Atid was given 12 seats.

      A Yedioth Ahronoth poll yesterday put Labor ahead by one seat (25 to 24) and Jewish home at 12 seats. Yest Atid was at 11 seats.

      A Smith poll for Kol Israel Radio shows Likud one seat (26 to 25) over Labor with Jewish Home at 14 and Yesh Atid at 9 seats.

      Meretz does poorly in the polls at 5 seats while the Arab party polls 12. Koolanu is given 7 seats. Given how close the election is, a switch by some voters could wipe out Meretz as a party. In 2009 Meretz only got 3 seats and a similar performance would get them 0 seats this time. Make no mistake Herzog and Livni are targeting these voters to get more seats than Likud.

      Likud is also targeting Jewish Home voters suggesting that it is important to make sure that extra seats go to Likud to insure it is given the opportunity to form the government and not labor.

      One poll (Maariv) I read suggested 75% of Likud voters are locked in and say they will not change their mind, which is much higher then the 50% of Labor voters who say they will not change their vote. Thus Labor votes may be seen as more susceptible to bleeding to center parties like Koolanu or Yesh Atid. On the other hand Labor stands to pick up some of the undecided women votes where Likud is not polling well. Labor also may pick up votes with young voters. Yet at the same time Jewish Home is polling very well among 18-34 year olds and they may pick up more seats than the polls show.

      In the final analysis the race is too close to call who will attain the most seats and a chance to form government. However, it does look like Labor will probably have a more difficult time than Likud in doing so if the margin of victory is only a seat or two.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Brian

      This is an evolving situation. How much impact might the state comptroller’s report have?

      Yossi Verter in Haaretz:

      There were mixed feelings this week at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. On the one hand, satisfaction with the polls, which for the most part placed Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu in front in the election race. But on the other hand, there was worry and anxiety – to put it mildly – because of the growing maelstrom of affairs involving the management of the Netanyahu family’s homes, as publication of the state comptroller’s report approaches, in 10 days’ time.

      To judge by the surveys, the allegations of corruption, decadence and greed are not singeing the hairs on the flesh of the Likud ticket under Netanyahu. But to judge by the grass-roots situation, that party has a problem. It’s hard to discern much enthusiasm for Netanyahu, hard to find reserves of energy among the party’s activists.

      An MK who is very knowledgeable about the Likud “street” reported to an interlocutor this week that the situation in the trenches is not encouraging, to say the least. Veteran Likud people and certainly those known as “Likud lite” are indicating that they’ve had it. In the end, with all due respect to the Islamic State and Iran, they are the ones who have to cope daily with high living and housing costs, inadequate salaries, inordinately high fees and overdrafts at the bank, and a gloomy and discouraging economic horizon – just like the leftists.

      As of this moment, 40 days before the election, the party in power for the past six years hasn’t said one word about social and economic issues. …

      Reply to Comment
      • C.C. DeVille

        Most polls agree that Brian is a fag

        Reply to Comment
        • Schwartz

          My gaydar needle starts jumping evertime I read your posts and that showtime name of yours cc deville. You got a certain “twang.” No wonder you follow the males around here making sexual arousal noises and sh?t.

          Reply to Comment
          • C.C. DeVille

            You fooled nobody. There is not s straight man on the planet who talks about gadar. And about the needle? Forget about it.

            Reply to Comment
          • Eliana

            Please do not respond to him like this, Schwartz. He is an offensive super troll who will never get it. Do not give him an opening. Do not respond to him.

            Reply to Comment
          • BigCat

            Eliana, you are the one responding to others. You are the one without an opinion. And when you have something to say, no one responds to you.

            Why are you, “Irit” and ‘a “conscientious” objector’ acting like little paranoid psychopaths?

            Reply to Comment
    5. MIkesailor

      There are very few useless articles I’ve read on 972, but this has to be one of them. Prediction for the election: The Zionists win. Does it matter which one? Not really. The settlement enterprise will continue unabated, the military will use Gestapo tactics against the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. More houses will be demolished. More Palestinians will be killed while unarmed. More Israeli killers will walk fee unscathed. More Gazans will die at the hands of the Israelis, most killed with US supplied weaponry in derogation of US law. More US taxpayer money will supply the corrupt Zionist regime while the international community begins slowly to turn EU policy more even-handed. On the good side, BDS will become further entrenched as the only method the common man can use to punish Israel for its continued violations of international law. US and other college and university campuses will disavow the endemic racism is Israel and begin to divest from the Zionist regime under student and other pressure. And Israel will find itself more isolated and less secure as time goes on with the result being Jews for change vs, status quo Zionists. Unfortunately, a lot of suffering will occur before someone finally puts a stake through the heart of the vampire ideology known as Zionism. So, what else is new? Are we supposed to be in awe of the person who predicts the Zionists will win? If so, then I just saved everyone a lot of time otherwise wasted in holding their bated breath.

      Reply to Comment
      • C.C. DeVille

        Right you dumb sh!t. Israel is a Jewish country so of course Jews win in elections. Given that this is the only nuance you see, you are forever a loser

        Reply to Comment
    6. Mikesailor

      Poor C.C: I said the Zionists win. I don’t conflate Zionism with Judaism. Like I don’t conflate all commenters on this thread with complete racist morons like you. What “nuance” are you talking about, jackass? This has been an “election” devoid of any issues except how racist and undemocratic one can be. Or do you think preemptively disqualifying “Arab” candidates is somehow a exemplar of democratic practice? Pull your head out and go to a licensed proctologist. I’m sure that’s the reason you can’t see anything.

      Reply to Comment
    7. C.C. DeVille

      Please. You are someone who brings up the USS Liberty libel and promotes Holocaust revisioism. You sir, are a bigot.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Mikesailor

      Let me see. 34 American sailors killed and over 100 wounded. All the while, according to testimony gathered under oath, while a clearly marked US flag flew. And, on top of that, the ship was torpedoed by Israeli patrol boats. This to a clearly marked US Navy vessel with large antennae and a large number painted on the hull in international waters. Am I missing something? I believe the US sailors aboard the Liberty at the time than I would believe you or any other Israeli. They died and all you have done is lie. As to Holocaust revisionism, questions keep coming up all the time. Is the “newly” discovered gas chambers at Sobibor an example of revisionism? Or is it just that someone got the first story wrong? Should these discoverers be criminally charges with Holocaust denial or revisionism? Or would such charges only go against those with whom you disagree? Hilberg made his estimate of Jewish deaths in the 60’s. And he admitted that the study should continue and his figures were only an estimate. Now archivists have had all the German documentation since the early 2000’s. So a definitive report should have been published. Why hasn’t it? Perhaps they fear prosecution for “Holocaust revisionism”? Remember not only is there a Holocaust Industry, there are many who have found it extremely lucrative and would be loath to see the “gravy train” end. You sir, are an ass. The difference is that I look at the evidence and make up my own mind. For you, evidence doesn’t matter, only the tribal narrative is important. Which is why you will remain intellectually dishonest and morally degenerate.

      Reply to Comment
      • C.C. DeVille

        Wow. This guy folded like a cheap suit.

        What do they say about scratching an anti-Ziomist? This is the grotesque abortion you find.

        Reply to Comment
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